“Great Expectations” is a novel of self-introspection—especially as the story relates to our narrator and protagonist, Pip. The question of who Pip is and what he shall become is the fundamental theme that drives the story forward.
“My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.” Great Expectations is not an autobiography. Yet in many ways the fictional novel reads as an autobiography. But as Pip narrates the tale of his great expectations, the seeds of a spiritual confession are laid bare for those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear.
Charles Dickens was, arguably, the greatest of the Victorian writers. Though he personally struggled with many things, the moralist that Dickens was is reflected throughout his works. Whether serious and technical like A Tale of Two Cities, endearing and charming like David Copperfield and Great Expectations, or shocking and powerful like A Christmas Carol, the moralism and Christian allegory and symbolism to Dickens’ many works led Leo Tolstoy to consider him the greatest of Christian authors. Great Expectations certainly reflects that reality.
Great Expectations is a novel of self-introspection—especially as the story relates to our narrator and protagonist, Pip. The question of who Pip is and what he shall become is the fundamental theme that drives the story forward. Through Pip we have recapitulated the great Augustinian question: mihi quaestio factus sum? Pip is an ignorant but honest and kind simpleton with a deep moral fire burning in him when we meet him. As he grows older, more educated, and sophisticated, he struggles with his moral conscience—though this was already prefigured for us in his youth. Pip is torn between two selves and two worlds: His simple, moral, and honest self which is represented by his working-class roots; and his sophisticated, cunning, and lustful self which is represented by his desire to be transformed and accepted into the higher echelons of English high society. Janus-faced Pip wrestles with himself all throughout the novel until one face reigns supreme.
There are, as such, two Pips in the novel—just as there are two sides to human nature. There is the good, honest, and loving side to human nature. Then there is, in the immortal words of young Pip to Biddy, “the bad side of human nature.” That bad side of human nature is lust, ingratitude, and irresponsibility. These two forces inside Pip wrestle for control of his soul and are archetypally embodied in Orlick and Herbert Pocket, who represent, in their own ways, the expectations of Pip. The brute Orlick, like the brutish Drummle, is the dark shadow of Pip’s “bad side of human nature.” The gentle and kind Herbert, by stark contrast, is Pip’s better angel: An educated and kind gentleman instead of an educated but hollow dead body (which characterizes Mr. Jaggers). Orlick is what Pip may devolve to in his pursuit of vanity. Herbert is what Pip may pass into through a higher divinization.
The two Pips at war for his soul are entangled in the darkness of Satis House, a place that is closer to Dante’s hell than it is to vengeful caldron of pandæmonium. Dante’s construction of hell was a place where love has been so eviscerated only cold darkness remains. In much the same way Satis House, with Miss Havisham and Estella, exist in that cold and dark, loveless, abode. Dante’s hell is also a place where truth does not exist, and in Pip’s return to Joe’s forge after his first visit he begins to lie about his time spent with the wounded Havisham and the icy Estella. Pip’s nature is contorted by visiting Satis House and his nature remains corrupted by the specter of Satis House calling his soul to enslavement.
But the two sides of Pip were visible before his entry into the conniving claws of Miss Havisham. Pip’s moral guilt is a recurring theme throughout the book. He fears, after helping the escaped convict from the marshes, that the law will catch up to him and bring him to justice. When the soldiers, as instruments of the law and justice, unexpectedly arrive at Joe’s forge to ask assistance, Pip is frightened into thinking they’ve come for him. The moral conscience of Pip, even as revealed in the opening chapters of Great Expectations, reveals a deep interiority and consciousness to him that he will struggle with as the novel develops and his character simultaneously grows more complex and compromised.
The young Pip before his Satis House encounter is comedic and cute. We laugh with Pip in his innocent reflections, like when he shrieked in terror at a Christmas dinner, staggered around the house “like a little drunkard,” and confessed that his catechetical instruction to walk the way of the Lord “laid [him] under an obligation always to go through the village from [his] house in one particular direction.” But this comedic and innocent Pip who we laughed with becomes an ungrateful and stuffy shell of his former boyhood self that we come to detest. As Pip “ascends” into his great expectations, he falls to become more like Orlick and Drummle than Herbert in a brilliant reversal of the image and notion of ascending. Pip may outwardly look like a gentleman but interiorly he has dissolved into a pale shadow of his former self who is cold and, at times, heartless, to those who love him.
Herbert looms over Pip throughout the novel too. They memorably meet in the courtyard where Herbert challenges Pip to a sporty fight. Though Herbert is weak and “did not look very healthy—having pimples on his face, and a breaking out at his mouth,” Herbert is soon revealed to be a beautiful and tender-hearted individual precisely because of his interior soul rather than exterior presentation. This was equally prefigured when Pip and Herbert meet again at Bernard’s Inn and Herbert wears his raggedy suit in a dignified manner and his unhandsome face and ungainly figure radiated amiable cheerfulness. Herbert’s openness, honesty, and gentle kindness, as they grow older and nearer their inheritance, remind us of the Pip who sat beside Joe at the marshes as “ever the best of friends” and who poured his heart out to Biddy about his desire to be a gentleman and win Estella’s nonexistent heart. Herbert is what the better side of Pip could be.
Orlick, and Drummle—who “reminded [Pip] of Orlick”—who also begin to hang over the specters of Satis House tug at Pip to become that bumbling, empty, and disheveled fraud like them. As with Dante’s sinners in hell, the fallen are copies of each with all threads of individuality destroyed by a common darkness.
In various ways the moral guilt that Pip always exuded is what keeps him from entirely sinking into the abyss of darkness. Though he acts in a proud and ungrateful manner to Joe and Biddy, he cannot escape his true self; he cannot escape the young, cheery, and good-natured lad we were introduced to in the church graveyard and pouring himself out to Joe and Biddy before he left to live in the corrupt city of London and in the corrupt shadow of Satis House. His ill treatment, especially of Joe, haunts him. But the more he thinks of growing into his great expectations, which is tied to Satis House, the more he tries to push aside his nature as Pip.
Indeed, this wrestling with himself is even poetically embodied in his christened name when he enters high society. He is to keep his name Pip. His movement into high society doubly reinforced his blacksmith self. So too is this true when Herbert christens him “Handel.” The reason why Herbert named Pip Handel was because of the song “Harmonious Blacksmith.” Thus, even the formal renaming he received by Herbert keeps him attached to his graceful and innocent old self that made such an impression on Abel Magwitch.
The interiority of Pip, as recounted, is matched only by Dickens’ spiritual master—Saint Augustine. Indeed, even secular scholars and readers of Augustine have remained enamored by the bishop’s genius and “discovery of psychological interiority.” And the psychological interiority of Pip is regularly revealed with both an endearing and repugnant character depending on the circumstance and situation in which it is revealed. Pip’s narration is not just about the world that lay before him but very much about the interior world inside of himself and the complexity of emotions, feeling, and guilt he wrestles with. If anything, that interior world is the real world that he struggles with throughout the story.
As the novel climaxes, it is no surprise that Pip is trapped by his bad shadow: Orlick. It also is no surprise that his salvation comes from Herbert, his dearest and loving friend who constantly served to lift Pip to a higher plane of existence. It is, then, fitting that Pip hung suspended between the muck and mud of Orlick and the heavenly face of Herbert in his moment of new birth compelled by the spirit of Abel instead of the spirit of Compeyson.
Having been freed from his dark shadow and looking upward as if to the heavens to see his savior, Pip “saw [his] supporter to be—Herbert!” The same Herbert who brought out the good side of Pip when he needed it most, the same Herbert whom Pip helped which reflected the vestiges of his good nature during his time of tumultuous struggle, and the same Herbert who invites Pip to take responsibility for his life instead of living a fantasy. Joe may have paid the debt at the story’s end, freeing Pip from the bondage of servitude, but Pip had already gone through his metempsychosis.
Pip’s rebirth is subsequently followed by his redemption through forgiveness. He stays beside Magwitch to the bitter end despite his earlier wanting to abandon him. When he cries out, “O Lord, be merciful to him, a sinner!” he may have well been praying his own prayer—and Pip has been absent of prayers since leaving Joe and Biddy. He reconciles with Joe and Biddy and pours out his heart to them again just as he did a young boy. He prays their forgiveness and cries in his repentance of the ill he had done to them. It is at the end of this wrestling with his dark shadow and being freed from the corrupting influence of Satis House that Pip steps into a church to be the best-man and witness to Mr. Wemmick’s marriage. In sum, the good-natured Pip has returned, and we find, in the final pages, the Pip we were introduced to in the beginning which is the summary of salvation history. That original image is restored from its corruption.
When Providence brings Pip and Estella back to the remains of Satis House we find that they have changed tremendously. The ruins of Satis House, hell, has freed them into a new world of love and possibility. There the two reconcile as the haunting image of Satis House disappears forever. If Estella was “bent and broken… into a better shape,” so too was Pip. Looking out over the horizon of the world now revealed with the disappearance of the morning mist, Dickens inverts the image of Milton’s expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise not as an image of tragedy but an image of new beginnings as they hold hands which have been brought together rather than remain apart.
The trajectory of Great Expectations is, with the important concluding words of Estella, the bending and breaking of Pip into a better shape. Estella is not alone in this regard, in fact, the whole story is the bending and breaking of Pip into a better shape. Pip’s bending and breaking—literally in wrestling against Orlick and the shadow of Satis House—culminates in rebirth, his reshaping after being bent and broken. Pip sheds the shadow of Orlick and his past ingratitude and coldness and fully embraces the flashes of his earlier goodness as he becomes selfless and forgiving and, most of all, seeking forgiveness from others. It is as if he ends his confession asking the reader to forgive him. And forgive him we do as we welcome Pip back into the family of saints.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Great Expectations: Pip is ashamed of Joe at Satis House” by F.A. Fraser, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.