Review of Great Expectations

What was it about?

Philip Pirrip (a.k.a. Pip) is an orphan boy raised by his hot-tempered sister Georgiana Maria (referred to in the story as Mrs. Joe ) and her blacksmith husband Joe Gargery. Pip often spends his afternoons in the cemetery where his parents and other siblings are buried. One day he meets an escaped convict who asks him for a file and some food. Pip steals the items for the convict, but the latter is shortly thereafter arrested and deported to New South Wales. Pip’s family faces another tragedy when Mrs. Joe is attacked from behind by someone with a hammer; she becomes paralyzed and has to be cared for by her husband and a young girl named Biddy.

Nearby, there lives at Satis House a wealthy spinster named Miss Havisham. She always wears a wedding gown and one shoe, and has a ward named Estella. Miss Havisham invites Pip to visit Satis House. He visits frequently, but feels slighted by Estella. Finally, Miss Havisham arranges for him to become apprenticed to Joe Gargery. Pip does not receive this news with joy. He notices that Estella looks down on him for being poor and illiterate. He wants to be more than a blacksmith. One day, Pip is told by a lawyer named Mr. Jaggers that he has great expectations; he has been given a fortune from an anonymous donor. Pip abandons his family and moves in with Matthew Pocket, Miss Havisham’s cousin, to enjoy his wealth among a more sophisticated crowd.

What did I think of it?

The Christmas season is a great time to read Dickens. His stories are always mysterious and creepy. Miss Havisham is one of the creepiest characters Dickens ever wrote. She has a secret that affects the way she interacts with Pip and Estella. Great Expectations is one of my favorite stories by Dickens. Each character, including the narrator (Pip), is complex. Admittedly, there are parts that drag but even though Dickens says a lot, there are no wasted scenes or characters. Every character and small detail plays an important role in the drama. It was definitely a satisfying read, and one of my favorite books of 2015.

Favorite Quotes

“Joe laid his hand upon my shoulder with the touch of a woman. I have often thought him since, like the steam hammer that can crush a man or pat an eggshell, in his combination of strength with gentleness.”

[To Pip about Estella]: “‘Because if it is to spite her,” Biddy pursued, ‘I should think – but you know best – that might be better and more independently done by caring nothing for her words. And if it is to gain her over, I should think – but you know best – she is not worth gaining over.’ “

Review of Hard Times

What was it about?

Thomas Gradgrind is a schoolteacher in industrial Coketown and a strict adherent of utilitarianism. He and his friend Mr. Josiah Bounderby go to great pains to raise the Gradgrind children on nothing but facts. But not all children are as privileged. Cecilia “Sissy” Jupe comes from quite a different background. Her father is a clown and hardly literate. Mr. Gradgrind is shocked to learn that Sissy does not know the dictionary definition of a horse. When her father runs away for some unknown reason, Mr. Gradgrind decides to raise and educate Sissy himself despite Mr. Bounderby’s disapproval. The latter did not have it so easy when he was growing up. Mr. Bounderby is a prominent banker in Coketown, but he wasn’t born into the lap of luxury. Oh no! He was abandoned by his mother and raised by an abusive grandmother. He ran away from home and lived in the streets. The sewer was his bed. But cold hard facts saved Mr. Bounderby from his misery. He pulled himself up by his bootlaces and became the great banker that he is today. That is the story he tells everyone and not for a minute is he ashamed of telling it. Although the age difference is great, Thomas Gradgrind asks his eldest daughter Louisa to marry Mr. Bounderby. Because sentiments have no place in the Gradgrind household, Louisa has no choice but to accept Bounderby’s proposal. Hard Times by Charles Dickens is a satire on utilitarianism and a critique of the Industrial Age.

What did I think of it?

This is probably my third or fourth time reading Hard Times. Of all the books I have read by Dickens, this one is the best. A common criticism of his works is that the characters (particularly the female characters) are more like caricatures. And while I think that Dickens’ use of caricature is deliberate and a literary motif he employs to expose the dark side of industrial England, I have to agree that his characters aren’t always the most relatable. The villain usually resembles a monster and the female characters are unnaturally sweet. Not so in Hard Times. The characters are all fully fleshed out, and evil is more systemic than embodied in one person. My favorite character was Mrs. Sparsit, Mr. Bounderby’s housekeeper. On the outside she is a proud, proper, and obedient  lady, but despite all appearances, she is quite independent from her master. Mrs. Sparsit has a dignity about her that I respect and love.

Nearly every chapter begins with a commentary on Coketown, utilitarianism, or one of the characters in the story. These sarcastically humorous commentaries complement and enhance the darker plot line. Of course, Dickens’ prose is as elegant as always. If you like social commentaries and/or want to start reading one of Charles Dickens’ shorter novels, I highly recommend Hard Times. The characters are memorable.

Note: Do not purchase the Translatlantic Press edition because the blurb at the back of the book basically tells you the whole plot. Thankfully, this was a reread otherwise I would have been very upset.

Favorite Quote

“Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial. The M’Choakumchild school was all fact, and the school of design was all fact, and the relations between master and man were all fact, and everything was fact between the lying-in hospital and the cemetery, and what you couldn’t state in figures, or show to be purchaseable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end, Amen.”

 

Review of A Tale of Two Cities

I read A Tale of Two Cities for the read-a-long hosted by Laura@ Reading in Bed.

What was it about?

“Recalled to Life.” That is Jarvis Lorry’s response to his colleague Jerry Cruncher of Tellson’s Bank and Company. Confused, Jerry sets off to deliver the strange message. Shortly afterward,  Mr. Lorry meets a young woman named Lucie Manette at the Royal George Hotel. She has been summoned to Saint Antoine, Paris by two French shopkeepers. Her father Doctor Manette, formerly a French prisoner, has been found alive, sheltered in the Defarge’s wine shop. It is 1775.

Five years later in London, a young Frenchman named Charles Darnay is tried for treason. He has been accused of spying on the English and relaying information back to King Louis XVI. Lucie Manette is in the courtroom, and Sydney Carton makes note of her reactions; she is very much troubled by the plight of the prisoner.  In the course of the trial, Sydney passes a note to the defense attorney and his colleague Mr. Stryver. After much deliberation, the jury determines that there is not enough proof that Charles Darnay has been spying on the English, and he is exonerated of all charges. But revolution is in the air. In less than a decade, aristocratic heads will roll.

A Tale of Two Cities is more than a story about two cities. It is also a story about two families. These families may both be French, but they belong to very different social strata. Aristocrats have been living comfortably for centuries at the expense of the peasants, but mobs are popping up all over France that aim to flip the social hierarchy. Led by women, these mobs go through the streets of France, arresting and beheading any and all aristocrats they find. Under the watch of the revolutionary women, no aristocrat, no matter his/her innocence, can escape from Lady Guillotine.

What did I think of it?

Although this was a re-read for me, I was still surprised by the density of this short novel. The first five chapters were the hardest to read; the characters were not fully fleshed out and the use of too many pronouns made it very hard to understand who was speaking. However, it became easier as I went along.

What a difference three decades can make! Early this year I reviewed The Old Curiosity Shop (1841). It was one of Dickens’ earliest works, and it left much to be desired; the characters were more like caricatures and the plot was virtually non-existent. But A Tale of Two Cities, written 28 years later, had a very well-developed plot, and the characters were a lot more complex and interesting than in The Old Curiosity Shop. The revolutionary women were not portrayed as purely evil. Dickens described their state of mind in such detail that the women were arguably the most interesting characters in the story. The only flat character was Lucie Manette; she was nothing more than a sweet, perfect angel. Her character irritated me because I wanted to understand her true feelings. I wanted her to be powerful and intelligent like Madame Defarge or even Miss Pross (Lucie’s servant). Still, A Tale of Two Cities was a breath of fresh air in comparison to The Old Curiosity Shop. The story was considerably shorter, but no part of the plot was compromised. The start of the novel made a lot of sense after I finished the book. I especially loved how each character mentioned was connected in some important way to the other characters and to the plot. I definitely consider A Tale of Two Cities a classic.

Favorite Quote: “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!”

 

Review of The Old Curiosity Shop

The_Old_Curiosity_Shop_12If you are looking for a book with a well-developed plot and realistically-portrayed characters, do not read Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. I could hardly relate to any of the characters because they were mere caricatures. Mr Quilp is completely demonic; he can hardly be said to be a man at all. Nell, on the other hand, is too innocent and sweet; she is often compared to an angel. It is hard to sympathize with such characters.

The Summary

In The Old Curiosity Shop, Nell Trent is under the care of her grandfather who runs a curiosity shop. However, the grandfather finds himself in extreme poverty due to his predatory friends, profligate relatives and gambling addiction. Nell and the grandfather turn to begging to escape from Quilp and his friends. Along the way, Nell encounters such people as the sculptor of wax figures and puppet show actors.

_ _ _

Written in 1840-1841, The Old Curiosity Shop was one of Charles Dickens’ earliest works. Malcolm Andrews, in the introduction to the Penguin Classics version, writes, “The Old Curiosity Shop has long been regarded as something of a black sheep in the family of Dickens’ novels. It has been consistent in its remarkable ability to alienate countless readers by its sentimentality, clumsy construction, and arbitrary melodramatic sensationalism.”

If you have never read Dickens, I suggest you start with his later works such as A Tale of Two Cities. If you are like me and wish to read everything he wrote, by all means, read The Old Curiosity Shop. At times, the novel was actually quite enjoyable. The grandfather’s gambling addiction was described very realistically, and I thought that the Punch and Judy performers were a riot. But you will need a lot of patience and endurance to read this 670 page novel. In my opinion, it is unnecessarily long.There are lots of scenes in this story that do not help move along the plot. I think that Dickens included these scenes to introduce us to the people who live on the outskirts of industrial London. It is ironic though that these people are more realistically -portrayed than the main characters.

I can’t say that I hated the book. After all, I did finish it. There are even times that I think that Dickens’ use of caricature serves a purpose in the telling of the story. Maybe the character of Quilp represents all the institutions in industrial England that preyed on the poor, children, and women.

What do you think? If you have read Dickens’ earlier novels, do you think his use of caricature serves a purpose or is it just a weakness?

Citation: Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop (Penguin Classics). London: Penguin Classics, 1972.

The Other Scrooge

There once was a gloomy curmudgeon who hated Christmas and the festivities associated with the holiday. Instead, he preferred dark, dreary, cold environments.  The grouch even assaulted a boy he ran into who was singing and skipping on Christmas. But one day, the man encountered spirits who showed him visions of his childhood and future. These visions, along with the spiritual encounter, led to the conversion of the curmudgeon.

This is the plot summary of A Christmas Carol, but this is also the summary of The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton from The Pickwick Papers.

Hablot_Knight_Browne_-_The_Pickwick_Papers,_Gabriel_and_the_goblin

In The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton, Gabriel Grub is working as a sexton in a graveyard during Christmas when suddenly, goblins appear out of nowhere, drink his liquor, show him visions, and literally kick him upside the head. It is probable that Dickens was not pleased with his original story but wanted to keep the same theme. It worked. A Christmas Carol is a more powerful story.

While both Grub and Scrooge undergo conversions due to spiritual encounters, the Ghosts of Christmas do not beat Scrooge senseless. Rather, Scrooge learns from the Past, Present, and Future; “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.” Scrooge realizes that the love of money had made him a monster, but that he still has the ability to change his live and alleviate suffering in the world. Grub, on the other hand, learns that the world is not as bad as he thought; “he came to the conclusion that it was a very decent and respectable sort of world after all.” Scrooge has more free will than Grub. He has more freedom to choose the right path. Scrooge’s conversion is not due to a fear of being beaten by spirits. Scrooge’s conversion is therefore more authentic and probably more lasting.

The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton focuses more on the story itself than on his conversion. After being visited by goblins, Grub hides from the world. Others from his village bring into question his sobriety at the time of the encounter. The morality of Gabriel Grub’s story is not that one should live unselfishly but that nothing good comes from drinking alone. “[T]his story has at least one moral, if it teach no better one – and that is, that if a man turn sulky and drink by himself at Christmas time, he may make up his mind to be not a bit the better of it: let the spirits be never so good, or let them be even as many degrees beyond proof, as those which Gabriel Grub saw in the goblin’s cavern.”

The Most Appropriate Telling of A Christmas Carol

Today is Christmas, so I decided to start my blog with a post on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  I started reading the book last weekend, although I have seen both professional and university performances of the story.  Storytelling can take a variety of forms. And the telling of A Christmas Carol is no exception. The story has been retold through plays, live-action films, animated films, operas, and ballets. After reading the book, I can understand why.

Mr. Fezzwig's Christmas, frontispiece from 1843 Dickens' A Christmas Carol (Public domain)

Dickens’ work lends itself to performance. Ebenezer Scrooge literally watches scenes after scenes of his past, present, and future. Like the spectator of a play, Scrooge witnesses the unfurling of a story.  Indeed, A Christmas Carol often reads as a screen play rather than a novella. Dickens offers an in-depth description of such scenes as the Cratchit dinner, Scrooge’s nephew’s Christmas party, the burying of Tiny Tim, etc., but places little emphasis on what cannot be seen (the characters’ emotions, Scrooge’s internal conflicts, etc.).  What cannot be seen is inferred rather than thoroughly explored. The most appropriate medium for such storytelling is performance.