Great Expectations: Overview
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.
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...
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