Unexpected Expectations: Pip Becomes a Different Kind of Gentleman in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations

August 29, 2021 by Essay Writer

In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens presents a social commentary that dramatizes the role Victorian society plays in shaping the lives of its members. In particular, the novel addresses how society shapes the definition of the gentleman and, more specifically, how it shapes Pip’s desire to become a gentleman. Dickens intends the novel to be more than simply the story of Pip’s expectations; he also intends it to deliver a message about the expectations of society as a whole. Through the behaviors of various characters in the novel, Dickens delivers his satire on the values of society. He purposely sets up the heroic characters as the ones who are basically unconcerned with the demands of society, thereby reinforcing his mistrust of society’s values. Joe is the most admirable character in the novel because he is more concerned with humanistic matters than with social ones; he places more importance on his meaningful relationships with others than on social advancement. By the end of the novel, Pip arrives at the conclusion that society’s requirements of a gentleman are not necessarily indicative of true gentlemanliness. He realizes the detrimental effects of his ambition on his life and on his relationship with Joe, and he discovers that he has the best role model possible in the “gentle Christian manâ€? (Dickens 421). Pip becomes a different kind of gentleman than he previously desired to become. In allowing Pip’s life to go in the direction it does, Dickens reinforces the idea that a conscience is a more important quality in a gentleman than social or financial improvement.Dickens does not intend the novel to be merely the story of an individual, but as the title suggests, he intends it to be thematic for society as a whole. While the titles of several of Dickens’ other novels focus solely on particular individuals, the title of Great Expectations suggests a universal theme. By naming the novel as he does, Dickens “reaches beyond Pip to suggest the expectations of a whole societyâ€? (Gilmour 112). Pip is deluded by society into pursuing a more worldly life than the forge can offer him. The delusion of individuals like Pip “reflects a larger mania: [. . .] a rise of unprecedented importance that made self-satisfaction irresistible and self-scrutiny unpatrioticâ€? (Meckier 545). In nineteenth century England, self-satisfaction is dependent on the attainment of a prominent social status according to Victorian society’s standards. Criticism of these values in society was considered inappropriate. Dickens’ satire is built upon the foundation that society’s means for self-satisfaction are not entirely accurate. As Pip illustrates, true self-satisfaction is reflected in a moral conscience rather than in the attainment of worldly possessions. By dedicating his attention to worldly values, Pip betrays the morality that is in his heart from the beginning. Pip is unable to secure any fulfillment from his progress as a gentleman; he is a most miserable being until he returns to his moral conscience and childhood values.Dickens uses Great Expectations to express social ironies that exist during the nineteenth century; in doing so, he delivers “what is in many ways his most profound commentary on Victorian civilisation and its valuesâ€? (Gilmour 107). Throughout the novel, Dickens satirically “equates the impulse toward self-improvement with base cravings for social and material advance[ment]â€? (Meckier 543). A central theme of the novel is that social and financial advancement are not necessarily indicative of self-improvement. Upward social mobility can be, as in Pip’s case, as self-destructing as it is self-improving. Dickens reveals the shallowness of the Victorians’ requirements of a gentleman: “to become better off, not a better personâ€? (Meckier 543).Great Expectations fuses Pip’s individual story with a social indictment. Dickens uses the story of Pip’s expectations to illustrate the “natural unconditioned life of the heart and the socially destructive process which weakens and distorts it, transforming instinct into calculation, human love into manipulation, generosity into greed, [and] spontaneity into shame and ambitionâ€? (Hardy 21). As illustrated through his childhood, Pip is a tenderhearted soul; his ambitiousness, however, leads to greed and unkindness. Dickens employs the story of Pip’s expectations to highlight various ways in which society destroys the conscience and replaces it with inconsiderate social ambitiousness.Herbert Pocket is the first societal gentleman with whom Pip comes into contact. Upon their first encounter, Pip identifies Herbert as a pale young gentleman and “comes face to face with a version of the person he wants to beâ€? (Frank 158). During Pip’s pursuit of his expectations, Herbert instructs him on how to behave with the air of gentility, and Pip is certain of Herbert’s status as a gentleman. Ironically, however, not even the pale young gentleman is able to rise “by his own exertions. He would never have become a capitalist [. . .] without Magwitch’s capital, which Pip uses as a downpayment for his roommate’s partnershipâ€? (Meckier 553). Pip’s desire to use a portion of his financial expectations to help Herbert evokes the goodness that remains in his heart. At the same time, however, it cannot be ignored that Pip chooses to help Herbert because he holds a place in upper-class society that Joe does not. Although it is true that Joe would refuse to accept money from Pip, it is also true that Pip could help him without his knowledge in the same manner as he provides for Herbert. The fact that Pip chooses to provide anonymous financial support to Herbert instead of Joe demonstrates the effects of society on his priorities.The idea of the gentleman is one that plays a predominant role throughout the entirety of the novel. During the nineteenth century, a significant degree of ambiguity surrounded the Victorian idea of what constitutes a gentleman. The uncertainty that made defining a gentleman difficult was significant to the Victorians because it made available opportunities for outsiders to attain the status. Social mobility and the accessibility of the gentlemanly status were appealing largely because they provided lower-class citizens with a status toward which they could aspire. Perhaps the most fascinating element of the gentleman for the Victorians, however, was the “subtle and shifting balance between social and moral attributesâ€? (Gilmour 4). The Victorian concept of the gentleman equally combines the qualities of gentleness and manliness. The problematic aspect of this definition involves “knowing what weight to give to ‘gentle’ in its meaning of ‘gentle birth’ and what to its more modern sense of ‘tender’â€? (86). If the majority of the definition’s weight is attributed to gentle birth, lower-class Victorians have no chance of attaining the status; on the other hand, if tenderness is weighted more heavily, even simple Joe Gargery embodies the possibility of becoming a gentleman.The novel can be perceived as a “satire on snobberyâ€? (Newsom 147). The word never appears in the novel, but in his social ambitiousness, Pip comments on his unfaithfulness to Joe. He expresses guilt at forsaking his true self and his life at the forge in pursuit of something he has been deceived into believing is more admirable. Until he discovers that Magwitch is his benefactor, however, Pip fails to understand the extent of his “desertion of Joe [. . . and] his metamorphoses into a shallow snobâ€? (Dabney 141). Dickens does not endorse Victorian class divisions, and he “constantly undermines [the divisions in Pip’s mind]; he is not concerned to justify Pip’s rise in station but rather to suggest and analyse the guilt, the inhibition, [and] the personal betrayals which this involvesâ€? (Gimour 116). Based on Matthew Pocket’s interpretations, Pip is not equipped to become a true gentleman because “no man who was not a true gentleman at heart, ever was, since the world began, a true gentleman in manner. He says, no varnish can hide the grain of the wood; and that the more varnish you put on, the more the grain will express itselfâ€? (Dickens 177). Perhaps Mr. Pocket’s behavior is hypocritical to his views on the gentleman because he encourages Pip’s pursuit by tutoring him in a gentleman’s education.Previous to his interactions with Miss Havisham and Estella, Pip has no knowledge of class divisions. He is completely satisfied with his life at the forge until Estella shuns him and leads him to believe that he does not deserve to be in her company and is not worthy of her affection. The result of Estella’s snobbery is Pip’s ambitious desire to become a gentleman that leads him to betray himself and the values he has adopted from Joe during his childhood. With the exception of Joe and Biddy, everyone in Pip’s life encourages him to better himself according to society’s standards. Even Mrs. Joe, who has brought Pip up by hand, is thrilled when he goes to visit Miss Havisham because she hopes Miss Havisham will help Pip to advance.Going to Miss Havisham’s, however, opens up an entirely new realm of life to Pip and fosters an intense ambition within him. Estella scorns his commonness, and she quickly becomes the motivation behind his obsession with becoming a gentleman. Under the direction of Miss Havisham, Estella has become the “exact opposite of an angel-in-the-house [. . .] Instead of internalizing her suffering, as was expected of a good Victorian woman, she inflicts suffering on menâ€? (Ayres 90). Estella’s comments at their first meeting excite a kind of “self-conscious shameâ€? in Pip and facilitate his desire to become a gentleman (Newsom 148). Immediately thereafter, Pip reflects, “That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in meâ€? (Dickens 84). From that day forward, Pip’s perceptions of the world and his place in it are significantly altered.Pip’s “subjectivity [is] shapedâ€? through a process that begins when Estella calls him “commonâ€? (Frank 155). She becomes the primary factor motivating his selfish behavior because he believes that he must become a gentleman in order to have a place in her world. In her presence, Pip feels inadequate. She treats his as an unnecessary person, and the “painful rebuff he perceives in Estella’s face and words provides further Impetus to Pip to fashion a selfâ€? (Frank 155). Estella immediately begins to play an indispensable role in Pip’s conception of himself. His entire personality changes as a result of his visits to Satis House; he “proceeds to strike out from the chain of his life those days that tend to subvert the idea of the gentlemanâ€? he has acquired through Estella’s comments (Frank 160). When she mocks his coarse hands, Pip becomes conscious of his body for the first time and immediately takes the “opportunity [. . .] to look at [his] coarse hands and [his] common boots. [His] opinion of those accessories was not favourable. They had never troubled [him] before, but they troubled [him] now as vulgar appendagesâ€? (Dickens 75). Satis House and the world for which it stands lead Pip to envision a new life for himself; in doing so, he selfishly rejects any allusion to his life at the forge.Ultimately, the new life Pip attempts to create for himself is built upon nothing but an intense desire to become a gentleman. The conscience that formerly motivated his behavior is unable to compete with the ambition that consumes him in his pursuit of his expectations. Pip’s idea of a gentleman, however, is “ill conceived and naively developed. It rests on a contemptible snobbery, which leads Pip to repudiate the best man he has ever knownâ€? (Buckley 51). It does not occur to Pip that a gentleman should be “tolerant, open to new ideas, devoted to the free play of the intellect, sympathetic, [or] considerate of the feelings of othersâ€? (52). To Pip, his status as a gentleman is dependent on Estella’s approval of him. Estella is a shallow individual, and through her influence, Pip becomes shallow as well.In the midst of his relentlessly selfish pursuit of a gentlemanly status, nonetheless, Pip “retains enough judgment to be frequently dissatisfied with his conductâ€? (57). Pip is remorseful about his behavior: “It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of homeâ€? (Dickens 113). By the end of the novel, he has realized his mistakes and is able to regain his self-respect and the autonomy he has relinquished to Miss Havisham and Estella and to the idea of himself they have fostered in his mind. At this point, he “ceases merely to be the puppet of his own desires and of the desires of others [and] begins to accept responsibility for his suppression of the pastâ€? (Frank 174). At last, Pip understands that Joe is the “one feature in his life that does not changeâ€? (180). Pip discovers the quality of the role model he has from the beginning in the “gentle Christian manâ€? (Dickens 421).Various characters in the novel can be perceived as “signpostsâ€? for Pip’s progress: “the provocation of Miss Havisham, the lure of Estella, the example of Herbert Pocket, the horror of Magwitch, [and] the integrity of Joeâ€? (Bradbury 94-95). Pip’s progress begins with the foundation of urgent ambition and is realized by the remorseful desire to bring back the past. Upon their first encounter, Miss Havisham provokes Pip into a desire to please Estella, and Estella lures him into pursuing her although she knows the result of such a pursuit will be nothing less than catastrophic for him. When Pip begins to pursue his expectations, Herbert provides an example for him as he attempts to become a gentleman in manner as well as in wealth. Magwitch horrifies Pip on two levels: negative and positive. As a child on the marshes, Pip is horrified by Magwitch’s criminality; as an adult, Pip is again horrified when Magwitch reveals his identity as his benefactor. The positive aspect of Pip’s horrification occurs when Magwitch’s sincerity forces Pip to understand the extent of his horrifyingly cruel behavior toward Joe. Joe’s integrity brings Pip back to his roots and allows him to finally become a gentleman in the most admirable sense of the word.Joe’s goodness is certainly “radically unworldlyâ€? (Dabney 128). Joe is unconcerned with the world’s value system, and “his only ambition is moral; he means to do right. He is a great simplifier — ‘lies is lies’ — and reduces all dilemmas to moral issuesâ€? (Dabney 128). In direct opposition to Pip’s superficial education, “Joe’s scholarship [. . .] is of a kind that allows the perception of true valueâ€? (Raina 113). During his childhood, Pip appreciates Joe’s goodness and recalls “looking up to Joe in [his] heartâ€? (Dickens 64). As he begins to be consumed with ambition, however, he finds himself feeling ashamed of Joe and wishing Joe was “better qualified for a rise in stationâ€? (150).In addition to a commentary on the Victorian’s destructive idea of self-help, a secondary commentary Dickens dramatizes through the novel addresses the idea of criminality in Victorian society. To the Victorians, it was unacceptable to admit faults in the society of nineteenth century England. Ironically, the money that enables Pip to pursue his expectations is provided by Magwitch, an exiled criminal; the money, therefore comes “from the underworld — literally the underworld of Australia where he has made his money, and symbolically from the social underworld of violent crimeâ€? (Gilmour 116). Dickens intentionally chooses Magwitch as Pip’s benefactor instead of Miss Havisham in order to set up a framework of criminality that “touch[es] the very nerve of a characteristic mid-Victorian dilemmaâ€? (124). This dilemma involves the unresolved debate about the acceptability of an individual whose gentlemanliness is attributable to the money of a criminal. Another aspect of the dilemma focuses on the question of whether a criminal who becomes rich, educated, and polite can be acknowledged as a gentleman. Through the relationship between Pip and Magwitch, Dickens delivers the message that “criminality and civilisation [. . .] are not warring opposites but intimately and inextricably bound togetherâ€? (138). Pip’s repulsion at violence is part of what leads him to desire to become a gentleman. Ironically, the violence he has attempted to escape “provides the ultimate touchstone for the values and social position he has embracedâ€? (139).As an “important agent in the conversion of Pip, [. . . Magwitch] “first exacerbates and then exorcizes [Pip’s] pride and ingratitudeâ€? (Hardy 46). The expectations Magwitch makes available to Pip promote Pip’s transformation into an inconsiderate and selfish climber on the social ladder. Magwitch’s heart-felt devotion to Pip, however, facilitates his return to his former kind and appreciative self. Edward Said points out that “Magwitch’s delinquency is expiated [. . .] after Pip redemptively acknowledges his debt to the [. . .] vengeful convictâ€? (Said 526). When Magwitch dies, Pip suffers a physical collapse; upon his recovery, he is a changed man who emerges “not as an idle gentleman but as a hardworking traderâ€? (526). Arthur Adrian regards Pip’s “collapse and coma as the symbolic death of the character created by Magwitchâ€?; essentially, the self-centered Pip dies with his creator (Adrian 90). As he recovers, Pip sheds his “false pride, his shame over his humble background, [and] his ambition to be a gentlemanâ€? (90). Pip finally realizes that “true gentility [. . .] resides in an unselfish respect for others,â€? a value that Joe represents from the beginning, but Pip fails to recognize because he is blinded by ambition (90).In the scene during which Magwitch professes his role as Pip’s benefactor, Magwitch proudly proclaims, “Yes, Pip, dear boy, I’ve made a gentleman on youâ€? (Dickens 297). Magwitch’s use of the word on as opposed to of is significant because it foreshadows that a “better Pip awaits withinâ€? (Vogel 96). Essentially, Pip’s transformation into a selfish snob is both temporary and superficial. His inward goodness is weakened, but not destroyed; in the end, it is strengthened enough to take over his conscience once again. Although Magwitch’s sense of vengeance nearly destroys Pip, “his love is ultimately the agent of Pip’s redemptionâ€? (Buckley 49). When Pip is able show feeling for his convict, he demonstrates that he is a true gentleman:For now, my repugnance to him had all melted away, and in the hunted wounded shackled creature who held my hand in his, I only saw a man who had meant to be my benefactor, and who had felt affectionately, gratefully, and generously toward me with great constancy through a series of years. I only saw in him a much better man than I had been to Joe. (Dickens 406)His existence as a gentleman, however, is not what he expects. Ironically, he achieves a more fulfilling status because he learns to value conscientious morality above financial prosperity.In the Victorian society, “money is what counts, but making money is vulgar; a genteel young man must have wealth to begin with or acquire it passivelyâ€? (Dabney 137-38). Under these guidelines, Pip has no possibility of becoming a gentleman if he continues to work as a blacksmith under Joe’s direction. Magwitch understands society’s necessitation that a gentleman be idle, and he “lived rough, that [Pip] should live smooth; [he] worked hard, that [Pip] should be above workâ€? (Dickens 297). The opposing worlds of Satis House and the forge are contrasted throughout the novel. The forge is representative of a “set of values [. . .] based on honest workâ€?; Satis House, on the other hand, is dominated by closure (Bradbury 52). These characteristics are also embodied in Joe and Miss Havisham who are presented as juxtaposing role models for Pip. Joe “reorders any conventional scales of valuesâ€?; his values are based entirely on morality and are in no way influenced by the conventions of society (Bradbury 94). While Pip temporarily prefers the values of Miss Havisham and Estella, he eventually develops a “mark of mature human valuesâ€? and longs to return to the forge and Joe (74).Mr. Wemmick is another character through which Dickens delivers a satire on society. Wemmick leads two completely different lives at work and at home. At work, he is uptight, serious, and stern; at home, he is carefree, jolly, and kindhearted. Dickens uses Wemmick’s multifaceted character to illustrate a preference for the qualities embodied in the moral life of Wemmick at his castle. Essentially, Wemmick is the “perfect realization of the separation of private and public spheresâ€? (Newsom 153). Through Wemmick’s castle, Dickens intends to epitomize comfort, but also to proclaim that comfort necessarily must exist in alienation from the Victorian society. Therefore, as Pip discovers, true fulfillment cannot be attained in the midst of a superficial society.With Pip’s “sincerity of confession [, Dickens] reenshrine[s] the social value of free human interaction, and reestablish[es] nonexploitative relatedness as the essence of what it means to be humanâ€? and therefore what is necessary to be a gentleman (Raina 127). By the end of the novel, “Pip (and Dickens) separate the word ‘gentleman’ into its classless elements, the gentle man who, living by the Christian ideals of love and forgiveness, is the one type of gentlemanliness which the novel at the end unequivocally affirmsâ€? (Gilmour 143). Pip’s surpassing into gentlemanliness takes on an unexpected form, and he acquires a different identity than he anticipates. Ultimately, Pip becomes a different kind of gentleman than the one he aspires to become, and he is able to do so in spite of society’s intentions for him. Ironically, Pip discovers that the gentleman he has become is far better than the one he attempted to become. By the end of the novel, Pip recognizes true gentility as an “unselfish respect for othersâ€? (Adrian 90). In doing so, Pip fulfills his Bildung and Dickens reinforces his preference for a moral conscience as a more important quality in a gentleman than social or financial prosperity.Works CitedAdrian, Arthur. Dickens and the Parent-Child Relationship. Athens: Ohio UP, 1984.Ayres, Brenda. Dissenting Women in Dickens’ Novels: The Subversion of Domestic Ideology. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1998.Bradbury, Nicola. Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Critical Studies of Key Texts. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1990.Buckley, Jerome Hamilton. Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1974.Dabney, Ross. Love and Property in the Novels of Dickens. Berkeley: U of California P, 1967.Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. 1860-61. Ed. Janice Carlisle. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1996. 23-439.Frank, Lawrence. Charles Dickens and the Romantic Self. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984.Gilmour, Robin. The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981.Hardy, Barbara. The Moral Art of Dickens. New York: Oxford UP, 1970.Meckier, Jerome. “Great Expectations and Self-Help: Dickens Frowns on Smiles.â€? Journal of English and Germanic Philology 100 (October 2001): 537-54.Newsom, Robert. Charles Dickens Revisited. New York: Twayne, 2000.Raina, Badri. Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1986.Said, Edward. “Two Commentaries on Great Expectations: From Deconstruction to Postcolonialism.â€? Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Ed. Janice Carlisle. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1996. 518-26.Vogel, Jane. Allegory in Dickens. University: U of Alabama P, 1977.

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