Dickens: A Love Story & G[ender/reat] Expectations

photos taken from my copies of the novels, and wikipedia

One afternoon of June 2011, I was browsing in Indigo out of utter boredom from the lack of stimuli as a result of being out of school for over a month. I decided to visit the “classics” section (because I’m boring? not entirely) as their “fiction” selection just wasn’t doing it for me any more. My heart skipped a beat and excitement–BEHOLD! Charles Dickens, David Copperfield before my eyes. BACKGROUND: I had began to read a rather old (50+ years) copy of this fantastic novel about a month prior after picking it up out of curiosity off of my step father’s piano. Despite Indigo’s copy being all…purple..and..paperback…and such…I purchased the massive 877 pages of small font and embarked on a mission, determined to at least get something substantial read over the summer.

Upon finishing this beast of a thing (admittedly taking over a month…), I decided that there was no one else I’d have rather spent that time with than the narrator himself: the elegance of 18th century Dickens literature really grasped hold of me.

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Come August, a steady flow of syllabi began to terrorize my U of T inbox! Half dreading and perhaps 1/8 excited, I pulled up my “The Novel” syllabus and found that Great Expectations (Dickens) was assigned for January (yipeeee!); however, I next discovered (what seemed to be at the time) an IMPOSTER! Great Expectations listed a second time, by Kathy Acker–who!? Forgive me for my previous complete lack of knowledge when it comes to gender politics, it was only the beginning of my second year, after all (my knowledge extended only as far as reading one lecture of Judith Butlers’)!

I decided to postpone my research concerning this Acker character until I had to tackle it. This past month, my professor has embarked on exploring Dickens’ and Ackers’ works in contrast, and I’ve come out of the experience of reading the novels back-to-back with some insights I didn’t expect (pun intended): first, I’d like to affirm my initial reaction of declaring Kathy Acker as an “IMPOSTER!” because her first chapter is in fact named “Plagiarism”, something I found quite amusing and interesting. In addition, my ambivalence (easier than admitting ignorance, I know…) around the “F” word “Feminism” has been reaffirmed: I still don’t know where I stand! My love for Dickens has not been skewed by Acker’s novel, but rather put into solid context in that I really would not want to live in Dicken’s world; the distance between myself and the narrative’s time is now a comfort opposed to a source of frustration. However, something that I’ve learned is that Feminism is a word which can’t cast a shadow under a certain set of ideologies and beliefs, because there are just so many means of interpreting it and so many different things that declaring oneself as “being a feminist” can entail.

Aside from what constitutes various political positions, Acker’s novel gave me great insights into the life of the female artist at her time; the protagonist in this novel (we’ll speak of it as if it’s a novel to avoid too many complications) is a woman whose mother committed suicide…in contrast to the men who appear in Dicken’s novels (Pip from Great Expectations, for example), who have extended support systems by virtue of existing. Acker’s narrator expresses many instances of sexual repression and exploitation, while still embracing female sexuality in a potentially positive light. The problem with the novel in terms of readability is that its post-modern fragments (which I am not opposed to!) make it unclear of the narrator’s intentions: are these instances supposed to shed a positive or negative light? For example, the scenes of S&M give a general impression of sexual expression, while the rape scenes give the message of patriarchal dominance over the female victims.

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All in all, the questions the novel raise are ones which are quite typical of post-modern works: it challenges the Master Narrative and multiple other issues around gender and literature. Part of what makes this novel (in my opinion) significant is its ambivalence towards any resolution; that in itself is important, but what’s more is that the end of Dicken’s Great Expectations is an ending which has been debated upon for years due to the uncertainty it leaves “the reader” with.

If you’ve read either of these novels and would like to add to anything said above, I’d love to hear your comments!

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