Published serially from 1860 to 1861, Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations is one that has enthralled readers and critics for years. Many have compared the themes of this work with other works of literature from other cultures and have adapted his novel for stage and screen. Most critics have compared this author to Thackeray in saying that Dickens, “cannot, like Thackeray, narrate a story as if he were a mere looker-on, a mere knowing observer of what he describes and represents; and he has therefore taken observation simply as the basis of his plot and his characterization. There is an absence of both directing ideas and disturbing idealizations. Everything drifts to its end, as in real life” (The Atlantic 1) Perhaps the prominent reason why this novel stuns readers is its long complex plot and dark imagery. Like nearly all his novels, Dickens employs a sense of Victorian darkness, a theme which emanates from the lowly estate of his main characters. While Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters wrote stories about the landed gentry of early 19th century England, Dickens wrote heavily on the squalor and filth of the urban poor of the Victorian times. His works exposed the cruelty of the times- from street filth and hangman’s rope to villainous and corrupt upper crust. His own experience in the squalor of Victorian England renders his knowledge authoritative on such darkness. While most of his novels exemplify such filth and cruelty, Great Expectations is probably the best example since one seems to feel the darkness clouding their senses once they read the book. Through the murk of English grubbiness and gloom, we find a character who is very unlike most romantic main characters or even other main characters in Dickens’ other novels. Most authors endow certain characters with traits that make them a hero and likeable. But as one reads this novel, one would certainly agree with the great essayist and thinker G.K. Chesterton when he called it “a novel without a hero” (464). He makes his pronouncement clearer, “I mean that it is a novel which aims chiefly at showing that the hero is unheroic” (Chesterton 464). With this in mind, I shall endeavor to trace the development of Pip and determine whether he is as Chesterton calls him, “a snob” and “unheroic” (464).
There is often a time in our lives where a singular event changes our lives forever and our character changes as well, for better or worse. The first scene in the book is such a moment in the life of Pip Pirrip. In the first scene Pip meets Abel Magwitch, an escaped convict. As we find out later in the novel, the events that follow this meeting are the basis for the book’s title since Magwitch eventually becomes Pip’s benefactor and the provider of his “great expectations”. Pip at first is a small boy, without parents, who has the bad misfortune of meeting a convict. His behavior during this scene, described as “dreadfully frightened”, is understandable and justified (Dickens 3). Any young child would be rightfully afraid of any man bearing the appearance of Magwitch and one who threatens to eat you. Pip’s character, for the most part at the beginning of the novel, is replete with fear and cowardice. At the same time, one might say that these characteristics are the result of his exposure to certain overbearing and threatening persons. Of course this is seen with Magwitch but more so in the presence of Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery. She boasts that she has “brought me [Pip] up ‘by hand’ ” (Dickens 6). Her character is so sour during the first few chapters of the book and her display of brutality toward Pip and Joe is such that gives us reason not to pity Mrs. Joe but to pity Joe and Pip. She is described as “not a good looking woman” and having a habit of going “on the Ram-page” (Dickens 6-7). Furthermore, Pip describes her doing things in a very violent way; e.g. “a trenchant way of cutting our bread and butter”, “her housekeeping of the strictest kind”, among many other violent and abusive examples (Dickens 8). Therefore one might say that Pip’s character is justified. However, there is a ray of hope of some kind of bravery in Pip. Pip promised Magwitch he would get him food and a file; Pip does fulfill his promise, despite the threats of Mrs. Joe, and therefore shows some good “heroic” qualities of honesty and bravery in the midst of threats. Although coercion and the threat of death spur such actions, these characteristics are there in Pip. Pip is more or less a puny, persecuted young boy during the first eight chapters. This period can be labeled the first during the course of Pip’s development. Each period in Pip’s development is marked by an event and new influencing character.
The second period is marked by Pip’s exposure to Miss Havisham. Prior to his exposure to Miss Havisham and Estella, Pip’s only influence was the suppressing, overbearing, violent behavior of his sister and the quiet, unheroic, weak behavior of Joe. When he meets Estella and Miss Havisham, he becomes under the influence of higher class snobbery and the habit of taking advantage of people. Due to Miss Havisham’s misfortunes with love, it is her goal to save a young woman, Estella, from her own experiences of misery and heartbreak by making her cold and very proud (Dickens 378). Such education had a similar effect on Pip. As a result of his attachment and influence via Miss Havisham and Estella, he becomes snobbish and conscience of class. Estella has perhaps more influence in this regard since it is she who acts condescendingly toward him while playing cards, calls him a “stupid, clumsy, laboring boy”; as well as treating him with contempt the whole time he is in her prescence (Dickens 55, 57, 59). Her contempt results in his own shame of his brother in law Joe, his greatest friend during the earlier portion of his life. In fact, Pip expresses this in his own words:
It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home. There may be black ingratitude in the thing, and the punishment may be retributive and well deserved; but, that it is a miserable thing, I can testify. Home had never been a very pleasant place to me, because of my sister’s temper. But, Joe had sanctified it, and I had believed in it. Now, it was all coarse and common, and I would not have had Miss Havisham and Estella see it on any account (Dickens 100).
This is primary manifestation of Miss Havisham and Estella’s influence. However, his contempt and shamefulness of his relations combine with the increase of wealth and young foolish friends to make his case even more perplexing.
It is at this point in which Dickens divides Pip’s account into a second part upon his arrival in London. His purpose in going to London is to become educated in the world of business under the supervision of Mr. Jaggers and act according to the great expectations set upon him by his secret benefactor. While Estella may be contemptuous and abusive with her beauty, Mr. Jaggers is much more terrible and overbearing to me. It is under this strange man’s auspices that Pip comes under care and sets up shop in London. Yet while Jaggers may be cruel and “Scroogesque” in regards to money and relating to people, he certainly is wise and just in his dealings with Pip and these qualities are not manifested in Pip during this period of living in London under “great expectations”. His character during this period is marked by carefree living, heedless spending of his allowances, and disdain for those around him. This is made apparent best in chapter thirty-four where Pip confesses his disdainful behavior, his heedless spending, and bad influence on others. He begins by lamenting his treatment of Biddy and Joe, “As I had grown accustomed to my expectations, I had insensibly begun to notice their effect upon myself and those around me. Their influence on my own character, I disguised from my recognition as much as possible, but I knew very well that it was not all good. I lived in a state of chronic uneasiness respecting my behavior to Joe” (Dickens 258). It is in this moment that he wishes he had never met Miss Havisham, “I used to think, with a weariness on my spirits, that I should have been happier and better if I had never seen Miss Havisham’s face, and had risen to manhood content to be partners with Joe in the honest old forge” (Dickens 258). He surveys his own character and influence on others, especially Herbert Pocket and laments,
The influence of my position on others…hat it was not beneficial to anybody, and, above all, that it was not beneficial to Herbert. My lavish habits led his easy nature into expenses that he could not afford, corrupted the simplicity of his life, and disturbed his peace with anxieties and regrets” (Dickens 258).
Due to his lavish lifestyle and thoughtless spending he “began to contract a quantity of debt” (Dickens 258). It often amazes me what happens to people once they receive a great deal of money without properly earning it and how they suddenly spend it away and come off worse than they did before they got the money. I believe that is partly what Pip had in mind when he wished he hadn’t met Miss Havisham and acquired “great expectations”. Shortly after his accruing debt, he receives a large sum of his inheritance upon his turning twenty one years of age. Not too long after this event, in which his behavior to Joe and Biddy does not mend, he meets his secret benefactor, Abel Magwitch the convict whom he helped when he was just a lad. Here his vanity and snobbishness are revealed again in a time when he should have been thankful. When he meets Magwitch he responds thus, “‘Stay’ said I. `Keep off! If you are grateful to me for what I did when I was a little child, I hope you have shown your gratitude by mending your way of life. If you have come here to thank me, it was not necessary’” (Dickens 301). Again Pip reels in terror when he learns Magwitch is his benefactor, “The abhorrence in which I held the man, the dread I had of him, the repugnance with which I shrank from him, could not have been exceeded if he had been some terrible beast” (Dickens 304). This is perhaps worse than his shame of his family relations because Magwitch’s honest earnings saved Pip from debtor’s prison and gave him a better life (or a better potential for a good life) than he had previously enjoyed. Magwitch’s gift was in fact greater than that which Pip gave him in the marshes and he, at first, receives no thanks for it. Thankfully, Pip becomes grateful for Magwitch’s sacrifice since he had risked his life to see Pip as a gentleman (Dickens 307). It is at this point when Pip becomes aware of his bad behavior to others, especially Joe, and also realizes that his endeavors to court Estella and gain the trust of Miss Havisham are all in vain (Dickens 307). Thus ends the second portion of Pip’s adventures.
The third portion of great Expectations is concerned with the recovery of Pip’s better qualities and the attempt to keep Magwitch from the law. This part cleans up all the loose ends of the novels such as the marriage of Estella and Drummle, the death of Miss Havisham, as well as the completion of the mystery of Mrs. Joe’s accident. In such instances, Pip proves to be a better man than in the earlier portion of the novel. He tries to rescue Estella from an unfortunate marriage with Drummle (Dickens 343-346). Of course he tries to assist Magwitch in getting out of the country though to no avail (Dickens 421). He also tries to reconcile himself to Biddy and Joe (Dickens 447-8). In the end, Pip works with Herbert Pocket for a time until Herbert married Clara and Pip took over the Eastern Branch (Dickens 455). After some time, he comes back to visit Biddy and Joe and here we find him quite older, a businessman and still a bachelor. His character is marked by his new life; he has forgotten his liking of Estella and has become content (Dickens 457). However, a little later when he meets Estella again for the last time, he confesses he hasn’t forgotten her and their previous parting; a parting that pained him greatly (Dickens 460). Thus ends Pip’s narrative, a long and sober tale.
As for Pip’s development throughout the novel, Pip goes through a roller coaster of events, all of which influence him greatly. The greatest question in making a judgment on the development of his character would be whether or not he is an antiheroic character as Chesterton says he is. His character at the beginning of the novel is one marked by naivety and care for his own life. His benevolence toward Magwitch is provoked due to a threat. In the process of his benevolence he also lies and steals, two very bad characteristics or habits to have. This shows even as a child his primary concern is himself even though he loves Joe. When he becomes acquainted with Estella and Miss Havisham, his naivety is besieged by the cruel, cold beauty of Estella and her own snobbishness. As one reads further into the novel, one finds Pip continually engrossed with thoughts of Estella and he becomes snobbish and shameful of his own humble beginnings and kind brother in law. His shame becomes so great in the shadow of his own elevation to wealth and the status of a gentleman, that he moves to London and doesn’t visit Joe and Biddy until many years later. This is certainly not the character of a hero. His snobbishness and self centeredness reaches its climax when Magwitch reveals himself to Pip as his benefactor and Pip finally comes to realize his own faults. Had Dickens desired Pip to be a heroic figure, Pip would have been more quickly inclined to love Magwitch and I believe would have dropped the whole Estella affair and become more successful in the end of the book. His life after Magwitch’s death and the marriage of Estella is one that leaves me, the reader, very unsatisfied with his life. Instead of starting over or moving on and having a joy filled life, it seems to me that Pip leads a life still stuck in the past and can’t seem to do more than have a mediocre job. Therefore I would agree with Chesterton when he says that “a novel without a hero” (464). Thus Dickens creates a character that breaks the norm of most Victorian novels and makes a different but well written story.
One might definitely agree with G.K. Chesterton in saying that Dickens was trying to be a “cynical observer of human life” when he wrote this novel (465). Yet even in his dark cynicism, Dickens captures the epitome of the human condition and puts it on a pedestal for all to see. In this novel one can find the cold cruelty of the upper class and greed of the upper middle class alongside the criminality of Victorian England; a true testament to the harshness of the times. Such is Dickens’ gift and were he to live in our time period, I wonder if his novels would be any different. Yet Dickens’ greatest feat in writing this novel is to portray a main character whose character is unlike most generic book characters, making the novel all the more interesting.
Chesterton, G.K., Introduction. Great Expectations. By Charles Dickens. New York: Everyman’s Library. 1992. Print.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. New York: Everyman’s Library. 1992. Print.
“Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens”. The Atlantic Monthly. September 1861: 1. Web.