Dickens shows his fascination with law, criminality and punishment. He is a great observer of the middle classes and their lives, associating them with a seemingly good life and the exemplary behaviour of higher society. He is also a critic of social politics and differences between classes in Victorian society. Great Expectations is a novel exploring the idea that wealth and social status are not as important as people like to think. Dickens shows that the common criminal can be more respectable than a noble man and examines the idea of a gentleman in Victorian era. Gilmour says: 'The gentleman was a moral as well as social category... A true gentleman was a mirror of desirable moral and social values, a cultural goal ' (Gilmour, p.7).
All of Dickens' characters are used to explore and portray these differences and real crimes in life.
The most important character in the novel is young orphan Pip. From the beginning we are witnessing his desire to become and his journey towards becoming a gentleman and fulfilling his great expectations. His life and quest of becoming a gentleman will be overshadowed by the criminal behaviour of others. Pip himself tries to overcome his own culpable sin committed as a child but his true criminality lies in his behaviour towards other people.
We first encounter Pip in chapter one, standing by the graves of his dead parents in 'that bleak place overgrown with nettles'. Pip says: ' As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them â€¦ '(Great Expectations, p.5) The sorrowful image of Pip having never known his parents urges sympathy for this innocent boy.
In the first chapter we also meet Magwitch, a runaway convict; Magwitch later turns out to be quite different to what a criminal should be according to Victorian perceptions. However, he is first described as a 'fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg' crying in a terrible voice: "Keep still â€¦ or I'll cut your throat". (p. 6) He demands that Pip bring him some food and tools which essentially means Pip has to rob his own family. Pip obeys but is never able to forget the feeling of guilt and shame. He cannot sleep and expects to be arrested by a constable upon his return home. However, Pip's feelings of guilt are much deeper, not so much a result of his petty theft but because he has robbed his own sister.
Mrs Joe is tall and bony with black hair. She raised Pip 'by hand' and expects everyone to admire her for this 'selfless' act. However Mrs Joe is not anywhere near being a mother figure. When Pip was left to her, she felt she was forced to marry a poor and uneducated blacksmith when she knew she could do much better.
Her face is always red as if 'she washed herself with nutmeg-grater instead of soap.' (Great Expectations, p.10) There is no mention of her name and she is simply called Mrs. Joe, but nevertheless she is the head of the family. She constantly demands authority with her temper, insults and beatings and treats Pip and her husband Joe with no respect. As Pip explains: "She never was polite, unless there was a company." (p.15) She might be seen as evil but also shows fear. As Mrs Joe lost her parents and five brothers in her early life, she fears abandonment, resulting in her focus on survival. In Great Expectations, no character stays black or white and so Mrs Joe on her death bed asks for forgiveness. 'And so she said "Joe" again, and once "Pardon", and once "Pip".' (p.260)
Pip has a difficult relationship with his sister but finds a close ally in Joe. He is a blacksmith and very simple man who loves Pip as his own son. He doesn't care about money and wealth. However, Pip does not see him as father figure and says: "I always treated him as a larger species of child, and as no more than my equal." (p.10). Joe remains one of the most respectable characters in the novel despite being guilty of one thing. He loves Pip very much but does not do much to protect him against his sister's assaults and beatings. Joe does, however, try to help Pip by giving him honest advice about life and what is important and always stand behind his decisions. As Pip grows older he becomes more distant from Joe. Pickrel suggests: " He cuts himself off from his own past- he neglects Joe... he is ashamed of his blacksmith's arm... He isolates himself from those who love him..."(p.166)
After Pip learns about his benefactor, he is sent to London to become a gentleman. The first places he sees are the dirty, crooked and narrow streets of Little Britain. Here he visits his guardian, Mr Jaggers, who is a lawyer. Because of his profession we presume him to be a respectable character. He works with criminals every day, and has learned not to judge people based on their looks and where they come from. He smells of soap and washes his hand very often, as though trying to wash away the corruption and sins of the people he works with everyday. He is smart, determined and likes to showcase his knowledge. "They took up several obviously wrong people, and they ran their heads very hard against wrong ideas, and persisted in trying to fit the circumstances to the ideas, instead of trying to extract ideas from the circumstances." (p.18) Mr Jaggers' speech carries a sense of truth, and he demands that people look at facts first before they make a judgement. He tries to separate his personal life from his work and finds it challenging to speak about his own life. Even when revealing his biggest secret to Pip he cannot help using law terms. Mr Jaggers is a mysterious character but remains respectable throughout the story.
' Put the case that he often saw children tried..., that he knew of their being imprisoned, whipped, transported, neglected.. Put the case, Pip, that here was one pretty little child out of the heap who could be saved.' (p.377)
Pip first comes to Satis House on the request of Miss Havisham. She lives with her adopted daughter, Estella.
Having been left by her husband-to-be at the alter many years previously, Miss Havisham has effectively stopped time in her own house. She sits in her dark, rotten room still dressed in her now yellow wedding dress. 'Altogether, she had the appearance of having dropped, body and soul, within and without, under the weight of a crushing blow.' (p. 58). She was deeply hurt by a man she loved very dearly and never recovered from his desertion. Despite her condition, her mental state is never in question because she has wealth and high social status. When Pip first learns about his benefactor, he believes it to be Miss Havisham, but this damaged character has a criminal mind. She seeks revenge on all men through her daughter, Estella. She seems almost a saviour when she adopts the little girl, able to take good care of her and provide everything she needs. Miss Havisham, however, forgets the most important thing: love. She pays for Estella but does not behave like a mother. She is also responsible for encouraging Pip's obsession with Estella. She urges him to love her even though she has brought Estella up to be cold hearted and to marry for money. She will later realise her mistakes prior to her fiery death, confessing to Pip: "Until you spoke to her the other day, and until I saw in you a looking-glass that showed me what I once felt myself, I did not know what I had done." (p.364) She was so blinded by her own quest for revenge on men that she managed to destroy an innocent girl. And this is what makes Miss Havisham, respectable noble woman, an undeniable criminal.
Estella, spoiled by her upbringing, treats Pip poorly from the moment they meet. After this encounter, Pip remarks: ' She 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, spurned, offended, angry, sorry .' (p. 59) As Barnard explains: "...he comes to find himself in the position of the hunted convict whom he had feared and compassioned: a spurned outcast, despised, almost beneath contempt, his humanity degraded or denied, reduced to the level of a beast." (p.112) Estella is a young lady who is beautiful but her qualities are rather diabolic. She is not capable of any emotion; she looks at everyone from above and likes to humiliate others. She says: "what satisfaction it gives me to see those people thwarted, or what an enjoyable sense of the ridiculous I have when they are made ridiculous." (p.245) But, unlike the other female characters, she is not really responsible for what she has become, nor is she seeking her own revenge. Despite being a cold character, it is apparent that Estella is the victim of an internal struggle. She repeatedly warns Pip that she has "no heart" and even though she does not want to hurt Pip she cannot change her ways. She explains to Pip : " I must be taken as I have been made. The success in not mine, the failure in not mine, but the two together make me." (p.281) She later goes on to marry a rich man without love, who treats her cruelly and makes her life miserable.
Great Expectations is Pip's story of transformation from poor orphan child with a materialistic set of values to a man with a gentle heart who learns his true values when he recognises the real nature and qualities of other people. This novel is all about contrasting social classes and their views by using characters that are different to how they initially appear. To shows these differences, Dickens links crime and respectability.
'The plot of Great Expectations is a good one; it holds the reader's interest; it is full of surprises and odd turn.' (Pickrel, p.164) Dickens leaves two main revelations in the plot. First, Pip's benefactor is not Miss Havisham but the convict, Magwitch, whom he met years ago at the marshes in Kent and for whom he robbed his own family. This revelation changes Pip's beliefs and views on life. Readers also warm up to Magwitch, who wanted to reward the little boy by giving money he earned in Australia. Magwitch says: "I swore that time, sure as ever I earned a guinea, that guinea should go to you. I swore afterwards, sure as ever I specÂ´lated,and got rich, you should get richâ€¦. I half forgot wot men's and women's faces was like, I see yourn." (Great Expectations, p.293) We can see Magwitch's true character and his good intentions for a boy who once helped him.
The second revelation comes when we learn that Estella is Magwitch's daughter. This gives her absolutely no right to spit upon other people. It also means she comes from a more lowly place than Pip, being the daughter of murderess and convict and saved by a lawyer only to be brought up by an old spinster trying to revenge her own misery on all men.
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Dickens, Charles. 1994 . Great Expectations. London : Penguin Popular Classics
Gilmour, Robin. 1981. The Idea Of The Gentleman In The Victorian Novel. London: Allen & Unwin
Schlicke, Paul. 2011. The Oxford Companion To Charles Dickens. Oxford: University Press
Slater, Micheal. 1983. Dickens and Women. London: The Chauser Press.