Great Expectations: Overview

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1934

The narrator of Great Expectations, Philip Pirrip or Pip, is one in a legion of orphans who inhabit the fictional world of Charles Dickens a standard sympathetic figure disadvantaged from childhood through no fault of his own. What little Pip knows of his parents is derived from their tombstones, and it is from these that Pip attempts to derive an image of them. Parenthood and above all, a search for paternity is plainly a prominent theme in the novel, and it is clearly interlaced with Pip's quest for his own identity.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Great Expectations Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Dickens presents three male figures who might serve as a surrogate male parent to Pip and who are roughly analogous to the heart, the soul, and the mind of fatherhood. Pip's brother-in-law, Joe, functions as a stepfather of sorts to the child Pip, and because he is a good-hearted, uncomplicated individual, Joe possesses the qualification of genuine concern for the boy. But Joe's efforts to shield the much younger Pip from the "tickler" of his domineering wife, Mrs. Joe, are pathetically ineffective, for the unschooled smith lacks the confidence required to serve as a self-assured father. At a fairly early juncture in the text, we learn from Pip that Joe is uncomfortable in the trappings of an adult social role, that, "nothing that he wore then, fitted him or seemed to belong to him; and everything that he wore then, grazed him" (p.23). Unlike Pip, Joe undergoes no character development whatsoever in the course of Great Expectations. He remains a child-like individual.

Then there is Abel Magwitch, the deep soul of Pip's quest for a father. Initially frightened by the fugitive in chains, it is only under a felt duress that Pip agrees to assist him by stealing food and a file. But when Pip voluntarily expresses an interest in his well-being, saying that he hopes that Magwitch enjoys the "vittles" that he has brought him, the felon responds in kind, saying "thankee, my boy, I do" (p.19). A bond develops between Magwitch and Pip. A few chapters into the text, Pip begins to refer to this desperate character as "my convict." Magwitch is an orphan himself and so he can identify with the parentless Pip, and it is, of course, Magwitch (not Miss Havisham) who is Pip's actual benefactor. But Magwitch remains outside the ken of normal society, and, worse, he harbors a desire to take revenge against Compeyson. By virtue of this baggage, he cannot become the father for whom Pip is searching.

Lastly, there is Mr. Jagger, the eminently skilled and taciturn attorney who administers Pip's affairs in London. In Jagger, Pip encounters a potential father figure who is fully able to provide him with the funds, the knowledge and a personal model for his transformation into a full-fledged gentleman. Jagger is the rational mind of Pip's prospective father. Yet that is all he is. Jagger has no personal feelings toward the youth or toward anyone else for that matter. After informing Pip that all of the necessary credit arrangements have been made on his behalf, Jagger abruptly terminates their conversation by remarking, "'Of course, you'll go wrong somehow, but that's no fault of mine'" (p.169). It is not Pip but the ruthless Bentley Drummle who Mr. Jagger is closest to in a paternal spirit. Ultimately, Pip fails in his quest to find a father and the fond relationship between the clerk Wemmick and his aged parent only underscore this failure.

Social and emotional isolation is a natural thematic correlate of Pip's orphan status. When we first see the boy Pip, he is alone in the graveyard and while he has some connection to Joe, the depth of their contact with each other is constrained by Joe's menial vocation and, above all, by Mrs. Joe's view of her younger brother as an irredeemable delinquent. Many of the other major characters in Great Expectations are socially or emotionally alienated. Mrs. Joe is devoid of any companions, Mr. Jagger is without peers, Estella is raised by Miss Havisham to reject all romantic overtures. As for Miss Havisham herself, she exists in complete separation from society (and from reality), cultivating a vindictive scheme to avenge her perpetual role as a jilted spinster.

Great Expectations is filled with irons, chains, and handcuffs which serve as external restraints, and, at the same time, as "self-forged" manacles. Characters are bound together by circumstance, but at the same time, they remain separated from each other. They are also bound by their prospects for the future, barred from realizing their dreams by their dismal situations in life. Indeed, Pip's life as a child is "dismal" (a descriptor that recurs throughout the novel), for his environment is raw with no glimmer of hope for escaping from work at Joe's forge or from the cane of Mrs. Joe. When he learns of his good fortune and makes his way to become a gentleman in London, instead of the bright future he had envisioned, he is once again enveloped by dismal surroundings. As the narrator recalls it, "Mr. Jagger's room was lighted by a skylight only, and was a most dismal place" (p.162). Blocked vistas are a constant aspect of Pip's life on the marsh and in the city. Throughout the novel, the windows in Pip's rooms never offer a view of the outside, and wherever he goes, Pip feels "caged and threatened."

It is a sense of guilt and shame that Pip takes with him to London. In the opening chapters, Pip's guilt is explicitly associated with his having stolen food for Magwitch, but this sense of being ill at ease is entrenched in the character's conscience, a manifestation of the shame that he feels as an orphan dependent upon his sister. Establishing himself in London as a dandy, it is clear that Pip wants to turn his back on his old existence. Yet, at the same time, not only is he haunted by it, he actually re-produces it. Pip hires a boy servant by the name of Pepper, thereby creating a new Pip whom he can order about but whose presence continually reminds him of his own lowly origins and thereby haunts him.

The main plot line of Great Expectations revolves around Pip's ascent to the higher rungs of the social hierarchy, and it is in this context that his character appears most deeply flawed. After learning of his windfall, Pip denigrates the darkness of his past in light of his seemingly bright prospects ahead, bidding "farewell" to "monotonous acquaintances of my childhood" (p.145). Flush with visions of greatness for himself, Pip indiscriminately dismisses both the positive and the negative figures of his boyhood, distancing himself from them on the grounds that he is meant to be a member of a higher class. Thus he tells his tutor, the admirable Biddy, that he considered asking her to marry him, but rejected the notion owing to her inferior social estate. The salient example of Pip's misguided airs emerges when he learns that Joe is planning to pay him a visit in London. Instead of joy at the prospect of renewing his association with his kindly brother-in law, Pip is preoccupied with the threat of Joe becoming a social embarrassment to him. The narrator recollects this incident in his youth by confiding that he met the news of Joe's coming "not with pleasure, though I was bound to him by so many ties; no; with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity. If I could have kept him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money" (p.218). Pip's rejection of Joe (which his self-effacing brother-in-law validates) seems all the more cruel when he later takes ill and is nursed back to health by the very man whom he had looked down upon. Although he despises the Spider Drummle, under the perverse influence of his great social expectations, Pip acquires much of the same arrogance, snobbery, and self-centeredness that his rival displays.

Here as in many of this works, Dickens portrays the class differences of mid-nineteenth century Britain is stark relief, and, as in his other novels, the author sympathies lie with the downtrodden. When Magwitch is arrested in Chapter V and charged with stealing food, he says to his captors, "a man can't starve; at least I can't. I took some wittles, up at the village over yonder" (p.40). By doing so, he covers for Pip, but at the same time expresses the dire hardships that afflict the lower classes of Dickens's England. Indeed, Magwitch was compelled to turn to a criminal career as an abandoned child of the streets. He has been reduced to a bestial status as a consequence of deprivation and we are reminded throughout that Pip could well have suffered a similar fate as his clandestine benefactor.

Injustice is, in fact, rife in Great Expectations, with boy Pip suffering under Mrs. Joe for no particular reason. Upon entering into the "official world of London, Pip finds that it is filled with orruption. As he exits Smithfield for the street, for example, Pip is accosted by an "exceedingly dirty and partially drunk minister of justice" (p.164) who offers to show Pip the Lord Chief Justice for the price of half a crown. The criminal attorney Mr. Jagger has no interest in whether his clients are guilty or innocent, but only in whether they can pay his retainer.

Since the machinery of official justice is so faulty, it is not surprising then that revenge is a salient motif of the novel. In addition to his desire to see the gentleman that Pip has become as a result of his anonymous largesse, Magwitch risks his life by returning the England because he wants to settle the score with his former confederate, Compeyson. Not only does Orlick exact his vengeance upon Mrs. Joe, Pip's feelings of guilty over the assault suggest that he also harbors a deep resentment toward the woman. For her part, Miss Havisham is intent on inflicting tortures upon all men through Estella. Then there is the question of Estella's marriage to Drummle, for while his motive is to gain her fortune, her motivation for agreeing to this mismatched union seems to be revenge against her stepmother.

Nevertheless, a rough justice is at work in Great Expectations, and with it, a glimmer of moral order accompanied by the valorization of confession and forgiveness. Mrs. Joe's death is, to some extent, deserved. Better still, her death clears the way for her long-suffering husband to marry Biddy. Before his own demise, Magwitch is able to kill the betrayer Compeyson, and Spider Drummle dies before he is able to complete his scheme. On the other side of the coin, the loyal Herbert Pocket, Jr., benefits from Miss Havisham's fortune and marries Clara Barley, an appropriately happy outcome for a character who proves selfless in his desire to assist his erstwhile roommate. Both Miss Havisham and Pip plead for forgiveness from those whom they have wronged, and while it is too late for the old maid to enjoy the benefits of her change of heart, in the end Pip is redeemed. In the originally serialized version of Great Expectations, Dickens indicated that Pip and Estella would not see each other again. In a second version, however, the author altered the novel's conclusion, with Pip seeing "no shadow" that would prevent them from remaining together. At bottom, Great Expectations is a moral treatise on the superiority of human concern over social station, and having learned this lesson, Pip, with all his foibles, becomes worthy of an uplifting outcome.

Great Expectations: A Reflection of Serial Publication and Dickens' Social Concerns

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1964

In the Victorian era, reading fiction was an extremely favorite pastime, and new novels were commonly published in serial format in periodicals. Many writers such as Charles Dickens became quite popular and developed huge followings that dutifully bought the periodicals in which they were published month after month, hooked by the entertaining and suspenseful stories. Dickens began Great Expectations in the fall of 1860, publishing it in weekly installments that began in December of that year in his popular periodical All the Year Round. Many of Dickens' earlier novels had been published serially as well, but usually in twenty installments in a periodical issued only once a month. Because a weekly serial was necessarily shorter than one that came out only once a month, the installments of Great Expectations needed to be much more concise, a publishing requirement that had a great effect on the ultimate structure of the novel, which is indeed more concise than many of Dickens' earlier novels.

The fact that Victorian novels were published in installments had a great effect on the characteristics and style of those novels. For example, each installment characteristically ended with a "cliff-hanger" much like a soap opera on television; that is, a suspenseful ending designed to tease the reader into buying the next issue in order to find out what happens to the characters. Novelists also frequently created their characters with certain "character tags," peculiar and often comic aspects of their physical appearances or way of talking in order to help readers remember each character from month to month. This was especially important for the minor characters. Finally, such novels characteristically included fantastic and extremely complex plots, all of the many strands of which were miraculously tied together in the final installments, as is the case with Pip's gradual discovery not only of the identity of his benefactor, but also of Estella's real parents. In Great Expectations, all of the major characters have been introduced by the end of "The First Stage of Pip's Expectations," and all of the major strands of the plot have begun; Dickens continues to manipulate them throughout the next two thirds of the novel before tying them all together at the end.

The serial format of the novel also allowed for the peculiar situation of the ending of Great Expectations. In Dickens' original ending, Pip meets Estella in London many years after the events in the main part of the narrative, and hears of her troubles with Bentley Drummle and of her plans to marry again. The two characters part, and there is no suggestion that they will ever marry, or even that they will ever meet again. But when Dickens' friend and fellow author Edward Bulwer-Lytton read the manuscript for this ending, he convinced Dickens to give the novel a happier ending, believing that the reading public would be much more satisfied if he at least hinted that Pip and Estella will be free to marry at the end of the story.

In the case of installments in weekly periodicals as opposed to monthly ones, many publishers and readers felt that autobiographical stories were more appropriate for publication. Autobiographical stories, which were reputedly "true," generally managed to grip the reader emotionally much more quickly than a fictional story. Some scholars today, such as Janice Carlisle, believe that this may have contributed to Dickens' decision to write Great Expectations as if it were an autobiography, with a first person narrator, Pip, telling the story of his life. One of the most consistently praised aspects of the novel, and one of the things that makes it such an extraordinary achievement, is Dickens' masterful depiction of Pip's personality. The entire story is presented to us through this main character's eyes, which allows the reader a great deal of insight into Pip's psychology. Because of this, readers through the years have tended to see Pip as a much more successful and more realistic characterization than many others of Dickens' major characters. Some scholars have attributed the success of Pip as a character to the relationship of many of the situations and events in the novel to Dickens' own life. Dickens himself came from a poor background, and he was forced to work in a shoe blacking company as a child. And, like Pip, he managed to improve his own "expectations" considerably with his phenomenal success years later as a novelist.

The fact that Dickens so effectively invites his readers into the mind of his narrator and main character, Pip, also gives great impact to the development of the novel's themes. The main action of the novel involves Pip's expectations to improve his lot in life, and the three "stages" of his transformation from a poor boy living in a small town into a gentleman successful in the world of Victorian commerce. Initially believing his benefactor to be the wealthy Miss Havisham, Pip becomes a snob, and gradually becomes more and more embarrassed by his past, by his home, and particularly by his loyal and true friend, the humble blacksmith Joe. Upon learning the true identity of his benefactor, however, Pip's mistaken assumptions and his future expectations are dashed when he is forced to confront the fact that the man who has turned him into a gentleman is none other than an uneducated and uncouth criminal. The reader who becomes caught up in Pip's outlook, sharing his assumptions with him, experiences, like Pip, a surprise and an important lesson when those assumptions are shattered.

The lesson that Pip learns comes in his gradually growing to see the goodness and humanity of Magwitch, truly a noble soul despite his past involvement in crime. Such a realization allows Pip, and the reader, to see the wrongness of a class structure that implies that wealth and a high station in life are equal to high moral virtue. After all, Magwitch is portrayed as having a gentle and noble spirit, while the more suave and gentlemanly Compeyson is a vicious and unfeeling criminal. Miss Havisham, too, who represents a wealthier class than that of Pip's family, is not his benefactor, but knowingly allows Pip to believe that she is as she involves him in her own schemes. Moreover, in looking back over the story line, the reader sees at the end that it was Pip's simple act of stealing food as a small boy to help the escaped Magwitch that led to his "great expectations," and not his appeal to Miss Havisham as a future mate for Estella, as he had convinced himself throughout the early part of the novel. Through the stages of his personal and psychological development, Pip experiences a change of heart, and learns the value of a true friend, finally seeing Joe and Biddy, the humble friends of his youth, as the loyal friends who have always stood by him despite his aspirations to rise above them in class.

By charting Pip's gradual change throughout the novel, Dickens manages to illustrate an important aspect of the socio-ecomonic context of his times. As the Industrial Revolution continued to change the nature of commerce in England and beyond throughout the nineteenth century, a middle class gradually emerged where before there had been only the aristocrats who were born wealthy, and the lower classes. In many ways Pip represents the kind of middle class "gentleman" that was quite common during this time; that is, a gentleman who had established himself in a successful business and a comfortable lifestyle despite the fact that he had been born into poorer circumstances. If he had been born a century earlier, Pip would not have so easily found the means to rise out of his social station and enter a higher one through Magwitch's and his own success in business ventures.

This kind of social commentary is common in Dickens' works. Often he took the opportunity to criticize aspects of contemporary British culture that troubled him, like Victorian standards of education, the legal system, or crime and British prisons, which indeed he takes the opportunity to examine even in Great Expectations when Pip visits the notorious Newgate Prison in London. Before Great Expectations, many readers had begun to feel that the novels that Dickens wrote in the 1850s, such as Bleak House and Hard Times, had become too dark, gloomy, and depressing, and they missed the humor and the appealing characterizations of such popular earlier novels as Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, and David Copperfield. Such readers were much pleased by Great Expectations, because, despite Dickens' occasional lapses into social criticism, they found such figures as the self-important Uncle Pumblechook, the would-be actor Mr. Wopsle, and the comic family of the Pockets worthy of comparison with the humorous caricatures that made the earlier novels so popular.

In addition to the character of Pip, Great Expectations offers many characters that add a rich texture to any interpretation of the novel. Some critics have found an unusual opportunity for understanding the place of women in Victorian culture and their role in Victorian fiction by studying the women in this novel: the kind Biddy, who is able to guess the identity of Mrs. Joe's attacker, and who sees more clearly than anyone the painful effects of Pip's selfish aspirations, and Molly, the mysterious woman who had been unwilling to suffer the degradation of her husband Magwitch's infidelity without a fight. Of particular interest is the peculiar and memorable case of Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter Estella. Miss Havisham embodies the wrath of a woman who has been cheated and abandoned by a reputed lover, and as a result she is a woman who has refused to accept the passage of time. The clocks in her house were stopped forever when she learned of her lover's duplicity, and the shoe she was in the process of putting on when she heard the news remains off of her foot. Her rotting wedding dress and cake represent the spoiled hopes that are turned into hatred as she plots her revenge by raising a heartless child to break the hearts of men. Far from the generous benefactor she appears to be to Pip, she lures him into her plans to make Estella into a cold and condescending young lady. And the outcome of Miss Havisham's plans offer the reader a lesson as well; she comes to find that she herself can expect no affection from a child she has raised without affection, and the vindictive life that she raised Estella to live becomes a sham and a tragedy when Estella enters a bad marriage with the abusive Bentley Drummle.

Other characters, such as the gentle blacksmith Joe, the lawyer Jaggers with his scores of grateful clients, and Jaggers' clerk Wemmick also contribute to the indelible impression of Great Expectations on the reader. Wemmick, particularly, is one of Dickens' most idiosyncratic and endearing characters, with his clearly delineated private side in which he serves Jaggers with the utmost professional discretion, and his diametrically opposed personal side in which he takes care of his stone deaf father, "the Aged P," in their impenetrable suburban cottage built to resemble a castle complete with cannon, moat and drawbridge. It is characters like Wemmick, and Joe, and Miss Havisham, in addition to the remarkably realistic characterization of Pip, that make Great Expectations one of Dickens' greatest works, and indeed one of the finest achievements of the Victorian novel. Like the Victorian readers who hurried to buy the latest issue of the magazine to read the latest in Pip's adventures, readers through the years have continued to find the experience of reading Great Expectations to be compelling and endlessly entertaining.

Source: Arnold A. Markley, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998. Markley is an assistant professor of English at Pennsylvania State University.

The Character of Estella in Great Expectations

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2323

A close inspection of the speeches and gestures which Dickens gives to Estella can easily give credit to the notion that she has a great deal of respect and affection for Pip, but Dickens never actually has Pip put this forth as a revelation, simply because Pip continues to remain ignorant of it. He does not even give the retrospective "if-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now" analysis of this situation that he does in the cases of Joe and Magwitch. We are probably not accustomed to this much subtlety in Dickens; we are used to having him spell out his meanings for us very clearly. But the possibility of Estella' s sincere affection for Pip should not be dismissed simply because Dickens does not give it the heavy underlining he usually gives; for this is an area of emotion in which Dickens the man had a customary reticence.

Although Estella has been trained by Miss Havisham to be instinctively proud and insulting, it can be seen that as a woman she is consistently gentle with Pip—in her own way, of course. She has a deep-rooted dislike of all the Pockets, from her awareness of their malicious envy of her, and Pip early wins her favor by being her champion against them. Even as a child, she rewards him with a kiss when he bests Herbert Pocket in their senseless (but very believable) fisticuffs. And as an adult, she states clearly and unequivocally that the Pockets' ill-opinion of him only strengthens her favorable opinion of Pip and that she derives bitter pleasure from the fact that he is above their petty meannesses. Even at the height of his unjustified snobbishness, Pip never comes close to the pretentiousness, intolerance, and avariciousness of the Pocket clan (Herbert and Matthew of course excepted). It is Pip's enduring decency and essential simplicity that cause Estella to regard him, albeit rather grudgingly at times, as her hero; he is undoubtedly a refreshing contrast to all she has been used to.

But besides this rather abstract respect which Estella has for Pip, we can also infer that she is attracted to him as a man. The scene where Pip and Estella first meet as adults is handled with a restraint characteristic of Victorian fiction in general and Dickens in particular, but nevertheless it can give a remarkably clear impression, if attention is paid to it.

"Is he changed?" Miss Havisham asked her.

"Very much," said Estella, looking at me.

"Less coarse and common?" said Miss Havisham, playing with Estella's hair.

Estella laughed, and looked at the shoe in her hand, and laughed again, and looked at me, and put the shoe down She treated me as a boy still, but she lured me on.

The shoe, of course, is a symbolic shoe (reminding us of Miss Havisham's bridal slippers), but it is also a very right detail in this scene. Dickens has intuitively been able to capture here the exact behavior of a young woman who is sexually attracted to a man and embarrassed by her feelings. Estella has long schooled herself in "perfect composure," but she is unable to conceal completely her physical awareness; Pip takes this reaction, in a quite typically male way, as an enticement. It is her unexpected womanliness that causes him to retreat to boyishness.

Any post-Freudian reader should be able to discern that Estella's notorious pride is only a defense against her feelings of inadequacy. Even though she is not aware that she is in fact the daughter of such "low" characters as Magwitch and Molly, she knows all too well that she is only Miss Havisham's adopted daughter and that she has quite arbitrarily been placed in a position of gentility. It is probably this very defensiveness about the precariousness of her own genteel situation that makes her as a child chide Pip for his coarseness and commonness. She has been continually beset by Miss Havisham's relatives, who resent her as the heiress of fortunes that could be theirs; she has been made to feel like an usurper. And when the artificiality of her upbringing becomes contrasted with the naturalness of Pip's, she seems to become all the more resentful of this life that she has had forced on her without her consent. As a woman, she knows that Miss Havisham has warped her personality beyond repair, and she is ashamed of what she has become. But with an admirable matter-of-factness she accepts her own limitations, and quite unselfishly she refuses to burden Pip with them. Again and again she sincerely warns him away from her; there is nothing coy about her manner of doing so.

"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."

She asserts that she cannot love, and in the conventional sense she is probably right. Just as with Pip, conventional notions do not apply to her. Pip's love is a strongly emotional and uncontrollable sensation; he knows it must appear absurd to other people, but he cannot help it. But Pip has repeatedly shown himself to be first a boy and then a young man given to extravagance and hyperbole. It is natural for him to behave as he does—for him to have an exaggerated love and to display it in an exaggerated way. It is equally natural for Estella, who from her babyhood on has had all her personality channeled into artificial restraints, to behave in the muted, subdued, tightly controlled way she does. She has been taught by Miss Havisham not to love, but then to Miss Havisham real love consists of "blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter." It is small wonder that Estella is not able to recognize her feeling for Pip as love.

Estella is only instinctively aware that Pip is different from all other people and that he somehow deserves a different and better treatment. Her rejection of Pip, which is almost universally condemned by critics as showing her pitilessness, is actually a very laudable sort of nobility and altruism. She knows that she cannot make Pip happy (Bernard Shaw is quite right in saying that Estella's character is not conducive to providing connubial happiness), and she has too much affection for him to link her unhappy life with his. When Pip reproaches her for flinging herself away on a brute like Bentley Drummle, her reply is incisive and illuminating.

"On whom should I fling myself away?" she retorted with a smile. "Should I fling myself away upon the man who would the soonest feel (if people do feel such things) that I took nothing to him? There! It is done. I shall do well enough, and so will my husband. As to leading me into what you call this fatal step, Miss Havisham would have had me wait, and not marry yet, but I am tired of the life I have led, which has had very few charms for me, and I am willing enough to change it. Say no more. We shall never understand each other."

"Such a mean brute, such a stupid brute!" I urged in despair.

"Don't be afraid of my being a blessing to him," said Estella; "I shall not be that. Come! Here is my hand. Do we part on this, you visionary boy—or man?"

Several things should become obvious upon inspection of this passage. One is that Estella is certainly not marrying Drummle for his money, as most critics blithely state in their summaries of the novel's plot. She is also not acting mechanically as an instrument of Miss Havisham; she is, in fact, defying Miss Havisham and seeking escape from the life her foster mother has subjected her to. But more importantly, she is surely marrying Drummle because she feels herself to be unworthy of Pip; she has chosen Drummle precisely because he has nothing to recommend him and she feels he is the only sort of husband to whom she can do no harm. And again her attraction to Pip should be clear just in a phrase like "you visionary boy—or man"; this is a charmingly revealing kind of thing that a woman would say to a man whose quixoticism she regards with affectionate humor.

Up to the very end, Dickens has her maintain this reserve with Pip—and it is a reserve rather than an actual coldness. She has been willing through all these years not to see Pip, and even when they meet again she has not sought him out; she gave him up thoroughly, even though the passing of years has evidently made it harder rather than easier for her to forget him. The last dialogue she is given to say is a declaration that even though now they have forgiven each other old wrongs and agreed to be friends, they must continue apart. Even now, she does not trust herself with Pip's happiness.

But of course the point is that Pip does not really want to be happy—again, in the conventional sense. He has said repeatedly that he is not happy with Estella, but even less happy without her. And the fact that all these people who condemn the "happy ending" miss is that it is not happy at all. Pip and Estella come together quite by accident; neither has determined to redeem his life by seeking out the other. Each has been shattered by many disillusioning and trying experiences. And Dickens leaves the actual conditions of their reunion quite ambiguous. "I saw no shadow of another parting from her." There is no reason, except maudlin sentimentality, to suppose that this means that they got married and lived happily ever after. It should simply mean that Pip no longer feels threatened by a separation from her, in his old desperate way. At any rate, it should be clear that if Pip and Estella do at last come together, it is only because now finally they can understand each other (as Estella supposed they never could) and admit their mutual need, which has grown more subtle but not less urgent with age.

It is often dismissed as mere sloppiness on Dickens' part that he did not go back and revise Pip's early observations of Estella if, in fact, eventually he is to win and marry her, as the new ending seems to suggest. But Dickens was almost never a sloppy writer, and certainly not in Great Expectations. An author who would be careful enough to change a preposition in Biddy's letter would certainly not let something as crucial as a major inconsistency of tone slip by him. If he left the strain of melancholy in Pip's retrospective remarks about Estella, it was surely because he felt that this tone continued to be appropriate, even with the revised ending. Pip's and Estella's meeting is not a joyous reunion and a promise that now everything will be all right; it is the somber and solemn merger of two people who realize resignedly that each is the other's fate.

The years and her harsh experiences have only rendered Estella more humble in her regard for Pip. Because now she has had ample time to think about her feelings for him and to realize consciously what she only sensed instinctively before—that he has always been for her, in his own bumbling way, a hero. A woman who can speak with quiet restraint of "the remembrance of what I had thrown away when I was quite ignorant of its worth" shows no traces of Edwin Charles's wilful girl who finally triumphs by bringing Pip to her feet.

The name Estella of course means "star," and much has been made of the symbolism of Estella both as a star and as a jewel. One of Pip's first remarks about Estella is that "her light came along the dark passage like a star." There are occasions when Pip regards the stars as being cold and distant and perhaps even hostile, and they provide a contrast to the heat and brightness of the light of Joe's forge. But even though a star may seem cold and distant, it is always accepted as a reliable beacon and guide; and Estella, for all her reserve, is never false to Pip—never, in fact, anything but perfectly candid and also sound in her assessments of human nature. She says to Pip in the end, "I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape " She has passed through the homely blacksmith's fire, just as Pip has, and she no longer possesses the same sort of lofty removal from things as she had in her reflected, starry light.

This is not a fairy-tale sort of happiness that Dickens is presenting us with. It is the very real sort of compromise that men and women make to each other, when life inexplicably but inevitably thrusts them together. Bulwer Lytton was probably reacting with basic human sympathy when he insisted that Pip and Estella should be reunited; there is nothing forced or contrived about such a circumstance. Dickens created in Estella a character who could not be denied her rights as an individual. If we react to what Dickens actually shows us of Estella's character, then we cannot make facile judgments of her as a heartless she-monster who will make Pip's life wretched and whose union with him is therefore inappropriate. Dickens has succeeded, almost in spite of himself, in portraying an honest and attractive woman who deserves the hero Pip proves himself to be.

Source: Lucille P. Shores, "The Character of Estella in Great Expectations," in Massachusetts Studies in English, Fall, 1972, pp. 91-99.

Imagery and Theme in Great Expectations

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2679

It becomes clear through a variety of subtle means in the early chapters of Great Expectations that the young Pip soaks up guilt like a sponge. From the moment he knows he has to rob the larder, everything around him takes on an accusatory or revengeful air. The very coals in the household fire seem to him "avenging," he dreams of pirates who summon him to be hanged, the boards on the staircase cry "Stop thief," the cattle (especially one with a clerical air) accuse him, and even the gates and dykes run at him as if they were pursuers. The whole picture of a guilty and terrified childish mind is remarkably vivid, so much so that the reader is never tempted to stop and ask himself whether the depravity Pip feels in himself is commensurate with the offense he has committed. He has deprived himself of a piece of bread and butter, and stolen random items of food from the family larder-no very enormous sins in the mind of the average child. Even granting the distorted vision of a terrified boy, it would seem that Pip is exaggerating his crime.

But of course the guilt he feels on the score of this minor theft is only part of a larger guilt—congenital, as it were, since it seems to have been generally regarded as criminally stupid in him to allow himself to be born at all—fostered in him by his sister, his sister's friends, and his surroundings. To Mrs. Joe he is not just a burden; he is a delinquent, to be treated as such. As a suitable topic for conversation during that most appallingly unmerry Christmas dinner which follows the second meeting with the convict, she regales the company with a catalogue of "all the illnesses I had been guilty of, and all the acts of sleeplessness I had committed, and all the high places I had tumbled from, and all the low places I had tumbled into, and all the injuries I had done myself, and all the times she had wished me in my grave, and I had contumaciously refused to go there." When, after the convict-hunt, he is sleepy, she removes him as "a slumbrous offence to the company's eyesight." The very food she allows him is given "a mortifying and penitential character." The rest of the company follows suit. It is Pip's misfortune, both in childhood and in adulthood, to be brought into contact with overbearing characters whose most usual method of conducting a conversation is inquisitorial. His position vis-à-vis Pumblechook and Jaggers is at best that of a slippery witness, at worst that of a criminal in the dock. Whether it is Pumblechook sticking the point of the conversation into him as if he were "an unfortunate little bull in a Spanish arena," or Jaggers, gnawing his forefinger and throwing it at him, Pip's position is as abject as that of any nineteenth-century delinquent, before the court on a trivial but capital charge.

The notion that Pip's fallen condition requires constant repentance and moral "touching up" is metaphorically expressed through the clothes he is forced into. They, like his diet, are of a "penitential" character:

As to me, I think my sister must have had some general idea that I was a young offender whom an Accoucheur Policeman had taken up (on my birthday) and delivered over to her, to be dealt with according to the outraged majesty of the law. I was always treated as though I had insisted on being born in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion, and morality, and against the dissuading arguments of my best friends. Even when I was taken to have a new suit of clothes, the tailor had orders to make them like a kind of Reformatory, and on no account to let me have the free use of my limbs.

The intensive concentration on Pip's feelings of guilt and delinquency culminate in the extraordinary suggestion that he himself is in some way responsible for the attack on his sister. Orlick, the real attacker, puts it bluntly during the scene in the sluice-house by the lime kiln: "It was you as did for your shrew sister." The more conventional Pip of those days replies: "It was you, villain." The younger Pip would have had a more ambiguous reaction. The attack occurs after two scenes in which the imaginary guilt is very obviously laid on Pip's shoulders. First we have the scene where he is "bound" to Joe, and treated as a criminal by court, family, and by-standers alike—especially by Pumblechook, who held him "as if we had looked in on our way to the scaffold." Then the reading of George Barnwell fixes on him, in his own eyes as well as Wopsle's and Pumblechook's, the role of ungrateful and murderous apprentice. The feeling that he had "had some hand in the attack upon my sister" is intensified when the weapon is found to be the convict's leg-iron, the symbol of Pip's "criminal" connection with the convict.

In all these ways, some with comic overtones, some completely serious, a degree of uncertainty is given to the question of guilt and innocence in this novel. With the exception of Joe, who is still in a paradisaic state of grace and innocence, the guilt of one character tinges the other characters, just as the moral regeneration of one character tinges the others. Thus all the characters participate in the fallen state of the others, and participate in their redemption too. Sin and crime are complex, both in their causes and in their consequences. In this novel the involved coincidences and connections, the gradual revelation of past wrongs which provide guilty links between disparate characters—in short the creaky machinery of a Dickens novel, so clumsily handled in Little Dorrit, for example—have an artistic purpose which totally justifies them. Magwitch, Miss Havisham, Pip, and Estella are connected by chains of guilt and corruption, and their roles as betrayers and betrayed, corruptors and corrupted, are deliberately allowed to become ambiguous. Miss Havisham, betrayed by Magwitch's associate, herself corrupts both Pip and Estella; Pip's childish pity for the convict starts a process of regeneration in him which itself contributes materially to the process of corruption in Pip. Guilt is infectious: Jaggers compulsively washes it off with scented soap; Pip feels contaminated by Newgate; when Magwitch is spied on after his return, it is Pip who gets the "haunting idea" of being watched, and who feels that, if the convict is caught, he, Pip, will in some way be his murderer. In this matter of guilt and crime the characters are members one of another.

This fact, of course, explains why Newgate Prison has so often been felt by readers to have an importance in the novel quite incommensurate with the space devoted to it. Corruption spreads outwards from there, and almost all the major characters are affected by that corruption. In addition, a real prison is necessary to reinforce the many "images" of prison in the novel. Prison is no mere "overspill" theme from Dickens' previous novels; it is an inevitable concomitant of the main theme. Miss Havisham's crazy self-immolation is no mere repetition with variations of Mrs. Clennam's grim voluntary imprisonment in Little Dorrit; it is a still more powerful symbol of man's propensity to cherish his emotional wounds, distort them to mere theatricality, use them as an excuse to pervert others. In all the scenes involving Satis House, strong emphasis is placed on keys, bars, chains, and blocked windows. And throughout the novel the windows of rooms Pip is in give no view of the world outside: they are shuttered, dirty, damp, "patched like a broken head." One comes down "like a guillotine" and nearly beheads him as he tries to look through. Everywhere he goes Pip feels shut in, "caged and threatened" as he describes himself in the little causeway inn on the Thames. Innocence provides no escape from the prisons; indeed, the only way Wemmick can keep his innocence free from the contamination of Newgate is by shutting himself off from the world in his miniature castle at Walworth. Prisons, then, permeate the book, though not quite so completely as in Little Dorrit.

And, unlike Little Dorrit, the novel is also saturated with other aspects of punishment and legal repression, used symbolically. For example, Pip's "guilty" connection with the convict leads to his metaphorically bearing his leg-iron as well. The bread and butter he secretes becomes a "load on my leg," and that "made me think … of the man with the load on his leg." The cold morning earth rivets itself to the young Pip's feet "as iron was riveted to the leg of the man " The convict, and his messenger at the Jolly Bargemen who "rubs his leg," never appear but that we are reminded again of the iron and the associations it has for Pip.

Chains, too, pervade the novel: on a literal level, obviously enough, on the door of Satis House and attached to Jaggers' watch, sign of his mastery of the underworld characters he deals with. The symbolic use is more interesting. In a Dickens novel we usually have a symbol of "destiny," the complex interweaving of people, events, and past actions which provides the plot of the novel and makes the characters what they are. Often this symbol is quite a conventional one: in Little Dorrit it is a road; in this novel we have the river and the ships on it, which are several times identified with Miss Havisham and Pip's delusions concerning his expectations from her. But Pip's real destiny is connected with a chain.

Think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

The significance of the symbol becomes more explicit when Magwitch returns. Now he is no longer a man, to be pitied, but an object, "what I was chained to." When Pip comes to contemplate the realities of his situation, as opposed to the rosy vision of a calm sea and prosperous voyage with which he had been deluding himself, he realizes that Magwitch has been "loading me with his wretched gold and silver chains."

Similarly the "traps" which have sealed Magwitch's destiny catch Pip as well. The traps are set both by the law and Compeyson. Early in the novel the convicts are described as game "trapped in a circle," Compeyson's criminal activities involve the entrapping of others: "All sorts of traps as Compeyson could set with his hand and keep his legs out of … was Compeyson's business." Magwitch sees these traps as an occupational hazard of his kind: "I'm an old bird now, as had dared all manner of traps since he was fledged." Pip is less adept at keeping out of them; indeed, he makes his own. Jaggers is compared to a man who sets a trap—"Suddenly—click—you're caught"—and Pip is a victim of his legalistic equivocations. The sluice-house is described as a trap, which indeed it is, set by Orlick. But his delusions concerning Estella are at least partly of his own construction: "You made your own snares," says Miss Havisham.

Perhaps the most subtle way Dickens suggests the transference of guilt from one character to another is by his use of the image of the dog. In chapter 3, while Pip, with the pity for his desolation which is to have such momentous consequences, is watching the convict eating the food he has brought him, a comparison occurs to his mind which is to reverberate through the novel:

I had often watched a large dog of ours eating his food, and I now noticed a decided similarity betwen the dog's way of eating, and the man's. The man took strong sharp sudden bites, just like the dog. He swallowed, or rather snapped up, every mouthful, too soon and too fast; and he looked sideways here and there while he ate, as if he thought there was danger in every direction of somebody's coming to take the pie away. He was altogether too unsettled in his mind over it, to appreciate it comfortably, I thought, or to have anybody to dine with him, without making a chop with his jaws at the visitor. In all of which particulars he was very like the dog.

It is a comparison which has been hinted at on the convict's first appearance in the churchyard—"a man … who limped and shivered, and glared and growled"—and which is maintained throughout the early chapters in which he appears. The soldiers growl at the captured parr "as if to dogs," as Pip is to remember when he travels home from London in the company of the two other convicts. It is, indeed, an identification which Magwitch himself accepts, using it as a description of himself only less frequently than his favorite "warmint." When he hears of the existence of the escaped convict Compeyson he vows to "pull him down like a bloodhound." When he reappears to reveal to Pip the source of his expectations, he refers to himself as "that there hunted dunghill dog wot you kep life in." At this time, in spite of his resolution to keep "a genteel muzzle on," he disgusts Pip not only by his low talk, but by his eating:

He ate in a ravenous way that was very disagreeable, and all his actions were uncouth, noisy and greedy. Some of his teeth had failed him since I saw him eat on the marshes, and as he turned his food in his mouth, and turned his head sideways to bring his strongest fangs to bear upon it, he looked terribly like a hungry old dog.

Though the novel is full of animal imagery, the identification of the convict with a dog, by implication a miserable, starved cur, is interesting because no other character, except perhaps Pumblechook, is so surely and continuously identified with any one species. The comparison is not a particularly surprising or unusual one, but what makes it especially significant is that it spills over onto the young Pip. The convict himself calls him "young dog" and "fierce young hound," and this last phrase is remembered with anguish by Pip when he fears that the convict will imagine it was he who betrayed him. But it is later in the book, when Pip himself is in the position of the despised outcast, that the comparison comes through most clearly. Curiously enough, it comes in a scene in which he is being fed:

She came back, with some bread and meat and a little mug of beer. She put the mug down on the stones of the yard, and gave me the bread and meat without looking at me, as insolently as if I were a dog in disgrace. I was so humiliated, hurt, spumed, offended, angry, sorry—I cannot hit the right name for the smart—God knows what its name was—that tears started to my eyes.

It is through his treatment by Estella, so different from the spirit in which he himself watched the convict, that he comes to find himself in the position of the hunted convict whom he had feared and compassionated: a spurned outcast, despised, almost beneath contempt, his humanity degraded or denied, reduced to the level of a beast.

It is through the use of this image that we see most clearly that, as Pip takes over the same metaphor as the convict, he assumes his share in his guilt and emotionally comprehends his position in society. The child can both pity the convict and put himself imaginatively in his position. The young man with "expectations" and a horror of crime can do neither, which makes doubly ironical Magwitch's part in bringing about this change in character.

Source: Robert Barnard, "Imagery and Theme in Great Expectations," in Dickens Studies Annual, 1970, pp. 238-51.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Critical Overview