The Problem of a Dickens

August 1, 2011 — Leave a comment

A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens are in the 9th grade honors curriculum at Wamogo High School.  Selections (chapters 1 -3) of Oliver Twist are in the 10th grade college prep curriculum to complement the Industrial Revolution unit taught by the Social Studies Department.

A Christmas Carol: 9th Grade Honors Reading

Great Expectations: 9th Grade Honors Reading

Oliver Twist: 10th Grade College Prep Reading

Our student do like the novels by Dickens…once the book is completed.  They enjoy the complicated plot twists…once the twists have ended. They remember the quirky characters…once the book has been turned in.

A problem with all novels by Dickens is the length. Simply, he got paid by the word. A problem with Dickens is the vocabulary. He liked to use long and complicated words. A problem with Dickens is his sentence structure. He used complex sentences.

The problem of length is difficult to address. His novels cannot be satisfactorily shortened; abridged editions lack his satire and comic touch.  The problems of vocabulary and complicated sentence structure, however, are reasons to teach any Dickens novel. There hundreds of  SAT/ACT words in any Dickens’ text. A quick review of a several words from Oliver Twist should prove my point:
panegyric- a formal expression of praise
asseverate-state categorically
asperity- something hard to endure
rapacity– extreme gluttony
myrmidon-a follower who carries out orders without question
pule-cry weakly or softly
postilion-someone who rides the near horse of a pair in order to guide the horses pulling a carriage (especially a carriage without a coachman)
seneschal-the chief steward or butler of a great household
imprecation-the act of calling down a curse that invokes evil (and usually serves as an insult)
saveloy-a ready-cooked and highly seasoned pork sausage (probably not an SAT/ACT word, but fun to know!)

Dickens sentences are complex:

“The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook’s uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:
‘Please, sir, I want some more'” (Oliver Twist)

From a student’s point of view,  sentences like these appear puzzling.  Young Oliver’s adventures are just starting in  Chapter 2…and there are 51 more chapters like this one! Reading a Dickens’ novel or a passage requires focus and determination.

There is much to be gained by sticking with Dickens, to pushing students out of their comfort zone of 21st Century twittering and texting. Students can develop skills in following the main idea in a selected passage of text. Students can rephrase Dickens’ sentences to better understand his satire. Students can imitate his writing the way painters imitate great artists using his work as “mentor texts”. Finally, students can comment on Dickens’ characters and make connections of these characters to contemporary people, because that is exactly what Dickens did to his own contemporaries.

Since all literature by Dickens is in the public domain, students have access to an e-text; I do not need copies for each student when students choose to download the book to an e-reader device, and digital copies are excellent when students need to read only a few passages or chapters. The classroom libraries already do contain enough copies of Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and A Christmas Carol for those students who choose a paper copy. The copies of Dickens’ novels that are available in used book sales are often quite old and musty, but Oprah’s recent selection of Great Expectation and A Tale of Two Cities for her book club may result in newer editions entering the used book market

To date, the cost for these titles? Nothing. The results of teaching the most popular English novelist of the Victorian Era? Priceless.

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