Upon our initial acquaintance with Pip, narrator and protagonist of Dickens's timeless classic Great Expectations, we observe a prime example of working class youth in the Victorian period. Parentless, young Pip idolizes his sister's husband Joe, for whom he will someday serve as apprentice in the field of blacksmithing. Pip longs for the day when he will don his own apron and pass endless hours in the forge alongside his hero, also welcoming the change in lifestyle as sort of respite from his sister who raised him “by hand" (7). Yet, as Pip begins to spend more time in the company of Miss Havisham and Estella, we note a drastic change in Pip's attitude towards his situation. Though Pip previously accepted his fate as a respectable member of the working class, much like Joe, he now thirsts to become a member of the aristocracy, like Estella. As Pip later recounts to Biddy, Estellas's use of the term “common" in describing hi serves as the main impetus for Pip's great aspirations of becoming a gentleman.

"Instead of that 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!"

"It was neither very true nor a very polite thing to say . . . Who said it?"

"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?"

"I don't know."

"Because, if it is to spite her 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 is 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? [115-16; Place within the complete text of the novel]

Pip later admits to himself that although he knows to love Biddy, or someone like Biddy, would be in his best interest, he cannot help loving Estella — or at least the image of Estella. He becomes ashamed of his home, lamenting, “Now it was all course and common, and I would not have Miss Havisham and Estella see it on any account" (96). Pip struggles inwardly with a conflict between his desire for the glamour associated with upper class life and his loyalty to the way of life he knows, and mainly to Joe. In the end, however, Pip gives in to his pursuit of attaining the label of “gentleman," regardless of what even he would deem ethical.

Questions

1. Pip largely idolizes Joe as an honest, respectable man who provides a good life for his wife. How does the relationship between Pip and Joe relate to Dickens's early life and his relationship with his own father? Could Pip's desperate desire to become a “gentleman" be rooted in the dissatisfaction with social status that Dickens himself felt as a child? Define the role of the Victorian “gentleman."

2.

Pip twice repeats the phrase “coarse and common." Why does Dickens choose to have this phrase, in particular, repeated? Why is the use of the term “common" such an insult to Pip?

3.

Similar to Anodos's attraction to the evil but beautiful white lady in Phantastes, Pip feels an undeniable attraction to Estella despite her proud and condescending nature. What do these parallel relationships reveal about the effect of beauty on morality?

4.

Why is it significant that Pip discusses his desire to be a “gentleman" with Biddy rather than any other character in the novel? Biddy's constant questioning of Pip in the above portion of dialogue especially helps to reinforce the immensity of Pip's desire to belong to the upper classes. Why?

5.

The omnipresence of Pip's conscience plays an enormous role in the characterization of his character. What elements of Pip's character are revealed by his conscience in this specific part of the novel?


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 20 February 2008