January 20, 2017

A middle school student of mine told me recently that when he finished reading Great Expectations he felt like crying, but he didn’t know why. The ending is not particularly sad, and I knew that he hadn’t enjoyed every page, every scene, or every character, so what was it that made him feel that way? Simple: it was the great literature effect.

By page 497, Great Expectations had somehow seeped into my student in a way that made him love the world and the author’s vision, made him want to linger in the lives of the characters and find out what happens next, and made him care deeply about the narrative journey with all of its twists, turns, circlings back, flights of fancy, and plumbings of depths. He told me that he felt different after reading this book—his first long work of classic literature. I said, “That’s precisely the reason we still read it.”

Dickens achieves the great literature effect in Great Expectations as he does in so many of his books: he makes you care, love, crave more, and know that you’ve somehow changed for the better. The voice of the main character, Pip, is genuine; his feelings, failures, and triumphs are utterly and recognizably human; and some characters change while other stay the same—all in familiar ways. Dickens can be dark, his writing can be wordy, and the story sometimes slows down and stumbles, but there are so many moments of humor and illumination along the way that you forgive all of the book’s little faults like they’re the foibles of your true love.

Plus, there are the characters of law clerk, Wemmick, and his Aged Parent—and how could you not adore any book with characters capable of such whimsical, unadulterated joy?

Reading great literature is precious, and Great Expectations is one of the best places to start that valuable journey.