How are the themes of love and hate presented in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations?

1 Answer | Add Yours

kipling2448's profile pic

kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

“Hate” might be too strong of a word to use in the context of personalities and relationships in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.  “Love isn’t a problem; there’s plenty of that, whether it be the open affection between Pip and Joe, or the platonic, respectful relationship between Pip and Herbert Pocket, or, more discreetly – much more discreetly – the love the escaped convict Abel Magwitch quickly develops for the young boy who displays decency and kindness towards him in the story’s opening pages.  “Hate,” however, manifests itself in a slightly more complicated vein.  Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe Gargary, is a spiteful, mean person who treats both her husband, the kindly, harmless Joe, and her brother like vermin, as in the following passage in which Pip explains that he was brought up, in the common vernacular, “by hand”:

“Having at that time to find out for myself what the expression meant, and knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand, and to be much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me, I supposed that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand.”

And, in the following passage, Pip describes the physical abuse he regularly endures at the hand of his much older sister in a routine display of contempt for both brother and husband:

“She concluded by throwing me - I often served as a connubial missile - at Joe, who, glad to get hold of me on any terms, passed me on into the chimney and quietly fenced me up there with his great leg.”

The hatred that emanates from “Mrs. Joe,” as Pip refers to her, sets the stage for a broader theme of gender-based hostility that will continue to manifest itself during Pip’s young life.  Summoned to Satis House for presentation before Miss Havisham, Pip encounters first Estella, an apparent ward of the elderly and, as will be seen, eminently bitter homeowner:

“She seemed much older than I, of course, being a girl, and beautiful and self-possessed; and she was as scornful of me as if she had been one-andtwenty, and a queen.”

Estella becomes the object of Pip’s desire, but her continuous displays of contempt for the male of the species, bred into her by Miss Havisham, remains one of the novel’s enduring examples of what could, conceivably, be categorized as “hate.”  It is Miss Havisham, however, who personifies bitterness and enmity towards males.  In Chapter Eight, Pip arrives at Satis House and is initially greeted by the openly disdainful Estella.  No sooner has Pip been escorted to the banquet hall inside of which remains the ancient detritus of a wedding never held, including the jilted bride, is the boy introduced to the angry personification of hatred:

“‘Do you know what I touch here?’ she said, laying her hands, one upon the other, on her left side.

‘Yes, ma’am.’ (It made me think of the young man.)

‘What do I touch?’

‘Your heart.’

Broken!’ She uttered the word with an eager look, and with strong emphasis, and with a weird smile that had a kind of boast in it.”

That Miss Havisham is an embittered, scornful figure is further reinforced in a momentary aside.  Instructing Estella to play cards with Pip, the young woman suggests that such an act with a “common laboring-boy” would beneath her, which, in turn, prompts the old woman to say, “Well? You can break his heart.”  Estella, as will be described by Herbert Pocket in Chapter 22 is “hard and haughty and capricious to the last degree, and has been brought up by Miss Havisham to wreak revenge on all the male sex.”

It is curious that the most prominent examples of hate in Great Expectations emanate from the novel’s female characters, all of whom are strong-willed and vindictive towards men.  As noted, however, examples of love provide the theme that runs through Dickens’ story, beginning with the obviously affectionate relationship between Pip and his Uncle Joe, a blacksmith.  Joe is described early in Chapter Two as follows:

“He was a mild, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easy-going, foolish, dear fellow - a sort of Hercules in strength, and also in weakness.”

Joe is, sadly, no match for Pip’s sister and silently suffers her constant displays of indignation and contempt.  Towards Pip, however, Joe is openly friendly and protective – as protective as a sheep can be, as evident in the following passage in which Joe has informed Pip that Mrs. Joe is due to return home imminently:

“‘Has she been gone long, Joe?’ I always treated him as a larger species of child, and as no more than my equal.

‘Well,’ said Joe, glancing up at the Dutch clock, ‘she’s been on the Ram-page, this last spell, about five minutes, Pip. She’s a- coming! Get behind the door, old chap, and have the jack-towel betwixt you.’”

Another example of a loving relationship, as noted, is that which develops between Pip and Herbert Pocket, whose initial appearance is marked by violence and jealously, as the latter views the former as a rival for Estella’s hand.  A “pale young gentleman with red eyelids and light hair” whom Pip encounters in the garden of Miss Havisham’s estate, Pip is instantly confronted with an invitation to fight.  This brief encounter, however, will only serve to set the stage for a grown Pip’s later reacquaintance with the man who will become his best friend.  As Pip and Herbert get reacquainted, Pip is able to observe this one-time adversary through a different and considerably more hospitable lens:

“Herbert Pocket had a frank and easy way with him that was very taking. I had never seen any one then, and I have never seen any one since, who more strongly expressed to me, in every look and tone, a natural incapacity to do anything secret and mean. There was something wonderfully hopeful about his general air . . .”

The love displayed among characters in Great Expectations, including the unseen but definitely felt love of Abel Magwitch for Pip, runs deep, and serves to counterbalance the feminine disdain for males that characterizes inter-gender relations. 

Sources:

We’ve answered 318,926 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question