One cold and misty evening, a little boy meets an escaped criminal on the marshes near England's coast. No, it's not the opening of a TV crime drama (although it could be)—it's the beginning of one of Charles Dickens's most famous novels: Great Expectations.
The story of a young blacksmith boy Pip and his two dreams—becoming a gentleman and marrying the beautiful Estella—Great Expectations was serialized from December 1, 1860 until August 3, 1861. With two chapters every week, Great Expectations (and other serialized novels like it) were as close as Victorian England got to Breaking Bad or Mad Men. People waited anxiously every week for the next "episode" to arrive in the newsstands and on the shelves—and you can see why. Dickens was a master of the serialized novel, writing segments full of cliff-hangers and nail-biting action, while remaining true to the novel's overall storyline. His stories worked in pieces and as a cohesive whole—not an easy task. (Just ask J. J. Abrams.)
When Great Expectations began its run, Charles Dickens was already world-famous, but his magazine All the Year Round was struggling. So, he came up with a plan: rather than save the story he'd sketched out for a cooler and better-paying publication, he decided to run it in his own magazine.
The novel was a major success. Like most of Dickens's work, it addressed contemporary issues of social justice and inequality. While England was growing rich and powerful in the era of colonialism and the Industrial Revolution, Dickens saw the injustice that ran rampant among the working and lower classes. He documented Britain's underbelly and explored the fight for survival in a time of such wealth.
But it's not all doom and gloom. (We promise.) Sure, there are broken hearts, glimpses into London's dark criminal underworld, and enough child abuse to make you want to call protective services. At the same time, it's full of hilarious characters and little slice-of-life sketches that, just like any serialized TV show, will keep you coming back for more.
Why Should I Care?
Cheesy quotes: teachers decorate their walls with them, Hallmark fills the greeting card aisles with them, and football coaches give rousing speeches full of them. Cheesy quotes are everywhere. And we love them. How can you hate on a quote that tells you to "reach for the moon, because you might end up among the stars"? You might hate the language (and the basic misunderstanding of astronomy, but you can't hate the message. As humans, we're built to dream, hope, and imagine.
And, as humans, we're pretty much set up to fail.
Great Expectations shows us something that motivational posters never do: reaching for the stars can be dangerous. You get fired from your first job; you have to move back in with your parents; your crush marries the worst possible man. You know this feeling, or—sorry—you will. It's the one thing every adult human has in common whether you're a rich lady, a criminal, or a blacksmith's boy. And that's something to care about.