Great Expectations written in 1861 is about a young orphaned boy with dreams and great expectations. Pip sacrifices his dreams and expectations for peace of mind and for the nearest thing to a relative, Joe Gargary. This is a novel for the rich and the poor, the happy and the sad, those living with loving parents and those who are not. Pip is the central character in the novel, round whom events and other characters cluster. Great Expectations covers almost every aspect of the human condition. There are many lessons to be learnt from Charles Dickens’s book and a lot of the information provided is still relevant today and always will be. The novel is about dreams, snobbery, poverty, humility, cruelty, bravery, compassion, love, hate, grief, obsession, sacrifice and much more. Dickens tells the tale of a young and inquisitive boy being brought up ‘by hand’ (p.19) by his termagant sister who he is obliged to call Mrs Joe. All Pip’s family – apart from his sister – are dead. Pip has Mrs Joe as a ‘mother figure’ and Joe Gargary as his male role model. The kindly Joe is Pip’s friend and confidant.
One issue Dickens tackles in Great Expectations is the importance of friends and family. Pip becomes detached from and embarrassed by his family when following his dreams. He is ashamed of their status and lack of education and literacy. Joe has always been Pip’s friend and Pip – when he sees a chance to better himself – snubs him. As the novel progresses Pip becomes more and more ashamed of the way he is shunning Joe. When Joe decides to visit Pip in London, Pip tells us ‘If I could have kept him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money’ (p.192). After Joe leaves, Pip’s guilt gets the better of him and he states ‘I hurried out after him and looked for him in the neighbouring streets; but he was gone’ (p.198). Pip also shuns Biddy, a local teacher who has befriended him and educated him. Dickens shows how Biddy and Joe wait patiently for Pip’s return, never putting him under pressure to do so. Dickens’s argument is that, no matter how high one rises in the world, one cannot renounce one’s family.
Dickens tackles the issue of obsession in four ways in the novel. Pip falls hopelessly in love with Estella – a cold-hearted young girl he can’t have and who appears to loath him. He believes that Miss Havisham has ‘as good as adopted me [Pip]’ (p.203) and that it was Miss Havisham’s intention to ‘bring us [Pip and Estella] together’ (p.203). Miss Havisham is another obsessed character in the novel. She is obsessed with her past and the lover that jilted her on her wedding day. For Miss Havisham time has stopped and she has only Estella (her adopted daughter). Estella is brought up and ‘trained’ to destroy and break men’s hearts and to wreak revenge on them for the pain one man caused her. Miss Havisham ‘…stole her [Estella’s] heart away and put ice in its place’ (p.342). A third obsession Dickens deals with, is that of Orlick. He is obsessed with destroying Pip and lures him into a trap, telling him ‘I’m a-going to have your life!’ (p.363). This obsession is also about love. Orlick believes that Pip is responsible for giving ‘Old Orlick a bad name to her [Biddy]’ (p.363). Magwitch’s obsession with Pip and his development is the fourth.
In the cases of Pip and Miss Havisham, Dickens shows us that obsession is a prison. Pip’s only wish is to win Estella. He assumes Miss Havisham is his benefactor and that she has chosen him for Estella. He cares not for a career and has no ambitions in that direction. He has no life outside Estella. Miss Havisham’s prison is a more extreme obsession. She does not allow daylight into her house and – years after being deserted – wears only her wedding dress. She lives in isolation from a world she cannot forgive, until just before her death. Her house is used as a metaphor and symbolises her state of mind. Upon her death, Miss Havisham’s house is torn down
Pip has great expectations and believes they will bring him Estella and ultimate happiness. These dreams are only realised when Pip gives up his expectations in exchange for his happiness and peace of mind. Magwitch - a loveable rogue – dreams of making Pip his gentleman. Magwitch works hard and goes without luxuries in order to provide for Pip. When Pip discovers that Magwitch is his benefactor his dreams are shattered. Pip begins to realise how much Magwitch cares for him and how grateful he is for Pip’s help out on the moors. Pip develops a love for Magwitch and helps him all he can, including being with him when he dies in prison: ‘I pressed his hand in silence, for I could not forget that I had once meant to desert him’ (p.392). The once-feared Magwitch found a place in Pip’s heart in the end.
Dickens shows us that even a criminal like Magwitch has morals and standards. The ‘human’ Magwitch – once thought of by Pip as ‘A fearful man, all in coarse gray, with a great iron on is leg’, lives for Pip. He cares only about his well-being and prosperity. He works hard at being a ‘sheep farmer, stock-breeder, other trades besides’ (p.274), and all to help Pip. Magwitch tells Pip,
Yes, Pip, dear boy, I’ve made a gentleman on you! It’s me wot has done it! I swore that time, sure as ever I earned a guinea, that guinea should go to you (p.276).
Magwitch is respectful towards Pip and asks for no gratitude or help, though Pip makes helping him a full-time job. Dickens shows us that Magwitch has changed from the hardened criminal he was to a compassionate, responsible and likeable man.
Dickens demonstrates that money isn’t everything and that it does not affect our happiness. Pip leaves a relatively peaceful home and life for the unknown, hoping to make his fortune, but it ends up making him unhappy. Miss Havisham - for all her money - exists in a world where time has stopped. Magwitch is able to make a small fortune that he is only happy passing on to Pip. Biddy and Joe live a humble life in a small town and have found happiness together. Estella has everything, but she has nothing. She lives as a shadow of Miss Havisham and has an undeveloped personality and no freedom.
Dickens investigates many dilemmas and even resolves them in Great Expectations; events come to a tidy conclusion. Miss Havisham realises the error of her ways and despairingly states ‘What have I done! What have I done!’ (p.341). Pip returns to his home town at peace with himself. Joe finally finds peace and marries Biddy after Mrs Joe dies. Magwitch gives Pip the opportunity he wants – this may be his way of making up for his criminal past. Estella, now free from Miss Havisham’s clutches, finally sees Pip for who he is and changes her ways. Dickens shows us that time heals our pains, that time gives us opportunities to repent, forgive, and that if we are willing, time brings us peace of mind.
In conclusion, in Great Expectations Dickens demonstrates how lives can be affected by small events. In the case of Pip, a chance meeting with an escaped convict and an old eccentric lady wishing for a playmate for her adopted child, changed his life forever. Dickens shows us how we can follow our ambitions, how they can be successful (as in the case of Magwitch), and how they can fail (for Pip and Miss Havisham). He also shows us that we can’t rule anybody else’s life. Estella finally found her own way as did Pip once he was out of the clutches of his sister. Quite what Dickens is trying to demonstrate by giving Biddy and Joe a son called ‘Pip’ (p.409) is hard to imagine. Perhaps he is trying to show us that life goes on, that we are given second chances or perhaps that we receive back what we have lost. Joe tells Pip ‘…we hoped he might grow a little bit like you, and we think he do’ (p.409).
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1861, rpt: London, Collins, 1959).
By Penelope Page
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