Belonging In Great Expectations

Belonging in Great Expectations #

Great Expectations is a novel about misfits who find it difficult to adjust and conform to an heirarchical society full of false values.  Miss Havisham - One of the literary world’s most eccentric creations has gone into self-imposed reclusion because she was jilted by CompeysonEstella’s upbringing has inured her from developing warm relations with anyone, while anyone in the cut-throat world of business or criminal world is too much into self-serving to care for other people. The upper classes are isolated by their aloof remoteness and disconnectedness from greater society and the lower orders are excluded by the lack of money, class and manners.

Most of us begin our integration into society within the security of a loving family, however Pip begins life as an orphan, (as do Joe and Magwitch) predeceased by his Father, Mother and five infant brothers, alone and isolated with only a grudging older sister and her more gentle husband to care for him.

“home had never been a pleasant place for me, because of my sister’s temper”  (100)

It is only Joe and his forge that provides it with more of a haven, refuge or sanctuary from the outside world. Though Pip is well fed and physically maintained, he is emotionally starved through Mrs Joe’s domestic tyranny.  He is a reject - emotionally crippled. 

His sister makes it quite clear that she doesn’t like him:

“I was always treated as if I had insisted on being born”  (20)

“I think my sister must have the general idea that I was a young offender….to be dealt with according to the outraged majesty of the law”  (20)

* “all the times she had wished me in my grave” * (24)

*“I had known from the time I could speak, that my sister, in her capricious and violent coercion, was unjust to me…..I had nursed this assurance … a solitary and unprotected way, ….I was morally timid and very sensitive.” * (57-58).

His helplessness leads to alienation, self-condemnation and self-estrangement.  Pip is paralysed by fear and guilt; the fear of Magwitch’s dire warnings and the guilt of stealing from Mr and Mrs Joe.  Later it is his mere association with a convict leaves a “stain” on his character increasing his insecurity and self reproachment.

*“I didn’t bring you up by hand to badger people’s lives out….People are put in Hulks because they murder,… rob, and forge…..and they always begin by asking questions” * (12)

*“..The Hulks were handy to me; I was clearly on my way there. I had begun by asking questions and I was going to rob Mrs Joe.” * (12)

Joe, his only trusted friend, is also betrayed when Pip steals his file, leading to more guilt and insecurity.

*“In a word, I was too cowardly to do what was what I knew was right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what was wrong. *(37)

Pip’s self-esteem is not boosted by his association with Satis House or Estella.

*“What would it signify to me, being coarse and common , if nobody told me so! * (121)

Estella  (a false star) is the gate keeper who lets Pip into her world, but not her heart:

*“This is Pip, is it?” *returned the young lady, who was very pretty and seemed very proud; “come in, Pip”.

She then leads Pip into a love sick, self-destructive obsession and yearning for love:

“against reason,  against promise,  against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be”.  (219)

Estella mistreats him badly, addressing him as boy, ridiculing him mercilessly and thereby creating in him a shame of his background and a false aspiration for acceptance in her  ‘artificial’ world.

*“He calls the knaves ‘Jacks,’ this boy!” said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. “And what coarse hands he has! And what thick boots!”  *

* I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before, but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt for me was so strong that it became infectious, and I caught it.   She won the game, and I dealt. I misdealt, as was only natural, when I knew she was lying in wait for me to do wrong, and she denounced me for a stupid, clumsy laboring boy.  *(55)

From every encounter with Estella, Pip emerges miserably:

*“I fancied, as I looked at her, that I slipped hopelessly back into the coarse and common boy again”  *(222)

Anxious to redefine himself, Pip eagerly, but wrongfully clings to the dream that Mr Jaggers message comes from Miss Havisham:

*“Miss Havisham was going to make my fortune on a grand scale”  *(130)

Joe believes in his elevation:

*“Pip’s a gentleman of fortun’ then, *said Joe.  (135)

Pip’s self-perception is not enhanced by his being “made” into a gentleman because he does not own it.  He passively accepts the process giving credit to the wrongful benefactor and then is ashamed when the rightful benefactor makes himself known to him.

*“You call me a lucky fellow, of course I am. I was a blacksmith’s boy but yesterday;,  I am – what shall I say I am today?”  *(234)

 His dissatisfaction grows as Pip becomes conscious of the aimlessness and wastefulness, the sheer emptiness of “his life as a gentleman”, a life consisting of foolish expenditures, debt, and the ‘Finches of the Grove’. ¹

*“Dissatisfied with my fortune……. I could not be….I may have been…dissatisfied with myself” *(136)

If Pip knows the shame which prompts him to be false, he yet proves, once again not to resist.  These are the fruits of his great expectations: * “restlessness and disquiet of mind”*  (258), new sources of guilt and self-reproach to replace the old. ²

Bentley Drummle represents the quintessential gentleman of the English class system; a man not expected to do anything but live an indulged dissipate life, purposeless, non-productive, haughty, imperious, destructive and unaccountable for his actions; all because he is extremely rich. 

Poetic justice rules when in a fit of impetuous rage he kicks his horse which kicks him back, killing him and releasing Estella from her bondage to him.

There is a sense of self betrayal in Pip’s subscribing to society’s hollow, gentlemanly ideals.

 Pip’s wretchedness increases when he discovers the identity of his benefactor to be Magwitch, the convict, an association he had been determined to reject.

*“For an hour or more, I remained too stunned to think;…..I began to know how wretched I was, and how the ship in which I had sailed was gone to pieces.”  *(390)

From the depth of despair, self renewal begins as Magwitch’s example of selflessness prompts Pip to reflect on his own behaviour “my own worthless conduct” towards Joe and he begins his slow climb towards self respect and moral maturity.   The first “only good thing”  he does is get Miss Havisham to set Herbert Pocket up in business.  When she also offers to help him, Pip has the moral courage to refuse the offer.  He is now ready to accept responsibility for his own future independently.

*There have been sore mistakes; and my life has been a blind and thankless one; and I want forgiveness and direction far too much, to be bitter with you.”  *(410)

As the transformation of Pip runs to its completion he gradually transcends himself and begins to look to helping others, so too does his inner happiness develop.   At the end we can applaud Pip for becoming a moral hero and a true “gentleman” in his acceptance of Magwitch.

 “my repugnance to him had melted away….I saw a man who …felt affectionately, gratefully and generously, towards me with great constancy…I only saw him in a much better man than I had been to Joe.   (433)

Both Pip and Herbert Pocket now are alienated from the business community because of their genuine gentility and lack of the killer instinct of the competitive market guaranteeing they will never be rich or successful in the insurance industry.

Pip leaves England to work overseas for eleven years “he has no home anywhere”  and when he returns describes himself as a ‘wanderer’  - in voluntary exile,  Even his last meeting with Estella leaves him utterly alone and isolated after realising the impossibility of their reunion:


*“I saw no shadow of another parting from her”  *(493)

Novels are notoriously difficult to end; to bed down or to exit in a satisfying manner for everyone.   Do we want a neat tidy ending with all the loose knots tied, or an ambiguous one where we have to imagine our own solutions.  Happy endings can be unrealistic, while tragic ones can leave an audience utterly dissatisfied. 


Dickens had two endings, one happy, the other more realistic but ambiguous:

The last sentence can read either :

“… I saw no shadow of another parting from her,” or 

“… I saw the shadow of no parting from her,” 

the former being the revised ending, implying that they do part.

Pip’s social isolation and alienation is completed.  His inner life secure, he no longer needs society’s approval in order to live a happy, self-fulfilled, integrated and productive life.

Other characters remain miserably isolated, perhaps no one more so than Miss Havisham whose self-imposed peevish isolation has destroyed a promising life.  Estella’s inability to relate to people has been ensured by her upbringing while Drummle’s privileged and sheltered conditioning guaranteed his failure in human relationships.   

¹The Dickens Hero  Selfhood and Alienation in the Dickens World Beth Herst,1990, St Matrtin’s Press

Most of this article is sourced from this book.

^(2\ )Ibid,  direct quote.