This is a bit of a grey area for me, I must admit. I don’t do much in the way of reading classics and a lot of the ones I have read I don’t like very much. Tess of the D’urberville’s, for example. Really didn’t like that. Not a big fan of Jane Austen either. Some Dickens I have loved, some I have hated – A Tale of Two Cities is a good example of a book not enjoyed. For a relatively short book, it took a long time to read because I could hardly bare to pick it up. I have tried to read Middlemarch three or four times. (This is another area that I fall out with my father in law about. Hardy is his favourite author. Middlemarch is one of his favourite novels. It is definitely a case of what I love he hates and vice versa.)
My first choice is a book I first read when I was at school and have since read and taught myself. Great Expectations is a great story and
I think as a teenager, it was the pace and the plotting that I appreciated. That is why there have been so many adaptations of this novel. Even when you know how it all works out in the end, the run up is tense and exciting.
Then there are the great characters – the ones that everyone knows even if they have never read it – Miss Havisham in her wedding finery, Magwitch the archetypal convict and Estella, so very cold and proud. Even the minor characters are well written and convincing.
As a teacher, what I appreciate are the descriptions and the atmosphere that Dickens creates. The descriptions of the graveyard at the beginning are haunting as is the decay and despair of Miss Havisham’s quarters.
The Catcher in The Rye by J D Salinger starts with a reference to Dickens with the narrator, Holden Caulfield, saying I suppose that you want to hear about my childhood and all ‘that David Copperfield kind of crap’ but
he refuses to go into it because ‘that stuff bores me.’ This is a good indication for the reader of what the novel is going to be about and also the nature of Holden’s character. He spends the a lot of the novel avoiding issues and his own emotions.
This is a novel about grief, alienation and the pain of growing up. Holden finds it hard to deal with his peers and has equal amounts of trouble dealing with the adults in his life. He feels that everyone else is phoney and so leaves his expensive school. However, he is unable to settle anywhere else. Whilst this novel could be described as a bildungsroman, it seems to me that Holden does not really learn anything throughout the novel. His psychological journey does not lead him to any new understanding. Whilst this may be a little depressing, it seems to me that this is apt. It would be unlikely for Holden to suddenly be able to see clearly. After all, he is still young at the end of the novel and is likely in a mental hospital. His psychiatrist asks him if he is going to apply himself when he goes back to school. Holden is still unwilling to play the game and give the answer that is expected of him. Instead he says it is a stupid question because he couldn’t possibly know. It seems unlikely to me that he will be any more able to cope.
Finally, I have chosen The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a masterpiece of horror. This is another story that has been adapted many times but unlike Great Expectations, I do not think that any of the films really live up to the horror of the original story.
The structure of the story describes events to the reader, suggesting and hinting at the horrors that have occurred and although there can
be few who come to this book unaware of the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde, it is still a masterful set-up which leaves the full truth until the very end of the novel when Dr Jekyll finally getting to describe events from his point of view.
Jekyll’s story is truly horrific as he starts to lose control of the baser side of his nature. His horror at what he has done is unbearable, for him as well as the reader. Hyde represents the childlike, socially unreconstructed side of human nature which grows stronger as soon as it is given some free reign. The tale is a powerful metaphor about the nature of respectability and the binary opposition of good and evil. It suggests that we should look closely for what is hidden.