In Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, the orphaned narrator Pip lives with his sister and her husband. Upon returning from his encounter with the convict, an already terrified Pip arrives home to the wrath of someone else. His brother-in-law Joe informs him that Mrs. Joe and her weapon of corporal punishment, “Tickler," are on a rampage designed for the young boy. However, before Pip learns this, he gives a general introduction to both of his primary relatives, characterizing them as opposites and giving full descriptions of both their physical appearances and their demeanors:
She was not a good-looking woman, my sister; and I had a general impression that she must have made Joe Gargery marry her by hand. Joe was a fair man, with curls of flaxen hair on each side of his smooth face, and with eyes of such a very undecided blue that they seemed to have somehow got mixed with their own whites. He was a mild, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easy-going, foolish, dear fellow‹a sort of Hercules in strength, and also in weakness.
My sister, Mrs. Joe, with black hair and eyes, had such a prevailing redness of skin that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg-grater instead of soap. She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two loops, and having a square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles. She made it a powerful merit in herself, and a strong reproach against Joe, that she wore this apron so much. Though I really see no reason why she should have worn it at all: or why, if she did wear it at all, she should not have taken it off, every day of her life. [pp.15-16]
1. How are the Gargery's physical characteristics linked to their character traits in Pip's mind? Is a binary of fair versus dark created, and does Pip suggest that the lightness and darkness of their colorings are not exclusively hereditary but also the result of their personalities and actions?
2. What are some of the functions of Mrs. Joes's apron? Does she actually ever do anything “by hand" in the literal sense?
3. Based on this passage, do you think that Pip respects Joe, or simply sympathizes with him? Does this change during the course of the novel?
4. How does the syntactical order of the paragraph subordinate Joe to Mrs. Joe? Does the term “Mrs. Joe" contradict that subordination?
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.
Last modified 16 February 2004