Great Expectations (1861)



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London as prison

In London, neither wealth nor gentility brings happiness. Pip, the apprentice gentleman constantly bemoans his anxiety, his feelings of insecurity, and multiple allusions to overwhelming chronic unease, to weariness, drown his enthusiasm (chapter 34). Wealth, in effect, eludes his control: the more he spends, the deeper he goes into debt to satisfy new needs, which were just as futile as his old ones. His unusual path to gentility has the opposite effect to what he expected: infinite opportunities become available, certainly, but will power, in proportion, fades and paralyses the soul. In the crowded metropolis, Pip grows disenchanted, disillusioned, and lonely. Alienated from his native Kent, he has lost the support provided by the village blacksmith. In London, he is powerless to join a community, not the Pocket family, much less Jaggers’s circle. London has become Pip’s prison and, like the convicts of his youth, he is bound in chains: “no Satis House can be built merely with money”.



Gentility

The idea of “good breeding” and what makes for a “gentleman” other than money. in other words “gentility”, is a central theme of Great Expectations. The convict Magwitch covets it by proxy through Pip; Mrs Pocket dreams of acquiring it; it is also found in Pumblechook’s sycophancy; it is even seen in Joe, when he stammers between “Pip” and “Sir” during his visit to London, and when Biddy’s letters to Pip suddenly become reverent.

There are other characters who are associated with the idea of gentility like, for example, Miss Havisham’s seducer, Compeyson, the scarred-face convict. While Compeyson is corrupt, even Magwitch does not forget he is a gentleman. This also includes Estella, who ignores the fact that she is the daughter of Magwitch and another criminal.

There are a couple of ways by which someone can acquire gentility, one being a title, another family ties to the upper middle class. Mrs Pocket bases every aspiration on the fact that her grandfather failed to be knighted, while Pip hopes that Miss Havisham will eventually adopt him, as adoption, as evidenced by Estella, who behaves like a born and bred little lady, is acceptable. But even more important, though not sufficient, are wealth and education. Pip knows that and endorses it, as he hears from Jaggers through Matthew Pocket: “I was not designed for any profession, and I should be well enough educated for my destiny if I could hold my own with the average of young men in prosperous circumstances”. But neither the educated Matthew Pocket, nor Jaggers, who has earned his status solely through his intellect, can aspire to gentility. Bentley Drummle, however, embodies the social ideal, so that Estella marries him without hesitation.



Moral regeneration

Another theme of Great Expectations is that Pip can undergo “moral regeneration.” In Chapter 39, the novel’s turning point, Magwitch visits Pip to see the gentleman he has made, and once the convict has hidden in Herbert Pocket’s room, Pip realises his situation:

For an hour or more, I remained too stunned to think; and it was not until I began to think, that I began fully to know how wrecked I was, and how the ship in which I had sailed was gone to pieces.

Miss Havisham’s intentions towards me, all a mere dream; Estella not designed for me ... But, sharpest and deepest pain of all – it was for the convict, guilty of I knew not what crimes, and liable to be taken out of those rooms where I sat thinking, and hanged at the Old Bailey door, that I had deserted Joe. To cope with his situation and his learning that he now needs Magwitch, a hunted, injured man who traded his life for Pip’s. Pip can only rely on the power of love for Estella. Pip now goes through a number of different stages each of which, is accompanied by successive realisations about the vanity of the prior certainties.

Pip’s problem is more psychological and moral than social. Pip’s climbing of the social ladder upon gaining wealth is followed by a corresponding degradation of his integrity. Thus after his first visit in Miss Havisham, the innocent young boy from the marshes, suddenly turns into a liar to dazzle his sister, Mrs Joe, and his Uncle Pumblechook with the tales of a carriage and veal chops. More disturbing is his fascination with Satis House –where he is despised and even slapped, beset by ghostly visions, rejected by the Pockets– and the gradual growth of the mirage of London. The allure of wealth overpowers loyalty and gratitude, even conscience itself. This is evidenced by the urge to buy Joe’s return, in Chapter 27, Pip’s haughty glance as Joe deciphers the alphabet, not to mention the condescending contempt he confesses to Biddy, copying Estella’s behaviour toward him.

Pip represents, as do those he mimics, the bankruptcy of the “idea of the gentleman”, and becomes the sole beneficiary of vulgarity, inversely proportional to his mounting gentility. In Chapter 30, Dickens parodies the new disease that is corroding Pip’s moral values through the character “Trabb’s boy”, who is the only one not to be fooled. The boy parades through the main street of the village with boyish antics and contortions meant to satirically imitate Pip. The gross, comic caricature openly exposes the hypocrisy of this new gentleman in a frock coat and top hat. Trabb’s boy reveals that appearance has taken precedence over being, protocol on feelings, decorum on authenticity; labels reign to the point of absurdity, and human solidarity is no longer the order of the day.

Estella and Miss Havisham represent rich people who enjoy a materially easier life but cannot cope with a tougher reality. Miss Havisham, like a melodramatic heroine, withdrew from life at the first sign of hardship. Estella, excessively spoiled and pampered, sorely lacks judgement and falls prey to the first gentleman who approaches her, though he is the worst. Estella’s marriage to such a brute demonstrates the failure of her education. Estella is used to dominating but becomes a victim to her own vice, brought to her level by a man born, in her image.

Dickens uses imagery to reinforce his ideas and London, the paradise of the rich and of the ideal of the gentleman, has mounds of filth, it is crooked, decrepit, and greasy, a dark desert of bricks, soot, rain, and fog. The surviving vegetation is stunted, and confined to fenced-off paths, without air or light. Barnard’s Inn, where Pip lodges, offers mediocre food and service while the rooms, despite the furnishing provided, as Suhamy states, “for the money”, is most uncomfortable, a far cry from Joe’s large kitchen, radiating hearth, and his well-stocked pantry.

Likewise, such a world, dominated by the lure of money and social prejudice, also leads to the warping of people and morals, to family discord and war between man and woman.[N 7] In contrast to London’s corruption stands Joe, despite his intellectual and social limitations, in whom the values of the heart prevail and who has natural wisdom.[135]

Pip’s conscience

Another important theme is Pip’s sense of guilt, which he has felt from an early age. After the encounter with the convict Magwitch, Pip is afraid that someone will find out about his crime and arrest him. The theme of guilt comes into even greater effect when Pip discovers that his benefactor is a convict. Pip has an internal struggle with his conscience throughout Great Expectations, hence the long and painful process of redemption that he undergoes.

Pip’s moral regeneration is a true pilgrimage punctuated by suffering. Like Christian in Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Pip makes his way up to light through a maze of horrors that afflict his body as well as his mind. This includes the burns he suffers from saving Miss Havisham from the fire; the illness that requires months of recovery; the threat of a violent death at Orlick’s hands; debt, and worse, the obligation of having to repay them; hard work, which he recognises as the only worthy source of income, hence his return to Joe’s forge. Even more important, is his accepting of Magwitch, a coarse outcast of society.

Dickens makes use of symbolism, in chapter 53, to emphasise Pip’s moral regeneration. As he prepares to go down the Thames to rescue the convict, a veil lifted from the river and Pip’s spirit. Symbolically the fog which enveloped the marshes as Pip left for London has finally lifted, and he feels ready to become a man.

As I looked along the clustered roofs, with Church towers and spires shooting into the unusually clear air, the sun rose up, and a veil seemed to be drawn from the river, and millions of sparkles burst out upon its waters. From me too, a veil seemed to be drawn, and I felt strong and well.

Pip is redeemed by love, that, for Dickens as for generations of Christian moralists, is only acquired through sacrifice. Pip’s reluctance completely disappears and he embraces Magwitch. After this, Pip’s loyalty remains foolproof, during imprisonment, trial, and death of the convict. He grows selfless and his “expectations” are confiscated by the Crown. Moments before Magwitch’s death, Pip reveals that Estella, Magwitch’s daughter, is alive, “a lady and very beautiful. And I love her”. Here the greatest sacrifice: the recognition that he owes everything, even Estella, to Magwitch; his new debt becomes his greatest freedom.



Pip returns to the forge, his previous state and to meaningful work. The philosophy expressed here by Dickens that of a person happy with their contribution to the welfare of society, is in line with Thomas Carlyle’s theories and his condemnation, in Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850), the system of social classes flourishing in idleness, much like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels did. Dickens’ hero is neither an aristocrat nor a capitalist but a working-class boy.

In Great Expectations, the true values are childhood, youth, and heart. The heroes of the story are the young Pip, a true visionary, and still developing person, open, sensible, who is persecuted by soulless adults. Then the adolescent Pip and Herbert, imperfect but free, intact, playful, endowed with fantasy in a boring and frivolous world. Magwitch is also a positive figure, a man of heart, victim of false appearances and of social images, formidable and humble, bestial but pure, a vagabond of God, despised by men. There is also Pip’s affectionate friend Joe, the enemy of the lie. Finally, there are women like Biddy.

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