Great Expectations Themes

Themes

Alienation and Loneliness
Beneath the Dickens' major theme of a great respect for wealth is an analysis of the fate of the outsider. At least four known orphans—Mrs. Joe, Magwitch, Estella, and Pip himself—have suffered loneliness, but each character reacts differently. Pip begins his story as a child standing in a gloomy cemetery at the grave site of his family, so pitifully alone that he can do no more than imagine his mother as the "wife of the above," which he can only interpret as directions to his mother's current address in heaven. Pip himself is often threatened with death by his sister and again by his convict, Magwitch. Even Orlick, the town lout, tries to kill an adult Pip. Joe Gargery is Pip's only friend on the marshes, and even after Pip is introduced to city life friends are few compared to the number of those who are coldly uncaring or dangerous. On the other hand, Estella's odd childhood, in the wrinkled hands of an old woman with a twisted mind, teaches her to reject all affection or friendships. Estella plays with Pip like a cat toys with a mouse, certainly not like an equal or playmate, for that is not Miss Havisham's intention. Likewise, as Magwitch confesses to Pip, his childhood on the streets of London was such a nightmare that he cannot even remember how he once learned his own name, and it is no wonder he has had to turn to a life of crime. Mrs. Joe is another character who is antisocial. She lives on the marshes among rough, working class men and has no friends but Joe and no female acquaintances whatever. Pip's guardian and Joe's wife, she is so rude, antagonistic, and violent that she drives away those who would otherwise love her. As Pip's sister, Mrs. Joe shares the same loss of their family, but her means of coping with loneliness is quite different from Pip's attempts to get along with people and to stay out of trouble. Indeed, Mrs. Joe causes most of the problems in her life and everyone else's at the forge. Aside from these obvious loners, each struggling to find his or her place in the world, Jaggers also stands alone, an upholder of the law but to an inhuman degree. He never lets down his guard, as though he were likely to be sued if he relaxed, misspoke, or reacted at all with emotion. No matter how openly Pip offers friendship, Jaggers maintains a distant attitude and instead admires the wealthy but evil Bentley Drummle for knowing what he wants and getting it. While Pip has the greatest number of friends of these alienated characters, even he is strangely hesitant to leave London to rejoin Joe and Biddy or to accept Herbert Pocket's offer of a position in his firm. Only when Pip has exhausted his expectations and has no other direction to turn does he realize that he is quite lucky to have two good friends who love him for himself and can forget about his social status. By doing this, Pip is the one character who works his way out of alienation and loneliness into a socially active life that is enriched by love shared with friends. Although this hard-earned knowledge was not one of his original "expectations," Pip finds that this is far greater wealth than any benefactor's inheritance.

Identity: Search for Self
As a child, Pip is small for his age and quite weak, physically and temperamentally. An orphan living with his sister in near poverty, he dreams of great wealth. Meanwhile, finding ways to avoid abuse from his sister becomes his daily lesson. He submits to the insults of Mrs. Joe, Uncle Pumblechook, Mr. Wopsle, Estella and Miss Havisham's relatives. Pip is terrified of Miss Havisham when she first orders him to play a game as she watches him and he realizes that he is too miserable to play at anything. Later, he is anxious and delighted to escape that life and go to the city where he can establish a new identity as a gentleman in his own right. Indeed, from his first day in London he is addressed as "Mr. Pip" and treated well. He finds, however, that he has little to back up that esteem except money that he has not earned and only squanders on expensive clothes, decorations for his apartment, and a servant boy he calls "The Avenger." What is Pip avenging but the poverty to which he was born? Yet when Joe comes to London, Pip is ashamed of him, embarrassed that Joe now calls him "Sir" yet distressed by Joe's lowbrow speech and country clothes. Pip is likewise mortified by Magwitch. Even after learning that the convict is responsible for Pip's rise in status and his great allowance, Pip does not want to be seen with the old man because Magwitch does not fit into Pip's new identity. That Magwitch has risked his life to come back to England to see Pip does not influence Pip's decision to get rid of Magwitch as soon as possible. Pip frequently returns to the village to visit Miss Havisham and Estella, and to enjoy a gentleman's treatment from the shopkeeper Trabb and Trabb's boy who once sneered at Pip. However, Pip neither returns to the humble forge to visit Joe nor sends any message to him. In time, Pip is ashamed of that and apologizes to both Magwitch and Joe. Also, he forgives Miss Havisham for her early cruelty with a kiss on her deathbed. But this cannot happen until he has endured greater suffering and pangs of conscience than he ever knew as a weakling boy on the marsh. Miss Havisham also rises above her reputation as a tight-fisted and heartless old woman by granting Pip's request for money to set up Herbert Pocket in a business, and by begging Pip's forgiveness before she dies. Once cruel, she ends by suffering from the realization that she has wasted her life on hatred and vengeance, yet it is too late for her to enjoy her change of heart. Pip adds this to his lessons on gaining respect and peace in his own life. Another good model comes from Wemmick, who adores his old father and shares care of the Aged Parent with Pip on at least one occasion when, ironically, Pip is avoiding contact with Magwitch. Nevertheless, Pip attends Magwitch in his last days as tenderly as Wemmick tends his own father and as lovingly as Joe nurses Pip back from death. When Pip finally returns to the marsh to propose marriage to Biddy and to thank Joe, he finds them already married. Pip asks Joe's forgiveness before he joins Herbert Pocket, Jr. to earn his way in the world and to repay Joe for covering some of his bills. Pip finally takes charge of his future and enjoys the love of his family and friends, realizing that they are his most precious wealth. Having been first a pauper, then a man of the leisure class, and finally a middle-class worker, Pip is finally certain of his place in the world by knowing true contentment and self-worth.

Victim and Victimization
In the endless struggle for power, the winners are the ruthless, thinks Jaggers. He has yet to learn that such power is not equal to the strength of being true to one's convictions, as Pip learns. Even though Jaggers deals with victims and victimizers daily, he is less informed than Pip is as a victim himself. Mrs. Joe Gargery prides herself on having brought up Pip "by hand," meaning with no help but also with the idea that sparing the rod spoils the child. Yet Pip has not been spared numerous encounters with "The Tickler," his sister's cane. But if one who lives by the cane dies by it, so does Mrs. Joe suffer a violent beating before her death. Similarly, other victimizers become victims before their final chance to repent Magwitch, once a thug on the streets of London, is stalked by his former accomplice. While his childhood in the underworld taught him to eat or be eaten, Magwitch risks all to return to England so that he can see for himself Pip's success and to settle his score with the villainous Compeyson. Also, Molly is "tamed" by Jaggers. A gypsy by birth, a criminal by necessity, and now bound to his household, she neither roams nor breaks the law anymore. But she is a powerless victim who never learns the fate of her daughter except that the child has been adopted into a wealthy household where she will receive the food and shelter Molly cannot provide. While Pip worries that Drummle will harm Estella, it is she who must endure a loveless marriage to outlive her cruel husband. A victim of Miss Havisham's icy character instead of enjoying the love of a mother, Estella is first the abused and then the abuser of both Pip and Miss Havisham. She then becomes the abused wife of the rotten Drummle. Yet, finally, at least in the original ending, Estella is a potentially better mother to her daughter than either her own mother or Miss Havisham ever were to her. Even in the revised ending, she breaks the abuse cycle by reconciling with Pip as his equal. And a lesser character, Trabb's boy, insults Pip and his first good suit of clothes. It is the only way that this poor fellow has of getting back at someone who has had better luck than he has had, for Trabb's boy was humiliated when his employer ordered him to be polite to the new young master Pip. In this way, Trabb's boy is both the victim of class distinction in his society and a victimizer of the upper class in the only way he can be. Through his unobserved and therefore unpunishable rudeness to Pip, he defends himself and strikes a blow at a social class that he has no hope of ever joining. Pip himself must realize that he has victimized people by treating them as lesser creatures. He realizes that he broke Joe's heart when he left the forge and again when he stayed out of contact for eleven years. He hurts Biddy by telling her that he could never love her, even though he returns intending to ask her to marry him after he has lost all of his money. Finding her already married to Joe is Pip's final lesson that power is not related to happiness and that one can only be a victim by permitting it. Trabb's...

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