Whenever I lay buried in a fat volume written by a long 'extinct' writer, the great minds of today often ask me, “Why are you reading that? Who reads Tolstoy/Hardy/Sarat Chandra in this day and age?” Name-dropping aside, my only reply to them is that at some point in my life I hope to impress people by telling them that I had read Anna Karenina or Srikanta.
That was my thought as I opened the first chapter of 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens, considered a masterpiece by the world. I thought that someday it would be a great conversation-opener, telling people, “Oh yes I read a book or two by that Dickens bloke!” However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually enjoyed the book. I was just as stunned as you (although, to be honest, there were times when I was bored numb. The endless descriptions of landscapes and the precise description of a character's attire did make my feeble brain protest at the cruel unjustness of it all. Yet I ploughed through and emerged a happy reader).
It is almost cruel to summarize a volume of such proportions. However, I shall do just that. 'Great Expectations' revolves around Pip, an orphan adopted by his stern sister and kindly brother-in-law (Mr. and Mrs Joe Gargery). They live in a small village near the marshes where everyone knows everything about each other (the aunties of Dhaka City would fit there quite well). One foggy morning, Pip encounters an escaped and starving convict hiding in the cemetery and provided him with food, a meeting which would subsequently change the former's life. As Pip grows up and begins to shed the veneers of simple rural life for a world of sophistication, a mysterious benefactor enables him to leave his village and chase after his 'great expectations'. Through Pip, the reader is immersed in 19th century England at the throes of the Industrial Revolution. Swept away from the pastoral simplicity of rural Britain, we enter the grimy city of London, full of seedy men and woman.
As we follow Pip's journey through life; his growth, downfall and eventual acceptance of adulthood, we interact with a repertoire of unique characters. Whether it be the dilapidated Miss Havisham in her faded bridal dress, the coldly indifferent Miss Estella who had stolen Pip's heart, or the rogue Magwitch, we enter a world that is Dickensian to its very core. All these characters, with all their eccentricities, make the reader connect instantly to the story. Yet, the person who perhaps stole my heart the most was Pip himself. Dear Pip, whom I pitied, at one point disliked and finally forgave and accepted, perhaps because in him I saw myself so starkly at times, a life of fiction that seemed to be mirroring my own.
So, to go back to the original question regarding why I read the Classics; why these huge volumes of work, which were supposed to be long forgotten, shrouded in the cobwebs of time, yet are surprisingly not. It is quite simply because, these works have the strange power of invoking nostalgia for a time not ours, for places we've never lived in, by creating characters who lived our lives in a different time. We may be a modern and technologically unsurpassed generation, yet, much like a 20-something boy or an old jilted woman from the 19th century, we too crave for love and validation; and at times we too feel the seeds of resentment, indecision and hopelessness growing within us unchecked. These books don't tell us to bury our compulsions and forget them. Rather, they urge us to accept our imperfections; to cast away the great expectations we hold for ourselves and the world around us, to simply forgive and live life as it comes. So that, at the end of one such book, we close it slowly, take a deep breath and say, with a bit of relief, “So! I am not alone!”
And that, as simple as it may sound, is a wonderful revelation to a confused soul.
The reviewer is a young contributor.