A bright girl student pours down onto a long, singular email message the many reasons why she’s disappointed with Dickens: she “cannot see the literature” in Great Expectations, she dislikes Dickens’s too obvious moralising, and, generally, she finds him unable to impress her with a deep vision of what being human is about. He ‘doesn’t stir her soul’ (as Emily Brontë did). We meet for coffee, together with another student –a boy– who does enjoy reading Dickens. (Um, precious meetings like this are indeed one of the joys of teaching Literature!). Here is what happens: we badger her but sound less and less convincing as the conversation goes on.
For other students in class, the feeling is just the opposite: they love Dickens and can’t stomach Wuthering Heights’s claustrophobic, mad Romanticism. I am so used to defending the merits of popular fiction against the attacks of canonical-minded academics, that I find myself less well equipped to defend the merits of a particular literary novel. Specially, with students who understand very well what Literature, as applied to the novel, is supposed to be (the artistic manipulation of all the elements for the purposes of enriching content beyond mere narrative, I think). Does this boil down to a matter of personal taste? Could it be that some texts generate great expectations they fail to meet and there is nothing we can do about this?
All the battles about the literary canon seem to forget what great debunkers of reputations students are. They may accept our reading lists but this doesn’t mean we convince them, whether we try to perpetuate the canon or attack it. Sometimes this has to do with their bringing a virgin mind to what we read or see –I’m thinking of the class who found Apocalypse Now! soooo slow and boring (maybe it is!), or the class who found Laurence Olivier’s Richard III simply hilarious (oh my, but it is!). Other times, this has to do with students’ having firm criteria we simply can’t manipulate: this girl’s discomfort with Great Expectations is, I’m sure, one among many cases. The difference in her case is that she’s worried enough to try to articulate the reasons for her disappointment rather than just reject the text. Good for her!
After that coffee I had to use all my heavy artillery to explain why I think that Dickens is a great literary writer. Remember that as recently as 1948 F.R. Leavis still hesitated about what place Dickens occupied in the great tradition of the English novel, as Leavis also disliked Victorian moralising and didn’t believe that Dickens had marked a turning point in the evolution of the novel. My personal opinion is that Dickens did amazing things with the English language and had a wonderful eye to penetrate not only into the weird and the grotesque but also into the general ugliness lurking beneath civilized mid-Victorian Britain. Yes, a very Gothic eye.
Just read the wonderful passage in which Pip, just arrived in London, takes a walk in Smithfields leading to Newgate and see how in just TWO paragraphs Dickens says it all about how justice treated people like animals. Is this obvious preaching? Maybe. I just happen to think we need more of this in our own individualistic, atomised post-modern time (obvious: we teachers are preachers). Of course, forcing my opinions onto students and shutting them up (or do I mean shouting them down?) would amount to committing the worst crime in teaching: behaving like a fascist. I don’t Dickens would have like that.