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You run on dangerous ground when you start talking about Dickens's best novel, but there's a pretty strong case to be made that Great Expectations is it. The story of the orphan Pip and his long road to maturity is a grand soliloquy on ambition, love, class, and, yes, expectations. Creepy convicts, creepy jilted brides, and creepy objects of affection round out the cast.
Set amid the French Revolution, this novel explores that transformational event from multiple perspectives. Though today we associate that event mainly with guillotines and rolling heads, it's important to remember how exciting the revolution's aims were for idealistic young people in England and France. And how bitterly disappointing it was when it all went wrong. Dickens's novel is as key to understanding the French Revolution as any of the history books written since.
Fifteen novels and bajillions of words later, little Oliver Twist remains one of Dickens's favorite characters, and this novel remains one of his best-beloved books. Though Oliver claims the headliner spot, it's the supporting cast that really steals the show in this novel – the scrappy Dodger, the calculating Fagin, wicked Bill Sikes, and the good-as-gold Nancy. Definitely worth reading – even if it's not required.
This is the most autobiographical of Dickens's novels. Told from David's first-person perspective, it follows the young narrator as he is sent to work at an early age (like Dickens), falls for a young woman who does not return his love (like Dickens) and grapples with his absent parents (like Dickens). You see where this is going.
This book is Charles Dickens's entry in the Penguin Great Lives series, a fantastic collection of short biographies of interesting people by great writers. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley takes on Dickens, exploring the secrets, subterfuge and slights of hand that made up his personal and professional life. We like her because she says things like "[Great Expectations] is totally Dickensy, yet shorter than the real Dickensy novels."_CITATION27_