How does compassion lead to growth in the characters in the novel Great Expectations by Charles Dickens?

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litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are some examples of characters who initially demonstrate no compassion and very low levels of personal morals, but in time they come to understand the error of their ways.  Life experiences sometimes teach a person to look at the world differently.  This is what happened to Pip, Estella, and, to a lesser extent, Miss Havisham.

Pip showed the most personal growth in the novel.  He went from being completely self-centered and focused on a narrow conception of himself as a gentleman to caring about Magwitch, Herbert, and Joe.  Pip became a much more generous and worthwhile person by the end of the novel.  This personal growth was a direct result of learning compassion.

When Pip was younger, all he thought about was himself.  He took the money from his "great expectations" without another thought, so he could become a gentleman and pursue Estella.  Learning that the money came from Magwitch instead of Miss Havisham was a big blow to his ego, but Magwitch won his heart with his unassuming and gentle nature and his own generosity.  

For now my repugnance to him had all melted away, and in the hunted wounded shackled creature who held my hand in his, I only saw a man who had meant to be my benefactor, and who had felt affectionately, gratefully, and generously, towards me with great constancy through a series of years. (Ch. 54) 

At the end of the novel, Pip is different.  This Pip arranges for Miss Havisham to pay for Herbert’s partnership, decides to ask Biddy to marry him (although it turns out she is in love with Joe), and stops pining for Estella.  Pip changes his lifestyle completely, and becomes a more mellow and mild-mannered man who focuses on the people he cares about rather than money or prestige. 

Estella’s journey is different than Pip’s but no less complex.  Hers was mostly about escaping her upbringing.  For Estella, coldness was a way of life and a defense mechanism.  She told Pip that she had no heart.  

“Oh! I have a heart to be stabbed in or shot in, I have no doubt,” said Estella, “and, of course, if it ceased to beat I should cease to be. But you know what I mean. I have no softness there, no—sympathy—sentiment—nonsense.” (Ch. 29) 

This was actually a kindness for him, in an ironic way.  She was trying to prevent him from chasing after her because she could not love him if she had no heart.  She wanted him to understand that she could not love him the way he wanted her to. It was a big deal for her to stand up to Miss Havisham and explain that she had decided to take herself off the market by marrying Drummle. 

It is easy to see Miss Havisham as a villain, but she is no cartoon character.  We learn her story from Herbert, Jaggers and Magwitch in pieces.  It is a very sad story of isolation and a jilted love affair.  It does not excuse the way she treated Pip and Estella, but it provides an explanation or motivation.  She agrees to pay for Herbert's partnership when Pip asks for it, and she asks him to forgive her.

“Yes, yes, I know it. But, Pip—my Dear!” There was an earnest womanly compassion for me in her new affection. “My dear! Believe this: when she first came to me, I meant to save her from misery like my own. At first I meant no more.” (Ch. 49)

Miss Havisham only changes at the very end, but there is a subtle change in her when she realizes that she has lost Estella.  Both Pip and Estella are miserable and will remain so.  It is her doing, but she gets no pleasure from it.  She feels compassion from it, and that is a new feeling for her.  She tries to make amends, small that they are, in helping Pip.

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Great Expectations

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