I wrote on this blog a little while ago about a theatrical adaptation of Great Expectations – by Charles Dickens (as if there were….). I thought it would be good to venture at reading the original novel. I can’t remember having read it before, and having by now read it, am sure that I would not have forgotten. I have seen various TV versions over the decades though, and in a sense could say that ‘I know the story’.

Watching the novel played out on stage with ‘real’ actors – being shown, rather than told the story – might be thought to have brought it alive, and indeed that was a sort of unconscious assumption that I made during the watching. Within a couple of chapters of reading though, I became aware, firstly, that Dickens’ own description of the marshes on which the story opens were far more vibrant in my imagination than the equivalent had been on stage – and that is not to criticise the staging.

In fact, as the told story unfolded I began to realise that it was Dickens’ words that were bringing the whole story alive in a way that its being shown could not. Neither lighting nor shadows, props nor set, costumes nor passages of direct speech taken, commendably word for word – if memory allows sufficient evidence of that – from the text, let alone ‘real’ actors, had brought the story to life quite so viscerally as did those words, of narrative, and speech and thought that Dickens gives us, one at a time and in order in the novel.

Words, of course, exist only in our minds, and not exactly, I’m sure, in each of our minds as they do in each other’s. Even within that limitation though, what Dickens meant by, and felt about the words he chose has a resonance with what those words mean and feel to us that trumps that of the observed parodies of reality that we see on stage. That resonance is expressed in and by our imaginations. We are not invited to imagine what we are shown, but only what we are told.  What we are shown can only be observed and analysed, well or badly. Imagination is something uniquely of our own, evoked by words that are themselves the nearest possible translations of the imaginations of their authors.

What Dickens also does , and which the theatre was perhaps less adept at doing, is telling a story about ourselves. In particular he does this at moments when Pip, his narrator, suddenly cuts through what he is telling us about himself, to what he might be saying about us. There is one especially potent example of this in Great Expectations, and I initially intended to quote it – to show how clever I am – but have decided to leave it for you to discover, and thus show how clever Dickens was.

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