The significance of naming pervades Great Expectations as early as the opening lines. The narrator begins his tale by explaining how he became known as Pip, “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” (1). In this instance, both genealogy and convention result in Philip renaming himself as Pip. In some ways, this reflects Pip’s upbringing as an orphan. He maintains a certain connection to his family heritage, but comes fully into the world and knowledge through his own devices (at the outset). Pip discusses his process of acquiring self-knowledge in terms of acquiring knowledge of the world around him and his position in it:

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip. [1]

Here, Pip’s knowledge of his own identity comes at the end of a long list of other identities he becomes aware of on this “memorable raw afternoon.” His own identity seems intimately linked to his context despite any effort he may exert to distinguish himself from them. Even the name he gives himself, Pip, retains a certain resemblance to his family and given names (“Pirrip” and “Philip”) and ties him perpetually to the deficiencies of his “infant tongue.”

A parallel situation occurs when Pip first meets Estella. However, in this encounter, emphasis is placed on the naming and renaming of Miss Havisham’s home, Manor House, rather than the identity of any of its residents:

“As to strong beer, there’s enough of it in the cellars already, to drown Manor House.”

“Is that the name of this house, miss?”

“One of its names, boy.”

“It has more than one, miss?”

“One more. Its other name was Satis; which is Greek, or Latin, or Hebrew, or all threeÑor all one to meÑfor enough.”

“Enough House!” said I: “that’s a curious name, miss.”

“Yes,” she replied; “but it meant more than it said. It meant, when it was given, that whoever had this house, could want nothing else. They must have been easily satisfied in those days, I should think. But don’t loiter, boy.” [43 — three pages into Chapter VIII]

Here, the relationship between naming and identity does not function in the same way as with Pip. The new name (Manor House) covers over the heritage of the old name (“Its other name was Satis”). This name bears no resemblance to its old name — in neither sound nor senseÑand some of the meaning of “Satis” seems lost. For Estella, it could just as well be “Greek, or Latin, or Hebrew, or all three” and she seems perplexed with how the crumbling condition of the house could satisfy anyone. In this case, Satis does “mean[t] more than it said,” but the meaning of its identity is lost to her.

As the narrative progresses, the names of both Pip and Manor House alter yet again. For Pip, a renaming comes at the hand of his close friend, Herbert, who christens him Handel (139; Chapter XXII). As for the Manor House, Estella begins calling it Satis again in her adulthood (236; Chapter XXXVIII).

Questions

Why might Pip’s relationship to naming and identity differ so significantly from that of the Manor House (and the names of other people)?

What role does history play in the formation (and development) of identity? How does this vary between the identities of people and those of places?

Do names always or necessarily mean more than they say (as Estella says with reference to the house)?

In both Pip and the Manor House, there seems to be a tension between personal history and a larger social history (Pip’s family name versus his social standing and the history of the inhabitants of the house versus the etymology of its name). To what degree can either of these histories be renamed, refashioned, or escaped? Similarly, what can we make of the pseudonyms of his benefactor?

How does renaming in this text differ from that of Bertha in Wide Sargasso Sea?


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 1 March 2010