Like many of the children inhabiting Victorian novels, Pip of Great Expectations grows up an orphan and lacks the parental love that might have given him self-confidence. His shrill sister raises him instead, yet despite this familial connection he receives no love from her. Mrs. Joe Gargery abuses her brother physically and emotionally, treating him “as if [he] had insisted on being born in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion, and morality" and making it utterly clear that she despises her role as his surrogate mother. Her antagonism has a destructive effect on PipÕs personality, making him timid and indignant at the mistreatment he experiences:

My sister's bringing up had made me sensitive. In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to; but the child is small, and its world is small, and its rocking-horse stands as many hands high, according to scale, as a big-boned Irish hunter. Within myself, I had sustained, from my babyhood, a perpetual conflict with injustice.

She instills in him a sense of guilt so strong that he regrets any action he fears might have dire consequences for him and lead to punishment. When confronted by the escaped convict, he feels that he cannot escape the wrath of both him and his sister, leading him to steal JoeÕs file in order to avoid the threat of murder. Later, he realizes that this past action has culminated in his sisterÕs attack:

It was horrible to think that I had provided the weapon, however undesignedly, but I could hardly think otherwise. I suffered unspeakable trouble while I considered and reconsidered whether I should at last dissolve that spell of my childhood and tell Joe all the story. For months afterwards, I every day settled the question finally in the negative, and reopened and reargued it next morning. The contention came, after all, to this; —the secret was such an old one now, had so grown into me and become a part of myself, that I could not tear it away. In addition to the dread that, having led up to so much mischief, it would be now more likely than ever to alienate Joe from me if he believed it, I had a further restraining dread that he would not believe it, but would assort it with the fabulous dogs and veal-cutlets as a monstrous invention. However, I temporized with myself, of course —for, was I not wavering between right and wrong, when the thing is always done? —and resolved to make a full disclosure if I should see any such new occasion as a new chance of helping in the discovery of the assailant. [Place within the complete text of the novel]

Pip feels trapped and helpless; he cannot confess to his involvement and cleanse his conscience without jeopardizing his relationship with Joe, the one person he trusts. Yet fear primarily motivates his guilt, not any sense of moral uprightness. His sister, with her harsh ways, brought him to fear the worldly consequences of his actions, not the spiritual ones. Pip grows to be somewhat selfish in this regard, caring first and foremost for his own comfort. His infatuation with Estella and desire to become a gentleman reflect how much he longs to escape his childhood life and abandon fear. He seeks to conquer his roots but also manages to alienate the important people in his life because of such a quest.

Questions

1. Many orphans during the Victorian era did not possess Pip's relative fortune of having a family to raise him; many instead ended up in orphanages or homeless. Why did Dickens not choose to portray Pip as completely devoid of any family? Why might his possession of a sister fit into the plot better than having no family?

2. Pip emphasizes his repeated debate on whether to inform Joe about the convict, using the words “considered" and “reconsidered" to convey a back-and-forth uncertainty. Is this Pip narrator portrayed as a detached, older Pip looking back on the situation or a man trying to empathize again with his previous plight? What, if anything, does this say about Pip's journey from childhood to adulthood?

3. Once Jane Eyre manages to leave the care of her horrible aunt, she begins to grow into a stronger, more confident person. Pip, on the other hand, begins his descent into materialism and snobbery. How might their individual journeys contribute to each one's individual character evolution? How do their characterizations underline the message of each story?

4. While Pip feels guilty about some of his actions, he never opts for honesty, choosing instead to keep his secrets. How does this contribute to his character development? Does his dishonesty compromise his character?


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 18 February 2008