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How Dickens Can Help You Write Your College Application Essay

…all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters; and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.

—G.K. Chesterton

Don’t Forget the Laughter

This essay is on laughter, an often-crucial note in application essays self-forgetfully awake to the magical joy of falling on your face, and living to laugh about it. Laughing at yourself shows maturity, an ability to see a situation from another’s perspective, one that isn’t flattering in itself but shows a kind of depth and vision that is a rarity in anyone, never mind young adults. I would say working humor into your application essay presents greater challenges than some other approaches, such as writing essays that look at life’s difficulties or opportunities for growth on the athletic fields. Laughter is more of a balance. You have to get it right.

You need to show yourself—not others—in a light that is funny but not cringe-worthy in order to share your discovery that your way in the world is lightsome without being superficial and thoughtful without being dreary. This is why the comic touch is rarer than you might think. It’s got a certain star-dust quality about it. Paradoxically, the comic done well has an effortlessness that touches readers with a certain grace. It can incite gales of hearty laughter. Not only laughter: but a higher reconciliation, a harmony gained from insight into human nature, yes, but also into yourself. The comic in this sense speaks for itself. There’s no need but to tell the story and let the incongruities work their magic on the reader, as they worked their magic on you in the actual event.

Northrop Frye, a mid-twentieth-century Canadian literary theorist, put it this way: “Comedy is designed not to condemn evil, but to ridicule a lack of self-knowledge.” As you try to remember events in your life that show such a lack, think of something short, an event, a moment where you didn’t quite see the whole picture, didn’t quite see how ridiculous you were, and then try to put it into a single paragraph summary. Then write down anything you or someone else said that memorably caught the moment in all its incongruity and comic mirth. From this, build your anecdote. Remember: the little physical details are often the most important for setting the scene.

Dickens and Great Expectations

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) needs little introduction. Great Expectations is his thirteenth novel, initially published, as most of his stories were, serially in periodicals, then as a three-volume set in 1861. Critics praised the plotting as exceptionally artistic. George Bernard Shaw called it Dickens’ “most compactly perfect book”. Much like the earlier David Copperfield (1850), the story is a coming-of-age novel (bildungsroman, in German) told in the first-person, its overall sweep paralleling much of Dickens’ own rise from the indigent lower-middle class to one of England’s most celebrated authors.

Great Expectations has its share of grim themes. But throughout these darker notes there is also Dickens’ humor, moments of quiet–or not so quiet–hilarity that lightens the story’s portrayals of social class, the materialism of the Victorian bourgeoisie, and the often-painful progress of Pip, the main character and narrator, in the process of gaining self-knowledge. This last is certainly a major theme of the novel and one that accounts for some of the admittedly rare uses of humor in the story. Yet it is precisely Dickens’ use of humor in Great Expectations that can provide insight into how to use the same in college application essays.

Without spoiling the plot, a summary of the novel’s story goes like this: in the marshes of Kent, south of London, along the Thames’ lower reaches, lives nine-year old Pip with his sister and her husband, Joe Gargery, a simple-minded, good-hearted village blacksmith. Pip’s parents and three siblings have all died, buried in the cemetery by the local church. One day, while walking amid these gravestones, Pip is accosted by a convict who escaped from one of the “Hulks,” the ships anchored in the harbor used to house convicts from overcrowded prisons. The convict is famished, and shivering in the cold wet of the marshes when Pip stumbles upon him. Threatened with bodily harm, Pip agrees to bring the man a file for his chains, and some food. The authorities search for the convicts, and this part of Pip’s life gives way to his “education” at Miss Havisham’s, a bizarre old woman wearing the faded wedding gown from the day she was left at the altar by her fiancé many years ago. Her wedding cake is a broken-down haven for spiders.

Miss Havisham has under her care a beautiful young girl named Estella, with whom Pip falls in love. Estella scorns Pip for his working-class shabbiness, playing with his affections as if for sport.

Soon, a mysterious Mr. Jaggers, a lawyer, announces to Pip that he has come into “Great Expectations.” An unknown benefactor has bequeathed Pip a yearly salary for his move to London, where he will come into his new-found prospects with all the means and snobbery that frequently attends such rising men making their way in London life. The furthering of this plot will shatter everything Pip knows about gentility.

Setting the Scene – Great Expectations, Chapter 30

The scene I want to focus on is brief but demonstrative of Dickens’ gift for comedy. After coming into his fortune, Pip moves to London, free now from what he perceives as his lowly apprenticeship with his blacksmith brother-in-law. Pip breaks the legal bond of indenture in a snobbish fashion, though Joe takes it all in his humble way. Soon Pip is paying good money for a legal apprenticeship, and begins to feel his own importance in the world.

In chapter thirty, Pip walks the first few miles through his old village where he grew up, having arranged Jaggers’ carriage to pick him up further along the road to London. Virtually marching to the tune of his own self-importance, Pip strides through the village’s main street, wondering if anyone will recognize him now that he is elevated into his greater standing in society.

Someone does recognize him, but in way that hilariously strips Pip of his self-conceit with melodramatic flair.  Mr. Trabb, a tailor in the village, has fitted Pip for new sets of clothes in the recent past. His son, “Trabb’s boy” is a mischievous force of nature. Pip calls him “an unlimited miscreant” and that he is, with a dynamism that brims with comic exuberance and pulverizes Pip’s pretensions. Pip sees Trabb’s boy walking towards him, “lashing himself” with a “blue bag.” Dickens’ description is a perfect send-up of Pip’s boyish arrogance:

Deeming that a serene and unconscious contemplation of him would best beseem me, and would be most likely to quell his evil mind, I advanced with that expression of countenance, and was rather congratulating myself on my success, when suddenly the knees of Trabb’s boy smote together, his hair uprose, his cap fell off, he trembled violently in every limb, staggered out into the road, and crying to the populace, “Hold me! I’m so frightened!” feigned to be in a paroxysm of terror and contrition, occasioned by the dignity of my appearance.

There’s no doubt that the whirlwind of Trabb’s boy should bring Pip to regret his self-importance. But Pip walks on, somewhat undaunted. Yet again, Trabb’s boy comes at him, playing a pantomime of terror at Pip’s new elevation to gentleman status. Pip is “utterly confounded” by this show as spectators gather around. Finally, thinking himself free of this boyish scourge, Pip sees Trabb’s boy trying yet another tactic. With theatrical flair, Trabb’s boy heads in his direction from across the street, wearing his “blue bag” on his shoulders in a mockery of Pip’s own gentleman’s cape:

He…was strutting along the pavement towards me…attended by a company of delighted young friends to whom he from time to time exclaimed, with a wave of his hand, “Don’t know yah!” Words cannot state the amount of aggravation and injury wreaked upon me by Trabb’s boy, when passing abreast of me, he pulled up his shirt-collar, twined his side-hair, stuck an arm akimbo, and smirked extravagantly by, wriggling his elbows and body, and drawling to his attendants, “Don’t know yah, don’t know yah, ’pon my soul don’t know yah!”

Dickens uses a force of nature—in the form of an adolescent—to show that Pip is really the one who is acting foolishly with his pretentious attitude about his own importance. The “injury wreaked” on Pip comes from presenting him a mirror of his own ridiculous person magnified to a ludicrous degree by satire. We see Pip taken down a notch by “an invulnerable and dodging serpent” who so riles Pip that nothing but “his heart’s best blood” would have satisfied his outrage at being so mocked.

Lessons from Dickens

The task in reading Dickens well is in seeing how comedy can be means of growth in our efforts to become a person who doesn’t take himself or herself too seriously.

When writing that college essay, if there is an incident in our lives that shows how someone or something (perhaps a ridiculously high goal, or a plan not sufficiently considered) showed us up, and there was in this incident moral growth on our part, then by all means we should present that anecdote with a nod to the power of Dickens’ narrative.

This incident should not be too self-revealing or self-critical—in fact, it should in all things be marked by tact and discretion. But it should show—rather than tell—how a precise moment in your life brought you with a laugh to a greater sense of yourself, to real self-knowledge.

Chesterton and Chaucer Weigh In On Humor

In 1932, British author G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) published an unusual but nevertheless insightful study of the greatest English poet prior to Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer. As his other biographies, Chaucer (1932) gives us an impressionistic portrait of the poet, of Chaucer’s age, his major poems, and his imaginative powers in crafting some of the funniest tales ever penned. Chaucer’s major work The Canterbury Tales is about a diverse and often rowdy cast of characters on their way to Canterbury Cathedral during an Easter pilgrimage. It’s a collection of personalities worthy of Shakespeare and Dickens in its earthy, endearing, even, at times, terrifying folk of all types, with personalities marked by everything from sanctity to lechery to avarice colder than a sack of gold at the bottom of a roaring river.

As Chesterton notes, behind Chaucer’s satire isn’t a negation, a cynical nihilism filled with spite, but a vision of the goodness of the world despite our flaws and our foibles, even our sins. It’s the kind of vision that appreciates the simple things in life–a smile from a loved one, a look of trust in a child you’re trying to encourage to be brave, a cold drink of water in the summer, a hearty meal shared with friends, a slice of homemade bread kneaded with love of the hearth and family. Chaucer shows us, with Dickens too, how the shadows of life, real as they are, can’t snuff out the light of such gifts. That their comedy can do this brilliantly shows just how free their hearts were as they crafted stories full of the follies of our race. Chesterton put it best when he writes at the end of the first chapter of Chaucer:

There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the abyss of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we ourselves are incredibly and sometimes almost incredulously real. It is the fundamental fact of being, as against not being; it is unthinkable, yet we cannot unthink it, though we may sometimes be unthinking about it; unthinking and especially unthanking.

Chesterton in his best journalism embodies this kind of affirmative and poetic vision of the world. We would do well, in the crucible of the application process to remember his advice, excellent as it is for living as well as for writing.

Is it too much to see nature, work, and laughter in the light of this conviction of the giftedness of all things? I think not. I’m not advocating a superficial neglect of life’s traumas (though friends who have worked in college admissions have told me they get too many of these kinds of essays). I’m saying not to forget to look at the light behind the shadows, the reason in some sense that we know what shadows are, and why they aren’t the entire story. As the quotation at the beginning of this essay reminds us, there is indeed an “ultimate inn” at the end of the road of this life despite the winding paths we often take along the way. None of us automatically has a room there, of course, but with Dickens and Chesterton we know that the Owner of the Inn wants us there from all eternity, raising flagons of joy to all the crazy characters and events in our lives.

Any college applicant whose essays breathe this air of affirmation, even amid tears, and certainly amid laughter, will undoubtedly make an admissions team sit up and listen and laugh and wonder why more of their applicants don’t write like this.






About the Author

Michael Ortiz


Mike Ortiz teaches twelfth grade AP English. He is a recipient of three National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, including participation in the Independent Summer Scholar Program. He holds a B.A. in English from Saint Anselm College and an M.A. in English from Georgetown University. He began teaching at the School in 1985. His children’s novel Swan Town: The Secret Journal of Susanna Shakespeare (HarperCollins) was published in 2006. His latest book, Like the First Morning: The Morning Offering as a Daily Renewal (Ave Maria Press) was released in April 2015.

He and his wife, Kathleen, have two sons, David, ‘11 (UNC Chapel Hill, BA, University of Virginia, JD) and Daniel, ’14 (University of Chicago, AB, MSt, University of Oxford), and two daughters, Sarah (Notre Dame, BA,, M.Ed), and Caroline (Princeton, AB) who are graduates of Oakcrest School in Virginia.

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