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In the beginning chapters of 'Great Expectations', Dickens paints a vivid picture of childhood.Â The reader is able to enter Pips mind and see the world through the eyes of a child.Â The word "pip" itself is a seed from a plant.Â Seeds need to be nurtured if they are to grow and flourish.Â Dickens believed that children have certain needs, these included to be free from abuse and to be able to know and imagine. Through his portrayal of child characters in the novel, Dickens' social commentary shows that childhood is a bad, lonely and twisted period when adults rarely and inadequately provide for important needs that children have.
In the first chapter of the book we learn that Pip is an orphan with no friends and no caring family. When Pip tells us his name and how he cannot pronounce the word "Pirrip" we discover how poorly educated he is. We also learn how Pip's imagination and childhood naivety affect his take on life; although most of his family died, Pip does not treat this as a major catastrophe but instead this secludes him and makes him use his imagination even more. Through these opening accounts of Pip, we can instantly see that Dickens treats childhood as an isolated and formative period. Perhaps this reflects Dickens' own personal childhood.
Dickens treats childhood as a time when you are simple-minded, for example, Pip is best friends with Joe at the start of the novel when Pip is a little boy with no selfish thoughts; it is only when he grows up and becomes a gentleman that he disowns Joe and becomes a snob. Dickens treats childhood as a time when we see little difference in other people, before the complexities of class emerge in adulthood. An example of this is Herbert and Pip when they were both boys, Herbert is obviously more eccentric and posh, but this thought never goes through Pip's mind, he only sees Herbert as slightly strange.
Dickens implies that childhood is one big learning curve; when we are children we start to learn how to have fun, how to play and how to act sensibly. It is also a time when we develop a sense of responsibility and take account of our own actions. For example, Pip would often get punished by the "tickler" when he fell out of line, this harsh whip could be seen as cruelty but Mrs Gargery may have been merely developing a sense of self-discipline in Pip. When we are children we also learn how to form relationships; unfortunately Pip struggled to form relationships well, especially with Estella. Dickens shows that childhood is essentially a lottery with somewhat devastating consequences for some as to the resultant adults produced.
Dickens highlights the debate of nature vs nurture in the novel. Can someone's background like Pips really affect who he turns out to be, or is it destiny? Dickens plays with the characters Estella and Pip throughout the plot, was Estella born evil? Can Pip become a gentleman despite his tragic childhood? Will Pip and Estella ever get together? This ongoing debate in the Novel shows Dickens' interest and fascination about this topic, set against a wider Darwinian and Victorian background. Dickens' treats childhood in the book as a sociological experiment.
At points in the story Pip has to do things for Joe that only an adult would do for a child, an example is when Pip would teach Joe to read. This interesting relationship between Joe and Pip is sometimes seen as abnormal, but really, Joe and Pip are just two children being friends. Dickens could be suggesting that childhood is never only a certain point in our lives and that fundamentally, we are all children.
Dickens also highlights the fact that we all act like children twice in our lives, he does this especially though Mr Wemmick's aged father. When Pip visits Mr Wemmick's father, he has to nod repeatedly, "nod away at him, Mr Pip, that's what he likes", this nodding is similar to something someone would do to a baby or small infant, not a fully grown man. Dickens treats childhood as a recurring cycle and that in the end, when we are grey and old we become children again.
Dickens portrays childhood as a sad time; he does this through Pip's family and personal life. Most of Pip's relatives are dead, "him too; late of this parish", and he has to put up with the evil Mrs Gargery as his substitute mother, she is heartless and wicked and only shows remorse on her final deathbed. Pip also has to deal with the constant heartache of Estella and how she plays with his mind. This is clearly a confusing and miserable time for Pip and the way childhood is portrayed is extremely negative.
Childhood should be a time of freedom and enjoyment, but instead Dickens creates burdens that the children in the novel have to live with. For example, Dickens burdens Estella with the nagging Mrs Havisham, Estella has no life of freewill, her childhood is callously controlled. Dickens gives Pip the threat of Mrs Gargery's punishments, "She had brought me up by hand", and also the burden of helping Joe. Neither Pip nor Estella has the chance to do as they wish; they are always being ordered around or under threat.
Throughout Pip's childhood he is constantly surrounded by guilt and shame that plays on his conscience. As part of this guilt, Pip is always subtly reminded of justice. Whether it is through the gallows that are on the marshes near to where he lives, or the soldiers and Magwitch, or even the great prison ships at the dock, there is always a sense of guilt and justice in Pip's childhood. Dickens is showing that Childhood is a time where you learn the boundaries between right and wrong, and the idea of guilt and justice adds to the feeling that Pip's childhood is not free and normal; instead he lumbers the responsibilities of an adult. This could echo Dickens' own childhood and how he was placed into an adult's world far too soon.