Great Expectations: Main Pip’s Ambitions

March 31, 2022 by Essay Writer

Great Expectations is the account of a young boy’s transition into adulthood as Pip, the central character, searches for contentment. Born into no particular wealth or distinction, he may have lived wholly satisfied with his modest pedigree had it not been for his association with Miss Havisham and consequently Estella. It was with Estella’s bold expression of “contempt” for Pip’s “coarse” appearance that a shadow of discontent was cast over his menial existence. Pip was rapidly overwhelmed by this darkness; it incited in him aspirations towards a brighter, more “uncommon,”“gentlemanly” existence. This paper traces Pip’s attempts to reach that status and how he ultimately finds contentment.

The novel begins with Pip as the quintessential innocent, but his parents’ deaths and his encounter with an escaped convent quickly initiate Pip to his difficult journey to adulthood. This opening incident triggers the restlessness that governs a majority of the novel’s tone.

The impressionable Pip becomes disillusioned upon his first excursion to the ironically named Satis house. Pip is deeply affected by the abovementioned slight from the shrewd, alluring Estella; his overwhelmed heart becomes the most prominent influence on his young life. Quickly after his encounter with Estella, Pip comes to equate being a gentleman with being happy. He simultaneously becomes conscious to the fact that his current situation severely hinders his ability to become a gentleman.

Pip’s ambition to become a gentleman, though unlikely, is not unfounded. The early part of the Victorian era saw the rise of the middle class and consequently a great blurring of social distinctions. The unsophisticated began to flourish by way of merchant trade, gaining equal footing with the Victorian “gentlemen” formerly defined by possession of wealth and property. One specific trait associated with gentlemen in Pip’s society was education, but beyond that society’s definition of gentility was ambiguous. Dickens’ writing is similarly ambiguous; he leaves it to readers to speculate as to how a Victorian gentleman appears and is perceived.

Pip quickly gains his own perspective on society’s conception of a gentleman. His desire to attain this end might have been respected as assertiveness had it not been for his injudicious motives. His only goal is to attain Estella’s respect and admiration. He feels that confidence defines a gentleman, as does a self-assured pretense of superiority, particular mannerisms, and thorough education. Pip is unaware that knowledge does not equate to intelligence, and neither guarantees sophistication.

Pip never directly confirms that he believes leaving the lower-class working world would elevate him in Estella’s eyes, but he laments his status based on the assumption that it would. He therefore begins to feel dissatisfied with his devoted “true friend,” Joe, and their way of life: “I wish my boots weren’t so thick nor my hands so coarse,” he says, and goes on to divulge that he believed himself to be “ignorant and backward” (105). Joe attempts to console him by comparing Pip’s fundamental education with that of a prince, but Pip is not swayed.

Pip is entirely fixed on becoming a gentleman when opportunity strikes. Miss Havisham’s lawyer informs him of his endowed “expectations.” Pip begins to revel in the thought that his life is actually headed towards that of a gentleman – and toward Estella. Hasty in his conviction that Miss Havisham is indeed his benefactor and intends him for Estella, he toils little over his decision to leave the forge. At this point, assuming a secure future, Pip’s contempt for the “common or coarse” is fully ingrained. Without yet bettering himself, he sees himself bettered. He displays his newfound arrogance to Biddy upon her attempt to check his swelling pride: “You are envious, Biddy, and grudging. You are dissatisfied on account of my rise in fortune” (181). Pip’s egoism in this situation is unbecoming; it draws further attention to his inexperience.

Pip’s departure from Gad’s Hill at the end of the first volume epitomizes his departure from innocence. The second stage of Great Expectations sees Pip coming to realize his goal to an insincere degree. Whereas a true gentleman comfortably and unconscientiously resides in his role, Pip is not yet accustomed to it; he feels obliged to act the part but does not necessarily succeed. His self-conscious attempts at the gentleman role are obvious as he contemplates the potential confrontation of Trabb’s boy upon return to Gad’s Hill: “Deeming that a serene and unconscious contemplation of him would best beseem me, and would be most likely to quell his evil mind, I advanced with that expression of countenance, and was rather congratulating myself on my success” (274).

Pip believes acknowledgment of the boy, who was of similar age (and previously, status) is now beneath him. The conscious effort put forth to rebuff Trabb’s boy is taken with warranted offense, as Pip has become a condescending shell of a gentleman. Pip’s discomfort with his newly acquired status was evidently apparent to the ill-mannered boy of Mr. Trabb, who upon receiving the snub made use of every opportunity to humiliate “Mr. Pip.” While Pip had outwardly expressed indifference to the boy, he admits that “Words cannot state the amount of aggravation and injury wreaked upon me” (275) – hardly the cool reaction one would expect from a more sophisticated gentleman.

The end of the second and the third stage of Great Expectations reveal the destruction of Pip’s optimism and the consequent nullification of his desire to be a gentleman. With the abrupt return and revelation of his benefactor, Pip’s fear of being apprehended for aiding an escaped convict eclipses any desire to consider his outward appearance. In addition, he comes to realize that “gentleman” is merely a title. Estella has commenced a courtship with Bently Drummle, who – if accepted by Estella – should theoretically personify Pip’s assertions. But in attempting to discern the characteristics that make Drummle a gentleman, Pip becomes disillusioned with and turns away from the role of gentleman.

One may interpret Great Expectations as a novel of failure, in that Pip fails to realize his initial objective of becoming a gentleman, but perhaps this is a fortunate failure. Pip comes to appreciate the contentment that comes with existence as a good, honest man and not necessarily a gentleman – whatever that means. He realizes, in the end, that happiness is not reserved to gentlemen alone.

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