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March 24, 2012 / CB

2 Boys, 2 Books

I finished two books this week: Great Expectations and the book of Genesis.  I had never given much consideration to Dickens’ Christian influences, but the farther I read in one book, the more I thought of the other.

If you know anything about Dickens, you know he was fond of the downtrodden and the outcast.  Orphans turn up a lot in his work, and Expectations is no different.  In fact, the book opens with young Pip pondering over the grave of the parents he never knew.  He’s being raised by his shrewish older sister and a wooden spoon called Tickler.  The only thing which brings Pip any comfort is the company of his brother-in-law Joe, a kind-hearted, simple blacksmith who has been cowed by his wife (and Tickler, for that matter).  Through a series of twists and mysteries, of the sort that only Dickens could manage, Pip leaves his home and sets off to become a gentleman.  He doesn’t make this decision on his own (though the desire is there), but rather heads to London riding on the wallet of an unknown benefactor.  Reading this in tandem with Genesis, it’s hard not to compare it to the story of Joseph.

Although Joseph is far from an orphan, he effectively becomes one when his brothers beat him stupid and sell him into slavery.  He’s lost his family, his name, and his beautiful coat.  With everything gone, it’s easy to imagine him in the rough clothes of a Dickensian hero.  Like Pip, what ultimately gets Joseph into trouble is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world works.  Pip makes a series of convenient assumptions for which he has no evidence, and Joseph (already spoiled by his father) seems to have no ability to comprehend the feelings of others.  In both cases, their elevation comes not through their own efforts but because of an outside power.  At first, neither one of them appears to grasp the true nature of their patron.  Through the process of revelation, however, they both become better men, though not without struggle and tears.

Dickens had a tumultuous relationship with religion and faith (check out this article for more), and knowing that makes the great novelist a little more human to me.  He was in and out of the formal church, but became a more constant Christian as he aged and had children.  In fact, in a letter to one of his kids, he called the New Testament “the best book that ever was or will be known in the world.”  That’s a powerful statement from one so deeply enmeshed with the world of words.  As a writer, though, what I find more profound is that Dickens took the stories upon which our faith is founded and wove them into novels considered among the greatest in the world.  If that doesn’t show faith in writing, I don’t know what does.

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