Illustration of Pip visiting a graveyard

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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Chapters 16 and 17 Summary

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Chapter 16

Pip learns more about the assault upon his sister. Joe left her for the evening to smoke a pipe at the Three Jolly Bargemen. When he returned home, Mrs. Joe was on the floor bleeding, and a candle lighting the room had been snuffed out. Nothing was stolen from the house, but the criminal did leave one accessory behind: a filed leg iron.

Pip believes the iron belonged to the convict he helped as a child, but he is not convinced the convict committed this crime. He suspects Orlick or the stranger who possessed the file are the likeliest culprits. However, Orlick was in town for much of the day, and the only motive he might have against Mrs. Joe is the bad temper she directs against everyone. Meanwhile, the stranger's only motive could have been recovering the two bank notes he gave Pip, but Pip knows his sister would have been willing to give them back. So, he dismisses both these theories.

Pip feels responsible for his sister's trauma and considers confessing to Joe that he helped the convict. Nothing ever comes of this, because Pip decides the event is so far in the past and such a major part of his life that he "cannot tear it away." He decides he will only confess it if it can help in the capture of Mrs. Joe's attacker.

Detectives from London come into the village to solve the crime, but they are unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Mrs. Joe is now more placid, but she is unable to speak properly or remember things well. She communicates by writing on a slate, but her poor spelling and Joe's poor reading skills make communication between them difficult when Pip is not there to decipher her messages. Biddy is eventually brought in to act as an attendant to Mrs. Joe.

Mrs. Joe begins constantly writing an upper-case T on her slate, and no one is able to understand what she means by it. Pip initially thinks it is a request for something that starts with the letter T, such as toast, but then comes to assume it is meant to be a drawing of a hammer. He brings out all the hammers in the house, but Mrs. Joe refuses them all. When Pip brings in a crutch, since her writing resembles that as well, she also responds negatively.

Biddy eventually discovers that Mrs. Joe is specifically asking for Orlick. The T is meant to signify the hammer Orlick uses on the forge, since Mrs. Joe cannot spell Orlick's name. Pip initially expects Mrs. Joe to get angry at Orlick, but instead she strives to please him. After they learn this, Mrs. Joe asks for Orlick by drawing the hammer almost every day.

Chapter 17

Pip continues to visit Miss Havisham, but the visits are always the same, with Miss Sarah Pocket answering the door and Miss Havisham praising Estella's beauty before giving Pip a guinea and sending him on his way. Every time Pip visits, he becomes more bitter about his lowly place in the world. He spends the money Miss Havisham gives him on learning so he can improve himself.

At home, he finds himself attracted to Biddy, who grows prettier and more industrious as she gets older, even though Pip notes she is "common" compared to Estella. During an evening talk, he invites her to go walking on the marshes with him on Sunday. Leaving Mrs. Joe in the care of Joe, they do just that.

During their walk, Pip confesses to Biddy that he wants to be a gentleman because he loves Estella. Biddy says it is sad that he cannot be content with his life as it is and that Estella's snobbery does not make her much of a prize to be won, but Pip does not listen. Still, Biddy says she is glad she has Pip's confidence, and he is grateful for her friendship. As they continue their walk, he wonders why he should prefer the coldhearted Estella over the kindhearted Biddy.

When near the cemetery, the two encounter Orlick. Orlick insists on walking back home with them, much to Biddy's discomfort, since it appears Orlick is infatuated with her. This knowledge infuriates Pip, even though Biddy, still stinging from Pip's open confession that he prefers Estella to her, says it is nothing for Pip to concern himself with.

For a short period, Pip is content and even proud of his life at the forge and resolves to prefer Biddy to Estella. But these feelings come and go, and he is still haunted by Estella's disdain and the desire to be worthy of her.

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Chapters 14 and 15


Chapters 18 and 19