In Great Expectations, we are introduced to two different ideas of what makes a gentleman. How does Dickens exploit the ambiguity of term gentleman to make this point?
Throughout this classic novel, one of the governing themes is the difference between gentlemen and gentle men, or, to put it in another way, men who in society's eyes are good or well thought of because of their class and status, and men who are shown to be truly good, in spite of their origins, through their actions. Of course, Pip is a classic example of a character who very quickly comes to associate being a "gentleman" with class, wealth and status, and his first trip to Satis House leaves him frustrated with his humble origins. Note how in this quote he wishes he could have been brought up as a gentleman:
I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too.
Pip comes to obsess over being a gentleman, and declares to Biddy that this is his goal in life, as he feels that this is the only way he can gain Estella. However, it is important to recognise that Dickens deliberately complicates the understanding of the term "gentleman" in both Pip's mind and the reader's mind. For example, Compeyson is very clearly a "gentleman" because of his birth, and yet he is shown to be one of the worst criminals in the entire novel. Equally, Joe, although he is not a "gentleman" by birth, shows himself to be a true "gentle man" through his actions and dignity, particularly in the way that he acts and responds to Pip's arrogance and haughty nature. The point that Dickens makes is that just because you are considered a "gentleman" does not mean you are actually a good person, and this is a lesson that Pip has to learn the hard way through the experiences he goes through. He eventually manages to become a true "gentleman" by realising how arrogant and terrible he has been and valuing the friendship of Joe and Biddy.