When the Books You Love are Actually Metaphors for Your Life

[This is a repost from my old blog. I’ve been having a lot of intense book conversations lately, and felt compelled to share this post with my new readers. Let me know your thoughts in the comments. xx -AT]

When I was fourteen, two important things happened to me: my AP English class were assigned Great Expectations to kick off our first semester of high school, and my grandma bought me Queen’s Greatest Hits for Christmas. I’ll return to the latter a bit later in the post but now, let’s talk about Dickens.

I know that many (if not most) of you were forced to read this selfsame novel at some point in school. I think I was the only one in my class who really loved it–sure, a handful of people liked it or even liked it a lot–but I became obsessed. I read it four times that semester alone. I daydreamed about Estella because I felt like I understood her and because she was ethereally beautiful, like I wanted to be. She is utterly heartless and devastatingly cold, which I was afraid I would become (angst needs no reason). I was fascinated that Pip could love her for so long, knowing exactly what kind of creature she was.

Gwyneth Paltrow played Estella in one of the movies. It wasn’t very good, but she was.

My obsession grew to include all of Dickens’ writing–I think the only thing I haven’t read, including all the nonfiction, is Martin Chuzzlewit, and that is because I became distracted at the end of that year by a completely different novel (and novelist):

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde.

This was the third major discovery I made that year. To a kid whose life up to this point had been defined entirely by the facts that she loved animals and books, the books I read that year BLEW my freakin’ MIND. If Great Expectations had been to me the catalyst for all the questions I now had about life–Could anyone actually love someone that cold? How can people who have been given everything be so self-destructive? and so on–The Picture of Dorian Gray answered them all.

It was like stepping into Alice’s mirror, or opening a wardrobe door and putting both feet in Narnia only to discover that Narnia is actually a terrible place in your head. There is a line in the sand, when I think about my adolescence, that clearly separates it into two factions. I think of those factions as Dickens and Wilde.

The things those eyes know.
The things those eyes know.

Dorian Gray corrupted me the way that curious colored book corrupted Dorian himself–it made him aware of himself. I don’t mean that I became a worse person; I mean that I became self-aware. Enlightenment and corruption can be one and the same, I think.

The other important note that must be made here is that of course Oscar Wilde’s only novel was the most overtly homoerotic mainstream work of its time. This was certainly not lost on me. Then only add to the mix my massive literary crush on Estella, and the fact that I had fallen desperately in love with Freddie Mercury (thanks, Grandma, for the CD! It spawned my single biggest musical obsession that continues to this day), and it’s pretty obvious that what was being revealed to me by the things I latched onto had rather a lot to do with my sexuality. It took me a good five years from then to figure it out, but without Estella and Dorian (and Freddie, of course) I would not know myself.

It’s funny, now, looking back on high school. I can literally only think about it this way–two books, one band, and theatre (which I’ve not touched on in this post because it’s everywhere else on this blog).

These are still the things that define me, I suppose, even though I’ve accidentally let Dickens slip into my past. What inspired this post, however, was that I picked up GE again last night and instantly felt fourteen again.