High Schoolers and Great Expectations

I was interviewed last week by a Radnor Township High School 9th grade English class, taught by Carl Rosin. (See Carl’s fine post on how he uses literature to teach integrity.) As we talked about Dickens’ Great Expectations and Kaye Gibbons’s Ellen Foster, I was reminded why the bildungsroman, or growth novel, is such a powerful genre for young people.

One of the students asked me whether I didn’t think it would have been better for Pip to have stayed with Joe and learned blacksmithing rather than go out into the world and become the unpleasant person he becomes.  I replied something to the effect that if one doesn’t leave home one can’t grow up and that Pip, while he certainly becomes unpleasant, is not so by the end—and that this, too, is part of the maturation process.

The more I thought about the question, the more significant it seemed to me. In 9th grade, one is moving away from one’s family and sometimes having clashes with parents. One may not like oneself all that much. I could see why a student this age would dream of Pip remaining innocent and young and teaming up with his wonderful (although slow) brother-in-law. Indeed, Pip even has this dream at one point himself and he returns to propose marriage to Biddy. He learns then that one can’t go home again.

For the hard truth of the matter is that we have to slog through adolescence and life and grow up, sometimes in ways we’re not terribly proud of. Dickens was as good as anyone at taking us through the process.

Another student asked whether I thought that taking revenge could be justified. I wasn’t sure whether the question was in relation to Miss Havisham, who wants revenge for the man who left her standing at the altar, but she was the one I talked about. I noted that the desire for revenge can hurt someone more than the original harm and that the reason to forgive is the good it does oneself.  I could have said that Miss Havisham pays a heavier price than either of the two lives that she tries to ruin. Pip and Estelle, after all, develop hearts whereas she is hollowed out by her hate.

Once again, as I thought about it afterwards, I was struck by how vital it is that high school students read literature that presents them with these issues. Their minds are starting to widen out and they are fascinated by the ethical questions that novels specialize in.

One other question (actually the first I was asked) was whether I thought that analyzing works of literature “tarnishes” them. I gave an answer that I now see as unsatisfactory, something along the lines of criticism no more detracting from the joy of literature than ESPN sports analysts detract from the joy of football. That may be true, but a better answer would have been that making sense of literature is making sense of life and what more important intellectual endeavor is there? It’s only when literature is put in a formalist box that students begin asking “so what?”

Carl’s class is now moving on to Romeo and Juliet. What an amazing world of youthful love and repressive parents and insane family rivalries and plans unraveling–all redeemed by sweet tragedy and gorgeous poetry–awaits them!

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  • Jason

    This is inspiring.
    Is it too late to enroll in that class? Is 39 too old?!

  • Robin Bates

    I agree with you, Jason. Carl sets up amazing courses that get his students wrestling with life’s biggest issues.

  • Sean


    As a high school teacher, I’m always amazed at how some teachers tend to have reflective amnesia when it comes to understanding the teenager’s plight. What I mean is that at no other point in your life are you expected to be good at everything. They go from English to Math to Science to a foreign language…you get the picture; and in order to be considered performing at a proficient level must excel in all subject areas, regardless of how different all of them are. This is not the case for us adults. Eventually, we get to specialize in whatever we are most interested in (a major/minor) and ideally go on to earn a living doing what we love (or so the fairytale goes). When you think about these difficult and, quite honestly, unrealistic expectations, you can see why many teenagers are confused and angry at the fact that most of what they are told about success and happiness comes packaged in some sort of college/university/higher education pep talk. If their interests and talents are elswhere, they often turn inward and feel some degree of rejection and shame. I think more and more teachers, and schools for that matter, should stop the wholesale sales pitch of college and realize that many have talents and skills that fall outside the boundaries of the university philosophies. Heck, just think about how many of these skilled jobs are now outsouced and nonexistant! There are many teenagers that have expectations that are indeed great, but as teachers we cannot afford to forget what that rather difficult experience was like. I tell them that their passion is no less honorable than anyone else’s, but that they better make it count. This life is both a rough draft and a final copy all wrapped into one. Talk about corny English Teacher metaphors, sheesh.

    Sorry for the digression. I just started to think about Pip and adolescence, and well…

  • Carl Rosin

    Sean, your comment about Pip and adolescence takes an especially interesting turn in that Pip is perfectly happy with the idea of his future as a blacksmith…until he sniffs the bigger world outside. I enjoy struggling with the thematic statement embedded therein.

    To Pip, the warm forge symbolizes the love of his brother-in-law, Joe, and Pip writes how happy they’ll be when he is “preNgtD” (apprenticed, as young Pip manages to misspell it) to Joe. And then, in a precipitous shift within the same chapter, Mrs. Joe busts in on the happy scene to explain that Pip will meet Miss Havisham and perhaps make his fortune. The incipient tragedy behind that juxtaposition always upsets me.

    Pip meets Estella and Miss Havisham, and suddenly he wants only to impress the beautiful rich girl who disdains him. He mourns later to his confidante, Biddy, “I am disgusted with my calling and my life.” Shortly thereafter, his wishes to become a gentlemen are — unfortunately and ironically, as it turns out — granted, with the arrival of his mysterious benefactor’s Great Expectations.

    This is where the first student’s question (cited by Robin) came from, I think. It is bad for Pip to leave dear Joe for the ugliness of snobbery, but (as Robin points out in his post) look at how much Pip learns — and we readers learn, vicariously — through his travels. His end is far from a tragic one. Sigh. Life is like that.

    Should Pip never have left home? Should he never have had a dream, even one that turns out to have been misbegotten? Is his eventual appreciation for Joe all the more robust for Pip’s having seen more of the world, and having suffered from his snobbishness? Maybe a more relevant question is: how many fourteen-year-olds or seventeen-year-olds know what they want out of life? (Some do! Some don’t!) And if one does not know, is such a mistake fatal? We’ll live.

    Demystifying the outside world is a powerful good. I am grateful to Robin for injecting his thoughtful and experienced Outsider into our self-contained microcosm of a school. It was a look into college, to be sure, but it was even more about the joy of using one’s mind to synthesize between fiction and reality. The application of intellect to one’s world invigorates the academic, to be sure, but also the software engineer, the small businessperson, the pieceworker, the parent, the friend. That’s better living!

    I showed my freshmen Robin’s blog post today. They were thrilled, congratulating each other, asking questions — everything I might have wished for.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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