I am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.
Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for over 43 years. He has authored or edited over three dozen books—including Dickens’s “Great Expectations” in the Christian Guides to the Classics series and the forthcoming A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible. He also served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version Bible.
Here he commends a novel he has read over thirty times.
A magazine editor once invited me to join other contributors in answering the question, What is the best novel originally published in English? My answer began, The best novel originally published in English is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
Great Expectations was recommended to me when I was preparing to go on my first Wheaton in England program. Through the years I have maintained that this novel is the best possible introduction to the people and places of England.
The Britishness of Great Expectations is related to my first commendation of the novel. The first thing we want when we sit down to read a novel is to be transported. Great Expectations delivers the goods. No fiction writer has excelled Dickens in the gift of world making. The world to which we are transported when we read Great Expectations is quintessential Britain and Victorian England. It is a world of nature and countryside, the small town, and London.
A second thing that we want when we commit ourselves to reading a novel is to be entertained. The hedonistic defense of literature (defending literature on the pleasure principle) has always carried primary weight with me. We read literature in our leisure time, and leisure is meant to be enjoyable. Great Expectations gives us the enjoyment that we want.
It is also a comic masterpiece. Among English authors, Dickens ranks with Chaucer and Shakespeare as our greatest humorist. His comedy is divided between comedy arising from characters and comedy arising from the situations of plot (“situation comedy”).
Dickens was a stylist and wordsmith of the very highest order, and he never excelled more than in Great Expectations (his last great novel). Dickens could make moments immortal by how he expressed them. His sparkling style is self-rewarding.
When I teach Great Expectations, I devote modules to each of the three elements that make up a story—setting, character creation, and plot. I stand at the board and ask my class to assemble the story qualities that the human race likes best in a story. By the time I have filled to board, it is obvious that Great Expectations meets all the criteria.
What about the truth of Great Expectations? One type of truth is truthfulness to human experience. A fiction writer gets us to stare at life, and the knowledge that emerges is knowledge in the form of right seeing—seeing things accurately. Virtually everything that Dickens portrays in Great Expectations ”gets it right” in its accurate rendition of human experience.
Where’s the edification? I myself place literature as a whole on a continuum with three main categories:
- Christian literature
- the literature of clarification and common humanity
- the literature of unbelief
Great Expectations falls into the middle category. It does not explicitly endorse the Christian faith (though it contains many biblical references), but it is readily congruent with Christianity. In particular it raises the question of values in a helpful way. Pip loses his soul (metaphorically speaking) when he bases his life on his “great expectations” of a life of material ease based on inherited money, and he gains his soul (in a moral but not a spiritual sense) when he abandons his great expectations and bases his life on love, personal relations, and contentment with the common life.