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True Confessions of a High School Teacher
on April 27, 2006
I've taught this book in 9th grade for years because it is a curriculum requirement. During that time, I have raved about the incredible abilities of Dickens to create memorable characters, plot fascinating fiction, make the lives of ordinary people in England memorable, write incredibly descriptive passages . . . .
The time has come to tell the truth. While it may be a great *work of literature*, Great Expectations is a tough book to like.
There is much to appreciate - in the intellectual sense of the word - about GE, from carefully drawn characters to an infinitely detailed plot. Without exception, students love to play *connect the characters* as the novel progresses. They discuss the unrequited love between Pip and Estella, Biddy and Pip - they love the relationship between Joe and Pip. They are fascinated and repulsed by Miss Havisham and her house. They are shocked by Magwitch, and enthralled by his sacrifice. Truly, this has all the makings of a 9th grade *hit*! So what's the problem? Language,length, and format.
The language is off-putting. So much is colloquial to the time and difficult to bring current. Joe's dialect (along with the convict's) is VERY difficult for my deep south students to imitate when reading aloud, and sometimes even difficult for them to decipher at all. Sentences can go on (and on and on and on and on) so that the end hardly seems connected to the beginning. While common when Dickens was writing, these patterns are a bit difficult for a modern audience.
Length and format are a problem that go together. Originally published as a serial, this novel was presented a chapter or two at a time, with a wait between installments. That allowed a reader to digest the events in a chapter, contemplate the relationships, discuss them with friends and build up anticipation for the next installment. By virtue of that style, many side-stories are included that have little bearing on the overall plot. Likewise, there is much detail included that seems almost irrelevant when one is reading the novel in full. Those are the very things that fostered interest in the serial, and yet in a novel, they seem extraneous and confusing. At the end, the novel seems (just a bit) overwritten (and perhaps that is because it wasn't originally a novel).
In summary, my feelings about this novel are mixed. The story itself is fascinating, but I find myself eternally dreading that time of year when I will yet again introduce it to another crop of unsuspecting students . . .