With PBS airing a new adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, this classic rags-to-riches story is once again in the public eye. This may raise a question for many parents and educators: How soon is too soon to introduce a book like this to kids?
Everyone seems to have a different opinion on that one. There are those who complain that Charles Dickens was imposed on them too early, ruining his works for them for life. Others insist that he and other classic authors should remain part of high school curricula, lest our schools become more and more dumbed-down.
Speaking for myself, I discovered Great Expectations in my school reader in ninth grade, and it launched me on a lifelong love of Dickens. And I’ve heard other teens and young adults say the same. The story of Pip, an orphan whose life is changed by a mysterious benefactor, is probably one of the best of his books for a teenager to start with. That’s partly because it’s shorter than most of his other novels, and partly because, over 150 years since it was published, it’s still not that hard for adolescents to identify with Pip’s struggles, temptations, and triumphs.
For the truth at the heart of Great Expectations is a perennial one: how easy it is for wealth, power, and status to corrupt us. When he is befriended as a child by the rich, eccentric Miss Havisham—and especially when he falls in love with her adopted daughter, Estella—Pip begins to look down on his humble home and poor relatives. When the lawyer Mr. Jaggers tells him that an anonymous donor wishes to make him a gentleman, Pip’s arrogance grows by leaps and bounds, to the point where he behaves unforgivably to Joe, the kind and loving brother-in-law who raised him. But a humiliating discovery is in store for Pip—one that will shatter his hopes and bring him face-to-face with the unpleasant truth about what he has become.
Some teens—just like some adults—are drawn to the complexity of Dickens’s language and the richness of his imagination; others are put off by them. (By the way, never allow kids to believe the old line about Dickens being “paid by the word”; that myth was debunked long ago!) And Pip’s circumstances may not always be that easy for today’s teens to grasp right away—for instance, they may need some help to understand why it would be considered so strange for a blacksmith’s apprentice to become a gentleman, or why the revelation of his benefactor’s identity is such a shock.
But the issues of character Pip deals with are timeless: for instance, the way our childhood experiences shape us, the power of peer pressure, and the way that love can inspire us to do either good or evil. And the remorseful way that Pip looks back on his life as he tells us his story shows the possibility of change and redemption.
There’s a lot that adults can do to help inspire kids with an interest in Great Expectations and similar books. Consider this anecdote from an article at Helium.com:
A teacher’s passion often inspires a life-long love and interest in pupils. G, now in his sixties, was a poor reader at primary school, because he suffers from dyslexia. He still remembers a teacher’s spirited and dramatic reading of “Oliver Twist” (Charles Dickens) which inspired him to struggle through all of Charles Dickens’ novels, despite his reading difficulties, and inspired a life-long love and interest.
Careful and patient guidance can be the key that unlocks Dickens’s unique and wonderful world for young readers. Reading and talking through this book with your kids may not make them into instant Dickens fans, but it will be an enriching experience that may just inspire in them a new respect and appreciation for this and other classics. And that’s one of the greatest gifts any child or teenager can receive.
Image copyright Penguin Classics. Review copy from the reviewer’s personal collection.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.