Classic novels usually share in the aspect of universal themes which touch people through out the ages. All types of audiences can relate to and understand these underlying ideas. Victorian novels such as Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native and Charles Dickens' Great Expectations are examples of literary classics that have universal themes. Hardy's tale illustrates the role of chance in his characters lives. Through the story we encounter events of pure coincidence and their effects. Dickens, considered to be more of a reformer (Literature Online), tries to portray a social theme in his novel. The basic theme of Great Expectations is that good does not come from ones social standing but rather comes from their inner value. These novels are considered classics because of their timeless themes.
Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native displays a theme of chance. Book First, chapter 8 contains a perfect example. Eustacia persuades young Johnny Nunsuch into helping her feed a fire. She dismisses him and begins to walk home. Before reaching home, he is frightened by the light coming from the heath and returns to discover Wildeve meeting with Eustacia. By pure chance, Venn discovers the boy and quizzes him.
"Then I came down here, and I was afeard, and I went back; but I didn't like to speak to her, because of the gentleman, and I came on here again" [Johnny Nunsuch]
" A gentleman--ah! What did she say to him, my man?" [Diggory Venn]
"Told him she supposed he had not married the other woman because he liked his old sweetheart best; and things like that" [Johnny Nunsuch]
[Book First, chapter 8, pp. 82]
This chance exchange reveals that Wildeve is meeting with Eustacia. Venn uses this to his advance by announcing himself to Mrs. Yeobright as a suitor for Thomasin. This backfires because Mrs. Yeobright tries to use the second suitor to force Wildeve to marry Thomasin. These events all occur from the chance meeting between Venn and Johnny Nunsuch. Another example of chance and coincidence can be seen in the famous gambling scene of Book Third, chapter VII. This is perhaps one of the most critically examined parts of the book.
" "Very well," said Wildeve, rising. Searching about with the lantern, he found a large flat stone, which he placed between himself and Christian, and sat down again. The lantern was open to give more light, and it's rays directed upon the stone. Christian put down a shilling, Wildeve another, and each threw. Christian won. They played for two. Christian won again."
[Book Third, chapter 7, pp. 229]
This quote begins the drama of the scene. Mrs. Yeobright had entrusted Christian to deliver a minor inheritance to Clym and Thomasin. He gets involved in a dice game with Damon and unfortunately loses all hundred guineas. By chance, Diggory Venn passes by and in the hope of protecting Thomasin, wins back all the money from Wildeve. He mistakenly hands over all the winnings to Thomasin without understanding that part of the money belongs to Clym. This chance occurrence led to a tragic end. Although he was trying to do good, Venn succeeded to further create conflict. Critics agree with this standpoint.
"The Return of the Native is concerned with the 'general malaise in the life of humanity. Man is a pawn in life's lottery .... Man's life avails him nothing. Men are just incidental in creation. Man may protest against his fate, but it makes no difference, he only a plaything, he cannot master his destiny."
In these examples and critical quotes, we see the negative stance Hardy is taking in the immoral theme of chance.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is also a classic novel due to its universal theme of true good.
"Great Expectations is Charles Dickens' "most compactly perfect book," mainly because of the universal themes that are fully realized throughout the novel. Furthermore, as an explanation of why Great Expectations is Dicken's finest work, it becomes necessary study to study the thematic elements that are prevalent within the storyline."
[George Bernard Shaw]
The theme is developed through a character Pirrip Philip, a poor orphaned boy living with his sister and her husband, Joe. He is a father figure for the boy and is a hard working blacksmith, loyal and good friend. While visiting his family's grave site, he is approached by an escaped convict who demands that Pip bring him food and a metal file. He does so promptly but the convict is quickly recaptured. After some time he is hired by an rich eccentric woman named Miss Havisham to be her adopted daughters playmate. Jaggers, a lawyer, informs Pip that someone has settled money for the boy and he has "great expectations".
" Now I return to this young fellow. And the communication I got to make is, that he has Great Expectations"
[Chapter 18, pp. 151]
For some time now Pip was disliking the "uncommon" life and started to admire the lifestyle of Miss Havisham and the upper class. To put it short, he was becoming a snob. This event advanced the plot and theme. Under the agreement made Pip was not supposed to know who his benefactor was although he believed it to be Miss Havisham. One evening while living in England, a stranger appears to visit Pip. It was the convict of his youth. Named Magwitch, he has been Pip's benefactor all along. This was his way of repaying his charity as a youth. The events that follow with Magwitch teach Pip love and humility. His snobbish quality is removed. After the convicts death, Pip becomes ill and is nursed back to health by his true friend Joe. The money that he is handed changes his personality and causes him to ignore the people that he has known fondly his entire life but finally realizes that true goodness comes from a person rather than their social class. This shows that wealth and position can be corrupting. This theme is present today as it ever was during Dickens time.
From a personal standpoint, these novels have had an impressive influence on my life and the way I think as it would for anybody of my age and education. By absorbing the themes of true goodness and chance, I have enlightened myself. I realize that money, power or property does not necessarily make a person good but rather that depends on the individual. The tale of Pip can serve as the perfect guide not to become a victim of false ideology. Undoubtedly people of my age should come away with a better understanding of life and our place in the world just as I have. It is quite appropriate for people of our education level to be enriched in the world of classic literature. The timeless nature of the stories is reason enough.
Regardless of the great amount of reading, I can truthfully say that I enjoyed the experience. Classics hold something for all people so therefore I would recommend it to others being on our grade level or not.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations, New York: New York
Scholastic Inc., 1957
Hardy, Thomas. The Return of the Native, New York: New York
Nal Penguin Inc., 1987
Thompson, Frank H. Cliff Notes on Hardy's The Return of the Native Nebraska: Lincoln Cliff Notes Inc., 1966
http://www.literature.org Literature Online, Internet Site
Resource providing criticism on literary works.