To what extent do you agree with Pip that sorrow, unworthiness, and penitence can be 'vanities' in Great Expectations?
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"Vanity" is also defined as effort that lacks worth or has fruitless results. In a very real sense, feelings of "sorrow, unworthiness, and penitence" are of little or no worth and represent fruitless effort. This may be more likely to be the intended meaning of "vanities" since, in Dickens' day, Christian church doctrine was much more widely know as church attendance was much more widely practiced and children being schooled in their catechism was much more common. A favorite sermon topic was (and still is) Ecclesiastes in which the writer (commonly thought to be Solomon) examines all avenues of activity and pronounces them all to be "vanities": lacking worth and representing fruitless effort.
In this light, unmitigated sorrow, like Miss Havisham's, feelings of unworthiness, and attempts at penitence (feeling or expressing remorse for one's wrongful deeds), by themselves, seem to fall into a case by case scenario. In some cases, sorrow is valuable as it helps adjust to loss or failure. Feelings of worthlessness seem always counterproductive unless such feelings prompt remedial activity, like enrollment in an educational course. Penitence, expression of remorse, has a decided value when one has done wrong and expression of remorse is truly needful.
When applied to Pip, it is true that his feelings of sorrow, unworthiness, and penitence are only vanities, only fruitless effort and without worth. This is because Pip feels these sensations toward being born--his sister continually reminded him of what a great cosmic mistake that was!--toward being frightened in childhood into stealing food for the starving convict. Feeling sorrowful, unworthy and penitent about and as a result of these things is vanity: it is worthless and fruitless because there is no foundation in reality for his feelings.
Throughout the novel, Pip feels the leg iron of guilt riveted to him just as the iron was riveted to the leg of the gray convict. As a child, his guilt over having stolen the food for the convict is exaggerated. Interestingly, one critic writes that Pip's guilt is congenital since he is regarded by his sister as "criminally stupid" in having been born and having become a burden to her. Moreover, he is treated as a delinquent by Mrs. Joe and Uncle Pumblechook throughout his youth. Even Estella berates him as though he is guilty, guilty of being a male--the enemy of Miss Havisham, her mentor.
Thus, Pip develops a penitential character with a guilt that becomes more a vanity that a true emotion. When he takes on the vain aspirations of becoming a gentleman, Pip is ashamed of having Joe visit; then, he is remorseful for having treated Joe in such a manner and guiltily runs out to find him and apologize. Time and time again, he has the intentions of visiting Joe at the forge, but in his vanity he finds an excuse to stay at the Blue Boar's Inn instead. Afterwards, he chides himself as his guilty conscience disturbs him. But, his sorrow is but a vanity as he has no intentions really of rectifying his prodigal behavior. With Estella he becomes subservient and unworthy because of his fawning love for her--a vanity--even though she has even told him that she cannot love him. Clearly, these emotions of Pip are hollow and worthless. In other words, his feelings are vanities, in the denotation of vanity as something that lacks real value; hollowness, or worthlessness.
I largely agree with the excellent answer provided above in #2. The qualities you have listed above in your question can indeed be vanities, and nowhere is this more aptly shown than in the character of Miss Havisham, who has deliberately courted and embraced sorrow for her entire life since she was jilted at the altar. The extent to which this has become a vanity for her is clear when we consider how this inspired her to cut herself off from life and try and live in some kind of state of suspended animation where she refused to admit or acknowledge the passing of time.
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To get you started, I would say that in the context of Great Expectations, I somewhat agree with Pip.
A vanity is an excessive pride in an ability, appearance, or quality. Although Pip's quest to become a gentleman never included the valuing of sorrow, unworthiness, or penitence, for other characters this was their case.
For example, Magwitch relished in his unworthiness. He was determined to make something of himself even if he couldn't do it through himself, that is why he pursued Pip. After being worn down and cheated by Compeyson Magwitch began to embrace the idea that he was a bad man because at the very least, it was an identity.
Joe's character found great identity in being sorrowful, unworthy, and often pentitent. Being treated terribly by Mrs. Joe, Joe himself knew nothing else to have much pride in. He seemed put off by Pip finding a way out when he should have been entirely happy for Pip. Joe has to somewhat fake his happiness.
I also believe that these were vanities indicative of the era that Dickens wrote about. Because there was so little to be happy about in the Victorian era, many did find great identity in these unhappy ideals.
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