DECONSTRUCTING THE CLASSICS Charles Dickens's Great Expectations
The Loss of Innocence in Pip’s Progress
Witty, warm and wonderful—Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations has entertained and moved readers all over the world since its publication in 1861. JANET TAY explores the gritty side of Pip who learns life’s valuable lessons the hard way
IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT Great Expectations is regarded as one of Charles Dickens’s warmest novels. This is of little surprise when one journeys through Pip’s progress from a mischievous, witty and sensitive seven-year-old to a sombre, reflective man in his thirties. Throughout the novel we are met with Pip’s ups and downs, we share his deepest thoughts and remorse on life, morality, good and evil, and, above all, the experience of humanity and the weaknesses of man. Since Great Expectations is a Bildungsroman, we follow Pip through his loss of innocence as he unravels the reality and bitterness of life as it unfolds. Although there are instances where one may think that the loss of innocence that Pip experiences taints him in his progression to adulthood, the reader is swayed by Dickens’s efforts to distill some “soul of goodness in things evil” as Pip resists the temptation to fall from innocence in bitterness and instead learns from his experiences and becomes a better man for it.
The 1861 review of Great Expectations in The Atlantic Monthly accurately described the development of the chapters in the novel as “pleasing electric shocks to intelligent curiosity.” What provide even greater pleasure are the bittersweet electric shocks of realisation and understanding that Dickens subtly presses his readers to ponder and reflect upon, such as the importance of family and relationships that are based on true love and virtue. On the judgment of man, one will observe that the seemingly murderous “warmint,” Magwitch, who is hastily prejudged by Pip; the arrogant Pip after having discovered he had come into fortune, the proud Estella; and the selfish, bitter Miss Havisham all have a redeeming quality to them, even if some are realised too late.
Although Pip, orphaned as a child, is brought up by his sister who, harsh with her “Ram-pages,” is seldom fair to him, her husband, the gentle giant figure of Joe Gargery always provides a sanctuary for Pip in his tumultuous childhood. Throughout the novel, one can see that recollections of or references to Joe would always transport Pip back to his childhood or evoke feelings of home and warmth. Where Pip walks the tightrope between good and evil, Joe would feature prominently as an Angel in the House (a symbol of piety and purity) who brings him back to innocent days.
In his essay on class in Victorian society, James Eli Adams discusses the impact of industrialisation in Britain beginning in the latter half of the 18th century on social order. It created opportunities for different classes to intermingle as was never done before the advent of industrial capitalism. As Adams explains, the intermingling of different classes prioritised “outwardly trivial distinctions” such as the way one dressed and carried himself. This brings us to Pip’s meeting of Estella and Miss Havisham, where for the first time in his life, Pip is forced to realise that the society he keeps may be beneath that of Estella and Miss Havisham. Estella’s contempt for Pip traumatises him badly; her contempt for him is “contagious” as it rubs off on him and he sees things through her flawed eyes. Pip begins to feel ashamed of the things that never bothered him before—his appearance, his demeanour and, worst of all, his upbringing by Joe, the person that he loves most: “I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too.” The power of Estella”s words has such a great effect on Pip that she causes him to break down and he cannot bear her looking at him “insolently as if [he] were a dog in disgrace.”
The day of meeting Estella is an illuminating one although Pip’s world is cast into darkness afterwards. His humble origins form a large part of his shortcomings in Estella’s view, but it is also this painful prompting that causes Pip to question whether he should have greater expectations in life beyond that of a blacksmith in a small town.
Pip as a child is already exposed to the obsession with material wants from that of his sister and Mr. Pumblechook who only view his visit to Miss Havisham’s as a purpose to gaining “property” or “a handsome premium” for binding Pip to apprentice to some “genteel trade.” As soon as Mr. Pumblechook learns of Pip’s fortune, he is anxious to use Pip as a means to procure wealth when he wants Pip to be a “sleeping partner” in a business venture where Pip “would have nothing to do but walk in, by self or deputy, whenever he pleased, and examine the books, and walk in twice a year and take his profits away in his pocket, to the tune of fifty per cent, it appeared to him that that might be an opening for a young gentleman of spirit combined with property, which would be worthy of his attention.” Following Mr. Pumblechook’s obsequiousness, we see that Pip himself now understands the power of money. The emphasis on material possessions and wealth are sentiments echoed in London, when later Pip encounters Wemmick, a legal clerk who constantly reminds Pip that “portable property” is of utmost importance.
However, in London, Pip is careless with his new fortune and in the reckless fashion of a young man, he begins to spends money unnecessarily and runs up debts. A very different Pip lives here, a far cry from little Pip who regarded his sister’s kitchen as an elegant saloon. He now acquires expensive tastes in furnishings and even has a servant, a boy who does his every bidding (even going to Hyde Park to see what time it is). Pip’s contemptible description of him clearly shows that he has forgotten himself as a young boy once, also from a poor family.
Pip’s loss of innocence begins with his childhood encounter with Magwitch in the marshes and ironically ends with his conciliation with Magwitch towards the death of the latter. Pip’s disgust at the “taint of prison and crime” magnifies his trauma at the revelation of Magwitch as his secret benefactor to his “great expectations.” However, Pip later finds out that Magwitch has his own story of the loss of innocence as a child who was deprived of a normal childhood and was forced to resort to crime to survive.
Eventually, Pip manages to discard his petty judgments against Magwitch and stays by the latter’s side through his trial and subsequently his death. Through his nexus to Magwitch, Pip is forced to observe criminal trial proceedings, of which a bleak picture is painted. It may be said that Pip pays his penance through his care for Magwitch; not only does it absolve Pip of his guilt towards Magwitch but also towards Joe. Pip sees Magwitch as his second chance at redeeming himself for his treatment of Joe. Pip’s virtue shines brightest when he ensures that Magwitch dies a happy man; he tells Magwitch on the latter’s deathbed that his daughter, thought lost, was alive and beautiful, and that Pip loved her. Magwitch’s reaction is most moving for it shows the immense gratitude and peace that he experiences near death which he never did in his lifetime.
Pip’s penance is not unlike that of the journey of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, where the ancient mariner is doomed to impart his tale forever, and Frankenstein’s burden only ends upon his unhappy death, the ending of Great Expectations is a far happier one. Although Pip does not end up fulfilling his great expectations, far from being broken by his loss of innocence, he emerges a wiser man from it. It may have been his shallow pursuit of Estella that led him to seek his fortunes, but much has to be said about the valuable lessons that he learns along the way.
Although the notion of the loss of innocence inevitably features in a Bildungsroman, here we see innocence lost and regained come full circle. The completion of Pip’s progress does not end in bitter resignation despite his harrowing journey; present instead is a sense of hope that innocence is never truly lost but evolves into a profound understanding of virtue and human nature.
JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at a Malaysian publishing house in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.
Reproduced from the October-December 2008 issue of Quill magazine