I have read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens exactly three times: once in high school and twice in college. (In graduate school, my nineteenth century European literature professor decided to change things up and had us read Oliver Twist instead.) I imagine that the writer of this prompt anticipated that people would choose a book that they enjoyed so much that they have read it multiple times. But I don't generally re-read books outside of academic settings. If I am assigned a book in class, even if I've read it before, I will re-read it.
I chose Great Expectations over other books that I have read three times, though, because I really do enjoy it and have gotten something different out of it each time I have read it. In fact, I would venture to say that my reading experience has gotten better each time. My most recent reading of this book was indisputably my favorite, even though it was my last semester of college, this was one of the books I was reading as I was scrambling to finish my Honors Thesis, and I had decided not to write on it for my final paper (and thus, probably should have either not read it at all or merely skimmed it). But I'm glad that I read it, and I was reminded why I love this book so much, despite so many people groaning and rolling their eyes when it is once again assigned.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I enjoy books that work on two levels, and this one definitely succeeds in that respect for me. The story of Pip always engages and intrigues me, and even now, five years since I last read his narrative, I find myself wanting to return to his pages and become engrossed in his world. Dickens is largely regarded as a master storyteller, and he is in his element in this book.
More importantly, though, Great Expectations contends with numerous important issues, such as the sense of self and how we construct identity, what happens when we learn something that changes how we view our pasts and ourselves, the struggle to grow up and become your own person, and the difficulty of letting go of our perceptions of ourselves and others. These are distinctly human struggles, things that many (if not all) of us contend with in our search for personhood and finding our place in the world. I know that many others don't enjoy or resonate with Pip's narrative, but I find his earnestness and very human struggle to be compelling and engaging.
On my last reading of Great Expectations, I was most intrigued by issues surrounding Pip as a narrator. Like I said, I was writing my thesis at the time, and while the text I was focusing on (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl) was very different from Great Expectations, I was dealing with issues that can be found in both. I have always been interested in how individuals construct narratives about their lives, particularly in how they employ fiction in moments where they might not otherwise feel able to speak. Pip as a narrator has always fascinated me, from the moment he names himself in the opening paragraph to the different versions of himself we see throughout the book. Pip the narrator is aware of himself as an older, wiser man who knows the end of story, but throughout the book, he struggles to try to recapture and recreate his younger, less knowledgeable selves. For me, this exacerbates all of the issues and problems of narrative that I find so fascinating, and Great Expectations makes me question our notion of historical, factual narrative. Narrative, it seems, can never capture; rather, it can only recapture and recreate, and I have to wonder whether narrative can ever truly get away from fiction. The fact that Great Expectations is itself a work of fiction only makes all of these questions and issues more fascinating to me.
Great Expectations is a rich, intimate, and meditative book that always challenges me intellectually and offers me something new, both as an academically minded individual and as a person. While it may not be the more exciting A Tale of Two Cities that many people often cite as their favorite Dickens novel, I do wish that more people took the time to explore the depth and complexity of this novel and its narrator. In writing this post, I'm reminded of how much I enjoy and have to learn from this book and Dickens as a writer, and I wonder if it's time for me to return to Great Expectations and his other works that have spent far too long on my "to-read" list.