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Great Expectations


Author: Charles Dickens
First Published: 1860-61, in All the Year Round

The two questions about Dickens that people most often ask me are “What is your favorite Dickens novel?” and “If I’ve never read a Dickens novel before, which one should I start with?” My answer to both is usually Great Expectations, though that answer tends to differ sometimes, depending on which day you ask me.

Written at the height of Dickens’s creative powers in 1861, Great Expectations contains all of the best in Dickens: hysterical and eccentric characters, painful, moving, and unforgettable episodes, love unspoiled and love unrequited, and most important of all, an incredible story. John Irving, another one of my heroes, has gone so far as to say that Great Expectations “has the most wonderful and perfectly worked-out plot for a novel in the English language.” I think I have to agree with him, though if you pressed me to declare my favorite novel in the English language, Great Expectations might have to duke it out with Middlemarch.

Not only does Great Expectations contain my favorite story by Dickens, but it also contains my favorite paragraph in all of Dickens. Here it is:

That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

The wisdom and the feeling of these words take my breath away every time I read this passage. Dickens is referring here to the day that Pip meets Estella—the day that forever changes his life and sets his expectations in motion. But take any day from your own life that holds special significance, good or bad, then extract it, and extrapolate on what would have happened for the rest of your life instead. The concept is really mind-boggling.

It is a shame that so many people form a bad opinion about this novel and about Dickens in general when they’re forced to read Great Expectations in high school—a time when people are often too distracted, rightfully, by adolescence to weather the book’s various demands. One of the great joys of Great Expectations though, is being able to rediscover it whenever you want. When you re-read Great Expectations as an adult, it’s a very different experience from plodding through that intimidating 400-pager that your teacher might have assigned to you in high school. And if you wait long enough to let your heart get broken once or twice, I can tell you that Great Expectations will speak to you with a power that no other book can claim.