A new look at an old book: Charles Dickens’ timeless classic is not just for high school kids anymore.

photo by Emmah Obradovich

photo by Emmah Obradovich

With so many movies and TV miniseries each portraying its own version of “Great Expectations,” the timeless classic by Charles Dickens, I find it best to turn back to what made this story so popular: the novel. The plot is simple: a young, common boy falls in love with a wealthy, arrogant girl. An unnamed benefactor provides him with the opportunity to leave his small town and be educated in a big city to move up in status. The love/hate relationship between the boy and girl unravels as they both grow older, and the young man evolves as he reaches the end of his personal journey.

In fast-paced America, it is rare to see anyone reading anything if it isn’t the latest, hippest book (we all remember the “Da Vinci Code” phenomenon). Most children and young adults are lost in their own worlds, preferring to listen to their iPods. But for those of us who are sick of new technology and want to revert back to simpler times, “Great Expectations” is a heart-breaking story with all the right elements: romance, personal growth, mystery and outrageous characters. It’s not just a classic because it’s an old book; it’s a classic because it really is so darn good.

Dickens’ use of language sets the scene for the wild adventures: convicts, a family rivalry, and even Maury Povich-like paternity and maternity results that turn the story upside down.

Although the book is set in the 1800s, its elements can be seen in day-to-day situations. The characters are memorable and make for wild and neurotic additions to the story. Maybe you know someone like Mrs. Havisham, who is obsessed and overwhelmed about a single tragic event that has prevented her from moving on with life. There are people like Joe Gargery, who never had the chance to receive education but encourages others to be educated. Estella and her constant rejection of Pip’s love keeps readers on the edge of frustration.

And poor, poor Pip. Pip is the one character that many can relate to. Many can recall those awkward years of anguish before adulthood; we can all sympathize with the poor situations that the hero, Pip, has to endure. There isn’t one person in the world who isn’t focused on self-improvement, trying to prove they are uncommon and unique. Pip embodies all these characteristics as he transitions from a small town in England to big-time London.

So why is “Great Expectations” still relevant in 2007? It may be Dickens’ social commentary on society and class (which arrogant America has never fully removed itself from). Or it may be that those life experiences that the characters encounter can be shared by many readers. Most importantly, it may be the emotional connection between the reader and the characters: no movie can portray the frustration and romance expressed in the novel.

Some modern movies that may have been inspired by “Great Expectations” include “The Cider House Rules” and “The Quiet Man” (1952). “The Cider House Rules” is about an orphan who becomes an apprentice to the orphanage director, but yearns for a different kind of life outside the orphanage. It shares the “coming of age” theme of “Great Expectations.” “The Quiet Man” is about a man who returns to his hometown and tries to escape his past. He falls in love with a beautiful young woman related to an irritable man, just as Estella was related to the wacky Miss Havisham. Pip also tries to escape his past, fearing his education may be overlooked and he may appear more common than ever.

In “Great Expectations,” the love story between Pip and Estella is one of the cruelest cat-and-mouse games in literary history. Estella keeps Pip on a string, but constantly reminds him that they would never be together. It is heartbreaking the way Estella is constantly rejecting him. Much like Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” in “Great Expectations” there is an urgency to see something positive happen to Pip. And, although Pip does come across some positive situations in his life, Dickens emerges to steal those moments away from him.

And of course, there is the continuing theme of Pip’s “great expectations.” Throughout the novel, Pip is focused on improving himself and has some “great expectations” about his future and his future with Estella. This novel still works in today’s age because we all have that idea of “great expectations.” What’s great about “Great Expectations” is that some aspects of the book are based on Dickens’ life. The story is written from the heart because Dickens did live as a poor boy in London in the early 1800s. This real-life familiarity brings more life to the novel than if it had simply been written without personal experience.

When selecting a version of “Great Expectations” at the bookstore or the library, be aware of the edition. Not many people know that “Great Expectations” has two endings: the widely known ending and the original ending. The original ending was an unhappy ending to an unhappy story, so Dickens was urged by a friend to change the ending to a more subtle, happier ending to a very long and sad story. I suggest you read both endings and decide which one works for you. However, the very last paragraph on the very last page may be my very favorite. Don’t peek! Save it until the end. It will mean so much more.