Pip of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations is presented to us as a hero we can (and are expected to) feel much sympathy towards. However, our appreciation for his character is complicated by revelations of his moral shortcomings. The reader is permitted to watch as Pip's personality forms throughout the novel. In the following excerpt, Biddy, a childhood friend of Pip's and also his aunt's current caretaker, gives voice to Pip's as yet repressed conscience. Here, Pip's immaturity and insensitivity are clear in the way he receives Biddy's precocious advice. Just prior to this dialogue, Pip asked Biddy “I should have been good enough for you; shouldn't I Biddy?", not only insulting her with his emphasis on “you" but also by seeking her assurance that yes, he would at least be accepted into her lowly ranks. Pip's flirtations with Biddy are also teasing and cruel, as he has little romantic interest in her. Although Pip has no intention of being insensitive, he lacks the maturity to empathize with feelings other than those so passionately held in his own breast. His words here, and Biddy's even more so, are foreboding. Pip's desire for nobility and knowledge is admirable. Yet, as readers we are disturbed by Pip's lessening reverence for goodness, kindness and virtue. Much in this excerpt foreshadows what kind of man Pip will become.
"Instead of that," said I, plucking up more grass and chewing a blade or two, “see how I am going on. Dissatisfied and uncomfortable, and — what would it signify to me, being coarse and common, if nobody had told me so?"
Biddy turned her face suddenly towards mine, and looked far more attentively at me than she had looked at the sailing ships.
"It was neither a very true nor a very polite thing to say," she remarked, directing her eyes to the ships again. “Who said it?" . . .
I answered, “The beautiful young lady at Miss Havisham's, and she's more beautiful than anybody ever was, and I admire her dreadfully, and I want to be a gentleman on her account." . . .
"Do you want to be a gentleman to spite her or to gain her over?" Biddy quietly asked me, after a pause.
"I don't know," I moodily answered.
"Because, if it is to spite her," Biddy pursued, “I should think — but you know best — that might be better and more independently done by caring nothing for her words. And if it is to gain her over, I should think — but you know best — she was not worth gaining over."
Exactly what I myself had thought , many times. Exactly what was perfectly manifest to me at the moment. But how could I, a poor dazed village lad, avoid that wonderful inconsistency into which the best and wisest of men fall every day? . . .
"It may well be all quite true," said I to Biddy, “but I admire her dreadfully." . . .
"If your first teacher (dear! such a poor one, and so much in need of being taught herself!) had been your teacher at the present time, she thinks she knows what lesson she would set. But it would be a hard one to learn, and you have got beyond her, and it's of no use now." [Dickens 136-137].
1. Why does Biddy choose to let Pip “off the hook"? Why does she not pursue him with her advice or teach him the “lesson she would set"? Does she allow Pip to dismiss her advice because, as she says, it would be of no use now, or are there perhaps other factors at work that impel her to let Pip learn from his own mistakes?
2. Does Dickens imply in any way that Biddy may have romantic feelings for Pip? Or are we supposed to view Biddy as a voice of reason and therefore not a voice of emotion? If Biddy did feel romantically towards Pip, would she withhold her advice in order to punish him for his insensitivity towards her?
3. What does Pip's acknowledgment of Biddy's sense and goodness contribute to our notions of his character? Why does Dickens want his readers to recognize that Pip thinks “Exactly what I myself had thought, many times" in reaction to hearing Biddy's opinion of how he should view Estella?
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Ed. Edgar Rosenberg. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.
Last modified 16 February 2004