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Great Expectations Critical Essays

G. K. Chesterton once observed that all of Charles Dickens’s novels could be titled Great Expectations, for they are full of an unsubstantial yet ardent expectation of everything. Nevertheless, as Chesterton pointed out with irony, the only book to which Dickens actually gave the title was one in which most of the expectations are never realized. To the Victorians, the word “expectations” meant legacy as well as anticipations. In that closed society, one of the few means by which a person born of the lower or lower-middle class could rise to wealth and high status was through inheritance. A major theme of the Victorian social novel involved a hero’s passage through the class structure, and a major vehicle of that passage was money bestowed upon him, acquired through marriage, or inherited. Unlike many nineteenth century novels that rely upon the stale plot device of a surprise legacy to enrich the fortunate protagonists, Great Expectations probes deeply into the ethical and psychological dangers of advancing through the class system by means of wealth acquired from the toil of others.

Although the story of Pip’s expectations dominates the novel, he is not the only person who waits to benefit from the money of another. His beloved Estella, the ward of Miss Havisham, is wholly dependent upon the caprices of the unstable old woman. Moreover, other characters are the mysterious instrumentalities of legacies. The solicitor Jaggers, who acts as the legal agent for both Miss Havisham and Abel Magwitch, richly benefits from his services. Even his lackey Mr. Wemmick, a mild soul who changes his personality from lamb to wolf to please his employer, earns his living from the legal machinery of the courts. Just as the source of Pip’s money is revealed at last to be socially corrupted, so the uses of tainted wealth inevitably bring about corruption.

In Bleak House (1852-1853), Dickens had already explored with great skill the ruthless precincts of the law courts. His next three novels—Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1855-1857), and A Tale of Two Cities (1859)—were not so well sustained and were, despite memorable scenes, less popular with the critics and public alike. Great Expectations (1860-1861, first published serially in All the Year Round) restored Dickens’s supremacy with his vast reading audience. Serious, controlled, and nearly as complex structurally as Bleak House, the novel also reminded Victorian readers of David Copperfield (1849-1850). Both are apprenticeship novels that treat the life education of a hero. Great Expectations is somewhat less autobiographical than David Copperfield, but it repeats the basic formula of the genre: that of an honest, rather ingenuous but surely likable young man who, through a series of often painful experiences, learns important lessons about life and himself. These lessons are always designed to reveal the hero’s limitations. As he casts off his own weaknesses and better understands the dangers of the world, he succeeds by advancing through the class system and ends up less brash, a chastened but wiser man.

Great Expectations differs from David Copperfield, however, in the ways that the hero matures to self-knowledge. In the beginning, both David and Pip are young snobs (Pip more than David). Both suffer the traumas of a shattered childhood and troubled adolescence, but David’s childhood suffering is fully motivated on the basis of his separation from loved ones. An innocent, he is the victim of evil that he does not cause. Pip, on the other hand, suffers from a childhood nightmare that forms a pattern of his later experience. An orphan like David, he lives with his brutal sister and her husband, the gentle blacksmith Joe Gargery. The abuse he endures from Mrs. Joe is more than compensated for by the brotherly affection of this simple, generous man. He also wins the loving sympathy of Biddy, another loyal friend. Nevertheless, he is not satisfied, and when he comes upon the convicts in the fog and is terrified, he feels a sense of guilt—misplaced but psychologically necessary—as much for his crimes against his protectors as for the theft of a pork pie. Thereafter, his motives, cloudy as the scene of his childhood terror, are weighted with secret apprehension and guilt. To regain his lost innocence, he must purge himself of the causes of this guilt.

Pip’s life apprenticeship, therefore, involves his gaining a full understanding of his “crimes” against loved ones and of the ways to redeem himself. The causes of his guilt are, in order of severity, snobbish pride, his betrayal of friends and protectors, and finally his participation in the machinery of corruption.

As a snob, he not only breaks the social mold into which he has been cast but lords it over the underlings and unfortunates of the class system. Because of his presumed great expectations, he believes himself to be superior to the humbler Joe and Biddy. He makes such a pompous fool of himself that Trabb’s boy—that brilliant comic invention, at once naughty boy and honest philosopher—parodies his absurd airs and pretensions. His snobbery, however, costs him a dearer price than humiliation by an urchin. He falls in love with Estella, like himself a pretender to high social class, only to be rejected in favor of a worthless cad, Bentley Drummle. His fanciful dreams of social distinction are shattered forever when he learns the bitter truth about his benefactor, who is not the highborn Miss Havisham but the escaped convict Magwitch, the wretched stranger of his terror in the fog.

As Pip comes to understand the rotten foundations for his social position, he also learns terrible truths about his own weaknesses. Out of foolish pride, he betrays his most loyal friends, Joe and Biddy. In a sense, he even betrays Miss Havisham. He mistakes her insanity for mere eccentricity and allows her to act out her fantasies of romantic revenge. When he tries to confront her with the reality of her life, he is too late, for she expires in flames. He is almost too late to come to the service of his real benefactor, Magwitch. He is so disturbed with the realization of the convict’s sacrifice that he nearly flees from the old man when he is in danger. At best, he can repay Magwitch with gratitude, not love, and his sense of guilt grows from his understanding that he cannot ever repay his debt to a man he secretly loathes.

Pip’s final lesson is that, no matter how pure might be his motives, he is one of the instruments of social corruption. In a sense, he is the counterpart to the malcontent Dolge Orlick. Like Orlick, he was as a youth an apprentice at the forge, but he was fortunate in having moved upward into society, Orlick, consumed by hatred, fails in every enterprise. In chapter 53, a climactic scene of the novel, Orlick confronts his enemy and blames Pip for all of his failures. He even accuses Pip of responsibility for the death of Mrs. Joe. The charge is paranoiac and false: Orlick is the murderer. In his almost hallucinatory terror, however, Pip psychologically accepts Orlick’s reasoning. As a child, Pip hated his sister. If he is not the active instrument of her death, he nevertheless profits from it. Similarly, Pip profits from the hard-earned toil of Magwitch. Indeed, most of the success he enjoys, thanks to the astute protection of Mr. Jaggers, comes not as his due but for a price, the payment of corrupted money. Since he is the ignorant recipient of the fruits of corruption, his psychological guilt is all the greater.

Nevertheless, Pip, though chastened, is not destroyed by guilt. During the course of his apprenticeship to life, he learns valuable truths about himself and about his limitations. By the end of his career, when his apprenticeship is over and he is a responsible, mature being, he has cast off petty pride, snobbery, and the vexations of corrupted wealth. Although he loses his innocence forever, he can truly appreciate Herbert, Joe, and Biddy, all of whom retain their integrity. When he turns to Estella, also chastened by her wretched marriage to the sadistic Bentley, he has at least the hope of beginning a new life with her, one founded on an accurate understanding of himself and the dangers of the world.

The narrator of Great Expectations, Philip Pirrip or Pip, is one in a legion of orphans who inhabit the fictional world of Charles Dickens a standard sympathetic figure disadvantaged from childhood through no fault of his own. What little Pip knows of his parents is derived from their tombstones, and it is from these that Pip attempts to derive an image of them. Parenthood and above all, a search for paternity is plainly a prominent theme in the novel, and it is clearly interlaced with Pip's quest for his own identity.

Dickens presents three male figures who might serve as a surrogate male parent to Pip and who are roughly analogous to the heart, the soul, and the mind of fatherhood. Pip's brother-in-law, Joe, functions as a stepfather of sorts to the child Pip, and because he is a good-hearted, uncomplicated individual, Joe possesses the qualification of genuine concern for the boy. But Joe's efforts to shield the much younger Pip from the "tickler" of his domineering wife, Mrs. Joe, are pathetically ineffective, for the unschooled smith lacks the confidence required to serve as a self-assured father. At a fairly early juncture in the text, we learn from Pip that Joe is uncomfortable in the trappings of an adult social role, that, "nothing that he wore then, fitted him or seemed to belong to him; and everything that he wore then, grazed him" (p.23). Unlike Pip, Joe undergoes no character development whatsoever in the course of Great Expectations. He remains a child-like individual.

Then there is Abel Magwitch, the deep soul of Pip's quest for a father. Initially frightened by the fugitive in chains, it is only under a felt duress that Pip agrees to assist him by stealing food and a file. But when Pip voluntarily expresses an interest in his well-being, saying that he hopes that Magwitch enjoys the "vittles" that he has brought him, the felon responds in kind, saying "thankee, my boy, I do" (p.19). A bond develops between Magwitch and Pip. A few chapters into the text, Pip begins to refer to this desperate character as "my convict." Magwitch is an orphan himself and so he can identify with the parentless Pip, and it is, of course, Magwitch (not Miss Havisham) who is Pip's actual benefactor. But Magwitch remains outside the ken of normal society, and, worse, he harbors a desire to take revenge against Compeyson. By virtue of this baggage, he cannot become the father for whom Pip is searching.

Lastly, there is Mr. Jagger, the eminently skilled and taciturn attorney who administers Pip's affairs in London. In Jagger, Pip encounters a potential father figure who is fully able to provide him with the funds, the knowledge and a personal model for his transformation into a full-fledged gentleman. Jagger is the rational mind of Pip's prospective father. Yet that is all he is. Jagger has no personal feelings toward the youth or toward anyone else for that matter. After informing Pip that all of the necessary credit arrangements have been made on his behalf, Jagger abruptly terminates their conversation by remarking, "'Of course, you'll go wrong somehow, but that's no fault of mine'" (p.169). It is not Pip but the ruthless Bentley Drummle who Mr. Jagger is closest to in a paternal spirit. Ultimately, Pip fails in his quest to find a father and the fond relationship between the clerk Wemmick and his aged parent only underscore this failure.

Social and emotional isolation is a natural thematic correlate of Pip's orphan status. When we first see the boy Pip, he is alone in the graveyard and while he has some connection to Joe, the depth of their contact with each other is constrained by Joe's menial vocation and, above all, by Mrs. Joe's view of her younger brother as an irredeemable delinquent. Many of the other major characters in Great Expectations are socially or emotionally alienated. Mrs. Joe is devoid of any companions, Mr. Jagger is without peers, Estella is raised by Miss Havisham to reject all romantic overtures. As for Miss Havisham herself, she exists in complete separation from society (and from reality), cultivating a vindictive scheme to avenge her perpetual role as a jilted spinster.

Great Expectations is filled with irons, chains, and handcuffs which serve as external restraints, and, at the same time, as "self-forged" manacles. Characters are bound together by circumstance, but at the same time, they remain separated from each other. They are also bound by their prospects for the future, barred from realizing their dreams by their dismal situations in life. Indeed, Pip's life as a child is "dismal" (a descriptor that recurs throughout the novel), for his environment is raw...

(The entire section is 1934 words.)

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