Great Expectations

Charles Dickens

Notes and Observations

Regarded by many as the best of his works, Great Expectations was published in weekly instalments in the periodical "All the Year Round" beginning in December 1860.

In common with "David Copperfield", the novel is the story of a child, Philip Pirrip, known as "Pip" told in retrospect. It is a single, unified narrative and differs from many of the other novels in that it concentrates almost all its energy on the central character, and a single plot. The action moves over a very limited area – the North Kent marshes and the city of London – and the story is very bold and quite stark.

The "expectations" of the title are those of Pip, whose acquisition of a large fortune from an anonymous benefactor causes him to leave his village and the simple people who are his friends and family, in order to "become a gentleman". In dealing with such a theme Dickens chooses here what must have been a common fantasy in Victorian England. It is no accident that he uses motifs and devices which echo fairy tales and fables; the lost child in search of his parents; physical and emotional pain and a cast of characters who are stereotypes of witch, princess, ogre and wicked stepsister. What sets the novel apart is the way in which Dickens twists the commonplace to make, for example, Miss Havisham both fairy godmother and witch; Estella an enchanted princess and evil fairy and Magwitch both ogre and kindly father-figure.

From the opening sequence in the churchyard, where Magwitch holds the young Pip upside down over a tomb, so that his world is literally reversed, the novel proceeds to examine the "opposite faces" of humanity in many forms. Almost every character has a double image, some obvious, like the clerk Wemmick, whose Walworth life is kept deliberately separate from his work for the lawyer Jaggers, and some more subtle, like Jaggers himself, whose public face and demeanour are rigidly controlled. It is not until late in the novel that Pip observes a single encounter between Jaggers and Wemmick, during which Jaggers lets slip the outer mask of caution and reserve and reveals a softer individual, who rescued "one pretty little child out of the heap who could be saved". Even Joe Gargery, the "gentle Christian man" has two distinct "faces", the slow, almost childlike giant in the house and the strong, honourable craftsman in the forge. Miss Havisham, the bizarre recluse who invites Pip to play at Satis House, is one of the most striking characters in the novel. She is a living ghost, and her grotesque appearance and habits make her both fascinating and repulsive. The way she uses both Estella; her family and Pip to fulfil her twisted fantasies and to revenge herself on the world for her misfortunes, is unspeakably cruel, but Dickens shows us the terrible remorse which she suffers when she realises the extent of the harm she has done to Estella and we are left feeling sorry for her wretchedness in her cry of "What have I done?"

Estella, too, is cleverly drawn. The stereotypical "ice-maiden", deliberately raised to become an instrument of Miss Havisham’s revenge on the male sex, is rarely sympathetic until the encounter in the garden of Satis House at the end of the novel. We see only fleetingly in her dealings with the adult Pip a woman who will not compromise her relationship with the only man she has ever respected. It is only when she has been beaten and degraded by her disastrous marriage to Drummle that she can become "human" and begin to find, in Pip, a new peace. Like Pip, in fact, she is a lost child, but unlike him, she has little chance to influence events. Jaggers attempted to "save" her from a terrible life, by giving her to Miss Havisham when she was three years old, to be raised at Satis House. What happened to her there was directly Miss Havisham’s doing, not Estella’s. A bitter and vindictive woman dictates her expectations to her and it is no surprise that she becomes a heartless and calculating siren. Unlike Pip, Estella has no aspirations to become a lady – she is manufactured into one as an instrument of revenge. If she has an expectation at all, it must be to hurt and humiliate all that are close to her. The fact that she does exactly that to the woman who brings her up is a great irony. Miss Havisham uses Estella as a weapon on the opposite sex, but in fact the greater harm is done to Miss Havisham and to her adopted daughter. Both Compeyson and Drummle remain victors in that particular battle of the sexes.

It is interesting to note the way Dickens looks at marriage in the novel. He was, by all accounts, a person who had something of a problem relating to females. His own marriage broke down after 24 years and eight children and he spent the last years of his life with his mistress Ellen Ternan. His unsuccessful affair with his first and greatest love, Maria Beadnell, seems to have affected his whole perception of women, love and marriage. In Great Expectations, few of the relationships between the sexes are wholesome. With the exception of Herbert and Clara, Wemmick and the enigmatic Miss Skiffens and later in the novel Joe and Biddy, all the other couples are to a greater or lesser extent dissatisfied or hostile in their lives together. The Gargerys, Joe and Mrs Joe (note that Dickens does not even give her a name) are unequally matched. Joe spends his life either avoiding his wife’s

"Ram-pages", or submitting with stoic patience to her verbal and physical attacks on both him and Pip. All Miss Havisham’s relatives apart from Matthew Pocket, seem to be allied only in their determination to succeed in getting her to recognise their claims to her estate. Matthew Pocket seems to spend all his time tearing out his hair because of his wife’s total lack of domesticity and her pretensions to the aristocracy. Jaggers and the dreadful Molly, the "tamed beast", although not explicitly married, nevertheless seem to exist in a state of mutual suspicion and muted mistrust. Estella’s relationships with men are based on artifice and deceit and later, her husband, Bentley Drummle, beats her and loses all her money. Miss Havisham in her self imposed isolation, symbolises the betrayed and embittered virgin, an eternal victim of a man’s insensitivity. The relationship between Magwitch and his wife, the servant Molly, was almost animal-like, according to Jaggers, who defended the woman after she strangled a rival.

Pip’s relationship with Estella is central to he novel. He falls in love with her when he is only a child but is humiliated and abused throughout their time together at Satis House. Indeed we know that it is is Havisham’s delight to make Estella a breaker of hearts and little can be more sinister that her whispered command to Pip to "love her". Estella rarely shows any tenderness towards Pip, although from time to time she does indicate that he is the only man with whom she shows a measure of warmth. This is small satisfaction to him though, as he watches her practise her wiles on London society, knowing that she is not to be "given to him" as part of Miss Havisham’s plan for his gentrification.

Estella of course pays dearly for her heartlessness, although we must have some sympathy for her, knowing her history. At the end of the novel she is older and wiser, having been ruined and humiliated by her husband, and is able at last to meet Pip on equal terms. The ending is ambiguous – there is no specific reference to a wedding, only "no further parting" but we are able to hope that both Estella and Pip will be able to build a future based on mutual respect and trust rather than false values and deceit.

Perhaps the most significant themes in the novel are those of crime and punishment. From the opening sequence on the Kent marshes, with the child Pip and the escaping convict, we are plunged into a story of wrong doing, in many forms. Some of the crimes committed are conventional, while others are moral. Miss Havisham’s treatment of Estella, for example, is not, in the conventional sense criminal, but the harm done to the child is immense. Miss Havisham adopts Estella probably initially meaning to care for her, perhaps as an antidote to her terrible loneliness, but it is not long before the twisted morality and extreme bitterness of the jilted woman begins to warp and twist the child into an instrument of revenge against all men. It is only very late in the novel that Miss Havisham realises the damage that she has done both to Estella and to Pip, when she sees the sincerity with which Pip begs Estella not to marry Drummle and hears the pain as he tells Estella of his own feelings for her. Too late of course for anything to be changed, Miss Havisham dies in the same mental agony in which she has lived since the day she stopped the clocks in her house. Note also how cleverly Dickens contrives her end – as she burns in a kind of living Hell fire. Perhaps we could say that Dickens makes the punishment fit Miss Havisham's crime – that of making Estella grow up in a "Hell" of icy revenge. True to his Victorian morality, of course, Dickens has Pip forgive her and allows her to settle an annuity on the Faithful relation, Matthew Pocket and his son before she dies.

Mrs Joe, too, commits the crime of child abuse, although Dickens does manage to infuse a fair amount of comedy into her "Ram-pages". In fact she is a heartless and vindictive woman, who mistreats her husband almost as badly as she mistreats her brother Pip. Her punishment is rather less subtle than Miss Havisham’s, as she is brutally beaten by Orlick and lingers on for many years in a vegetative state before she dies. Again though there is a sort of reconciliation with her husband at the end and forgiveness of a sort.

Miss Havisham’s rapacious relations who attend Satis House regularly rather like leeches to stake their claims on her money also commit moral crimes of a lesser importance. They are paid back fittingly in her will, being left paltry sums of money to fit their particular needs. Again, Dickens contrives the "good" character of Matthew Pocket to be rewarded for his restraint.

In the main, though, the novel deals with conventional crime and its consequences, through the characters of Magwitch, Compeyson, Molly, Orlick and Arthur Havisham. Their relationships and actions have a direct and very damaging effect on the people around them and it is one of the strengths of the novel that Dickens manages to construct a complex yet convincing set of links between them.

Compeyson’s friendship with Arthur Havisham leads to the defrauding of Miss Havisham and her decline into the embittered recluse whom Pip meets at Satis House. Arthur Havisham dies in mental and physical agony with visions of his sister trying to throw her bridal veil (in his dream a kind of white shroud) over his head. Compeyson also recruits Abel Magwitch as an accomplice, and the hatred between the two men locks them together in a relationship, which eventually leads to betrayal, imprisonment, and transportation, and to both their deaths. It is Compeyson who is the second man on the marshes when Pip brings the food to Magwitch. Magwitch is recaptured because he is trying to kill Compeyson.

Jaggers’ servant Molly, the "tamed beast", is a murderess whose child Estella is "saved" and sent into Satis House by Jaggers, only to be turned into a twisted, heartless woman incapable of tenderness or love. She is, of course, the mother of Estella and her husband was Abel Magwitch. Estella is therefore the daughter of a murderess and a criminal.

Orlick, jealous and tormented, is a violent thug who displays no remorse either for the attack on Mrs Joe or his attempt on Pip’s life.

Pip is the pawn who is drawn into helping the escaping criminal, Magwitch and later becomes involved with Miss Havisham’s revenge on men through Estella. His "expectations" and his subsequent life as a "gentleman" in London draw all the characters together in an intricate and tragic pattern of events.

Abel Magwitch, the benefactor and shadowy father figure, whose money is the source of Pip’s expectations is an interesting character. He is a habitual criminal and never seeks to hide this fact, or to attempt to excuse himself for his deeds. When Pip first meets him as a child in the marshes on Christmas Eve, he is described as a monster and the terrified child is tainted by the experience, becoming in his own eyes a criminal by stealing the food from the pantry to feed the fugitive. Magwitch is captured on Christmas Day and does not reappear in the narrative directly until Pip is twenty-three, but the impression he makes on the child is considerable and the motif of criminality which Dickens runs throughout the story is cleverly sustained. From time to time the audience is made aware that Pip’s "crime" has not been forgotten – the incident of the pound notes in the pub, the overheard conversation between the criminals on the stage coach, Mrs Joe being beaten with the filed leg irons, all serve to keep reminding Pip that the incident in the churchyard has not "gone away". In this way also Dickens heightens the dramatic irony by which the reader is aware of the true nature of Pip’s expectations long before Pip himself. Jaggers acts for Miss Havisham and also for Magwitch and has many grisly reminders of his profession in his London office. This means that Pip is always faced with the tangible evidence of the penalty of crime when he visits Little Britain. Wemmick takes Pip to see Jaggers "at it", in court and also to visit Newgate prison and the audience is thus prepared for the inevitable revelation of Pip’s real benefactor.

When at last Magwitch appears, Pip’s reaction is one of horror and disgust. His "punishment" for his arrogant behaviour and snobbery towards Joe and Biddy is the knowledge that he is a "gentleman" only because of the intervention of a hardened criminal. Magwitch, though, is ignorant of Pip’s real feelings about him and this makes his pride in his "boy" even more pathetic in the reader’s eye. We know that there can be no reprieve for Magwitch, but Dickens creates a very real pathos in the final chapters of the novel, as Pip begins to understand the man who is his "second father". The tension of the attempted escape and the capture and trial of Magwitch and his death, is amongst some of Dickens’ finest writing.

There can be no doubt of the criminality of Abel Magwitch, but among all the characters of the novel who could be said to have "criminal" tendencies, he is perhaps the most sympathetic. We must feel some understanding of his motives in wanting to revenge himself on the system which treated him so brutally, by creating a "gentleman" by proxy. His motives are perhaps flawed, but they must be seen to be genuine – he does want to help the child who helped him. It is tragic, though, that his good intentions are doomed to failure. Pip is ruined because he will not keep the "portable property" in Magwitch’s wallet and the funds, which Compeyson has tracked down, are forfeit to the Crown when Magwitch is recaptured and sentenced to death. Magwitch dies penniless and Pip is forced to fend for himself. The good, which comes from the situation, is achieved only through suffering. Magwitch dies knowing that his daughter is alive and a lady and loved by Pip and Pip is at last able, after eleven years of hard work to be self sufficient and reconciled to his family and to Estella.

It is a dark world, which Dickens creates, in Great Expectations, and there are few genuinely "good" characters. Joe Gargery, the "gentle Christian man", Biddy, Herbert Pocket and his faithful Clara and Wemmick the clerk are characters that display almost invariable integrity. Wemmick is an intriguing portrait of a man who lives two separate lives. As clerk to the sinister Jaggers, he is a restrained and cautious character with a mouth like a post box. It is only when he is at home in Walworth that we see the "real" Wemmick, a devoted son to the Aged Parent and suitor to the enigmatic Miss Skiffins. He is a friend to Pip but only openly friendly when he is at home. At the office and around the courts he is reticent and careful not to compromise himself. Despite this he is very dependable and does not let Pip down.

Herbert and Clara are , like Joe and Biddy, invariably honest and diligent. The dark nature of the novel does not let either couple escape without suffering though, Clara’s father is an alcoholic despot, Herbert’s family is in a constant state of disorganised chaos because of the idiotic pretensions of Herbert's mother. In spite of the inadequacies of the parents, both Herbert and Clara manage to win happiness by patience and industry.

Joe Gargery and Biddy are also damaged by their past. Joe’s marriage to Pip’s sister is never happy, and we know that Joe’s own parents were unhappy and had a violent relationship. It is easy to see Joe as a simpleton and indeed Dickens makes Pip’s treatment of him reinforce this view. In fact Joe Gargery is a man of immense dignity. His life is one of honest toil and he never does harm to anyone. He tries very hard to protect Pip from his sister’s worst excesses even when this means trouble for him and he defends her against Orlick, unwittingly causing the resentment which leads to her being attacked by him. When Pip is ill after Magwitch dies it is Joe who nurses him back to health and above all there is never any indication of resentment from Joe when he is treated so condescendingly by Pip, when he is becoming a "gentleman". Biddy, too, is an honest woman, content with her station in life and determined to look after first the invalid Mrs Gargery and later on, Joe. She perhaps has more wit than Joe to be outspoken to Pip, but chooses to keep her counsel and not interfere. Biddy knows that Pip will drop his contact with the forge and also that Pip’s infatuation with Estella and Miss Havisham is unhealthy, but she is probably astute enough to realise that Joe loves Pip very much and so chooses not to disillusion the "gentle man".

Again, in keeping with the sentiments of Victorian literature, Dickens chooses to "reward" virtue and both couples are given a "happy ending", Herbert and Clara with a prosperous career abroad and Joe and Biddy with a son called Pip, to inherit the forge.

It is, though, the character of Pip which is the most intruiging. From the opening of the story, as he sits in the graveyard on Christmas Eve looking at the graves of his dead parents and his dead brothers we see him as a tragic little figure. He is drawn into a situation not of his own making, when he is forced to help Magwitch and the consequences of his childish "crime" in stealing the food to help the fugitive haunt him for the rest of his life. The story is told in retrospect, by the adult Pip and throughout there is a tone of remorse, as if the adult is somehow trying to exorcise the past and his follies and pretensions.

Until he is made "guilty" there is no inkling of dissatisfaction about his life or his station. He dislikes his sister’s rampages, but loves and admires Joe Gargery. When he is taken to Satis House, though, and comes under the influence of Estella and Miss Havisham he begins to change and his dissatisfaction begins to grow. Estella’s influence on him is considerable, and contributes to his growing sense of discomfort with his origins.

When Jaggers communicate his "expectations", Pip jumps to the wrong conclusion and rapidly becomes a prig. His behaviour towards Joe and the relations is often quite odious, and it is sometimes difficult to feel a great deal of sympathy for him, except that the audience always remembers the terrified child and Dickens always manages to maintain an ingenuous tone in the adult Pip’s narrative. Because Pip himself never makes excuses for himself, but is open about his actions and motives, we are usually able to feel a degree of sympathy for him, even when he is behaving quite insensitively. But of course, there are times when his actions and generosity are considerable. He never wavers in his devotion to Estella, for example, and his support of Matthew Pocket and Herbert and Clara are generous in the extreme. Also, if we consider the warped and twisted nature of Miss Havisham’s actions we cannot help but feel sympathy both for the victims and for her. Neither Pip nor Estella are responsible for the actions of their benefactors, Magwitch and Miss Havisham and it is not surprising that both the children grow up to make terrible mistakes in their turn.

Great Expectations is never a comfortable story, dealing as it does with the darkest sides of human nature - crime - revenge – betrayal, but it is very realistic. The plot is credible and the characters are strong. The themes of wrongdoing and retribution are cleverly interwoven into a story, which is intricately and tightly constructed and deals with the eternal themes of justice and morality.

Copyrightę 2000 Val Pope