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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - Barron's Booknotes
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His personal life, however, was not so magical. The first girl he
had fallen in love with, Maria Beadnell, teased and flirted with
him for a year before she suddenly refused to see him again; on
the rebound, desperate to be married, he proposed to Catherine
Hogarth, just before his first big success. Catherine was
probably a good woman, but she was dull and never
understood her brilliant, insecure husband. Although they had
ten children, they were never happy together. Twenty-two
years later, they finally separated-scandalous behavior for
those times, especially for such a public figure as Dickens had
become. To add to the scandal, the middle-aged Dickens had
fallen in love with a coy, cold young actress named Ellen
Ternan, who apparently strung him along heartlessly.

Perhaps this is why Dickens was so eager to hold onto his
reading public; he felt closer to them than to his own family
and friends. At least his readers always adored him. In the
nineteenth century, before radio or television or movies, novels
were the main form of popular entertainment. Families read
them together by the fireside at night, and even poor people
who couldn't read would meet regularly on the street corner or
in a tavern to listen to someone reading a book, chapter by
chapter, out loud. Dickens had a natural instinct satisfying this
wide audience. He included all levels of entertainment:
political satire, flowery romance, weepy melodrama, spine-
tingling mystery, and broad slapstick comedy. His cast of
characters was drawn from all social classes.

Even though he constantly criticized English society, however,
Dickens was too much a man of his time to question the
fundamental values of the Victorian age. Like his readers, he
believed in a happy family life, Christianity, material
prosperity, hard work, and human decency. In his books those
are the ingredients of a happy ending.

In his life, those ingredients weren't quite so satisfying-and he
couldn't understand why. At the pinnacle of his achievement,
Dickens felt that everything he had worked for had turned into
hollow and ashy disappointment. In spite of all his political
satire, society hadn't changed for the better. Although he was a
wealthy man now, it only meant he had to sustain a more
expensive lifestyle. He couldn't seem to get close to his
children. As a celebrity, he no longer felt he belonged to any
social class, or had any real friends. It was in this mood that he
commenced writing Great Expectations in 1860. But writing
brought no release. For the next few years of his life, Dickens
increasingly used hard work to stave off depression, but it only
ruined his health, and eventually led to his death of a stroke in
1870.



In spite of his depression, Dickens managed to include in Great
Expectations the irrepressible comedy he was known and loved
for. His driving need to please his public kept him on balance.
The novel's themes, however, are very serious. He writes about
human nature itself, a mixture of misery, joy, hope, and
despair. Dickens did not write such a profound novel because
his public demanded something heavy; he wrote it because his
vision of life was growing complex, and he was too great a
genius to simplify it. Luckily, he was also a great enough
genius to write a book that people could enjoy. Though
Dickens bared his psychological problems in this novel, he was
still trying to reach out to his readers, to make them see their
own lives more clearly. Perhaps this is why people love
Dickens-because he is so human, so honest, and so much like
all of us.

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