The new curriculum stipulates the study of at least one 19th Century novel, a demand which eliminates the perennial favourite, To Kill A Mockingbird.
The requirements state that the chosen texts should be substantial, of high quality and intellectually challenging, criteria which Harper Lee’s 1960 classic certainly meets.
So a popular, rewarding novel is being ditched and youngsters are being forced into – ah, here’s where it becomes interesting.
The likely substitute for TKAM is one of Charles Dickens’ novels, and Great Expectations is one of the obvious choices. Sadly, the outcry against the dropping of TKAM is accompanied by an outcry against the inclusion of Dickens. Dry and tedious, some commentators have said. How can we engage the young people of today with a book they can’t relate to. Reading Dickens will grind kids down, they say.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, or lawks a mercy, as no one says in Great Expectations. It’s a shame that strong feeling for one book has led to instant dismissal of another. These two novels have a lot in common, and are equally capable of delighting and challenging an engaged reader.
The context of both books is unfamiliar to today’s youth. A sleepy Alabama town in the grip of the Great Depression of the 1930s is as alien to a modern student as is the Kent countryside and the London of the 1860s. The rhythms and colloquialisms of the Southern States is as far removed from contemporary demotic as is the vigorous vernacular of the characters in Great Expectations.
Each novel is a coming-of-age story. Scout in TKAM learns a multitude of lessons about people, society, justice, compassion, guided by a few extraordinary adults, in particular her father.
In Great Expectations, Pip’s growth in self-knowledge is a tough journey, and follows a timeless trajectory as he becomes full of himself and despises the know-nothings who brought him up, finally realising how wrong he was. Some of the most painful parts of the book are his searingly honest admissions that he is ashamed of his home and that he would have paid money to prevent the uneducated, unsophisticated man who brought him up from visiting him in his new life in London.
One hundred or so years later, this theme was tirelessly explored in novels, plays and on TV as the angry young upstarts of the 1960s left their provincial lives armed with nothing but a raincoat and a sneer. As for Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow, introduced in the first episode of Corrie, with his university scarf and his high-falutin’ ways… but back to the battle of the books.
Both To Kill A Mocking Bird and Great Expectations are novels packed with drama and each one tells a compelling story.
Similar themes are explored – class, social divisions, education, moral courage, justice, prejudice.
Each book focuses on lawyers and the law. In Great Expectations, the lawyer Jaggers, with his dodgy clients, his obsessive hand-washing and his walls decorated with death masks, is a much more ambivalent character than Atticus Finch in TKAM.
Atticus, the white, liberal, right-thinking defender of the wrongly accused black man, is a true hero. The greatest scene in the novel is where he leaves the courtroom, having lost the trial, and the black community rise to their feet. Scout is told: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” It brings a lump to the throat.
And that, I think, is why TKAM is thought to be a preferable choice. It teaches its lessons in a powerful yet palatable form. We know what to think about the misfits and the outsiders with the hearts of gold. We know where we stand in relation to the ignorance and cruelty shown by many of the characters. We understand the courage of the drug addict Mrs Dubose and the behaviour of the drunk, Dolphus Raymond, who isn’t really a drunk.
We are like Scout, wrapped in the security of her father and her home. There are ambivalences, but on the whole we don’t address them. The book’s message about racism is loud and clear and resonant, and we, too, rise to honour Atticus Finch.
But in doing so, let’s not dishonour Charles Dickens. For psychological insight and moral truth, for drama and excitement, and for sheer exuberant story-telling, he’s in a class of his own.