Dickens shows less isn’t always more


Midway through second semester, all the Honors English 9 teachers unleashed the monster that would cause the Freshman Class to lose a great deal of sleep. It came in the form of a 400-plus page book called Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and it was excruciating to read.

But the English teachers mercilessly plowed on. Many of us gave up this long uphill battle and sought refuge in Sparknotes. And some probably never cracked it open.
It was certainly hard to resist temptation to take shortcuts.  Much of Great Expectations was merely Charles Dickens rambling on, indulging in his own dry jokes, jokes that were hardly relevant to the plot. He spent at least half a page describing how the frost on the window reminded him of a spider’s web. The plot of the book hardly warranted all the paper needed to print the thing.

The whole novel of Great Expectations could be condensed into 100 words or fewer. After all, the plot isn’t complicated, and Dickens’ habit of going off on a tangent was not only annoying, but distracting from the main story. It really just boils down to a chronicle of a poor boy who comes into a lot of money and tries to make his way into high society and get the girl he likes (see, that was fewer than 100 words). The plot could be condensed, Dickens’ rambles could be deleted, and the whole novel would be shorter, easier to understand, and more efficient.

It was this same type of efficiency of language that George Orwell imagined in 1984. What, he reasoned, was the point of all those extravagant, superfluous and hard-to-understand words? Take “good” for example. Wonderful, superior, excellent, superb and fine also mean good. And to make matters even more complicated, there are all those antonyms for good: bad, awful, dreadful, horrifying, appalling–the list goes on. It was redundant to have so many words that meant the same thing, and it got in the way of communication.

The solution, Orwell said, was to get rid of the other words and just use good. Everyone understood what good meant. It was short, easy to use, easy to write and efficient.  For emphasis, use “ultra-good”.  For the antonym, use “un-good”. Do this for every word we use and the English language is so much more efficient.

But say those words out loud, and you’ll sound terse and unnatural, like a machine.

If all of Great Expectations was written like this, it would definitely be shorter and it would be easier to read. However, the book would also seem empty and bare. It would seem devoid of meaning, even though the plot would be condensed. The book would no longer be Dickens’ novel; it would be a timeline of events.

The stuffy diction Dickens uses, the (extremely lengthy) way he writes descriptions, the excruciating details of Pip eating bread and butter and the dry comments are just as important to the book as the plot, because the point of language isn’t only utility, and because less isn’t always more.

Language is what makes Dickens and his writing unique, just like his billy-goat beard, tufty hair and triangle-shaped head; it’s what makes all of us unique.

So for once, skip the Sparknotes and view a work of literature—no matter how much it rambles, or how many times it uses “thou” and “wherefore”—for what it is: a way for a writer to communicate his or her message to the public, using whatever literary style he or she feels is most effective.