Unlike many novels of its time, Charles Dicken's Great Expectations lacks substantial undertones of Christian morality. Instead, morality for the main character, Pip, takes the form of a sensitive self conscience that draws its influence from emotions and notions of wealth and propriety. It's clear from the beginning of the novel that Pip often acts out of fear for what people will think of him or do to him, instead of doing what's right. Pip steals from his own home and betrays his best friend, Joe, by stealing his file for the convict out of fear for what the “terrible young man" might do to him. Although Pip feels guilty, a large component of it also has to do with a fear for what his sister might do to him should she ever find out he stole from the house. The idea that Pip would betray those closest to him in order to protect himself (particularly his image) prevails throughout the novel.

Wealth and propriety progressively become the driving forces in Pip's conscience, ultimately pushing him to forsake his friends in an attempt to dissociate himself from the marker of being “common." Estella, the adopted daughter of Miss Havisham, first imposes this class marker on Pip during his first visit to Satis House: “As I went along, on all I had seen, and deeply revolving that I was a common labouring-boy; that my hands were coarse; that my boots were thick; that I had fallen into a despicable habit of calling knaves Jacks; that I was much more ignorant than I had considered myself last night, and generally that I was in a low-lived bad way" (60-61). Consequently, Pip decides that he aspires to be a gentleman, and desires to be worthy in the eyes of Estella and Miss Havisham. When it comes to chance that Pip inherits a large sum of money and property, he becomes obsessed with his new social status. Now feeling superior as a man of wealth, Pip forsakes his first educator, good friend, and confidante, Biddy. In one of his last conversations with Biddy, Pip accuses her of being envious of his rise in fortune, and does so in a condescending tone:

If you have the heart to be so, you mean, Biddy," said I in a virtuous and superior tone; “Don't put it off upon me, I am very sorry to see it, and it's a — it's a bad side of human nature. I did intend to ask you to use any little opportunities you might have after I was gone, of improving dear Joe. But after this, I ask you nothing. I am extremely sorry to see this in you, Biddy," I repeated. “It's a — it's a bad side of human nature." [148; Place within the complete text of the novel]

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Pip takes a similar attitude towards Joe, feeling embarrassed to be seen with him in public, exemplified by disallowing Joe to accompany him to his London coach for fear of there being too big a “contrast" between them. Ultimately, Pip's obsession with his class and material wealth becomes the governor of his conscience, as he pushes away the positive, though economically poor, influences of his youth in attempt to preserve his new image.

Questions

1. Explain the irony behind the sentence “It's a bad side of human nature" as spoken by Pip.

2. Given the strong emphasis on class during this time as well as the presence of religion, what relationships exist between the two? Did materialism and wealth substitute for religion for the aristocracy?

3. One can view some of the characters in this novel (Estella, Orlick, Miss Havisham) as “monsters." Is Pip, in any sense, a “monster"? Does everyone have a “monster" in them? What does this concept illustrate about human nature?

4. What qualities about Joe make him represent a figure of Christian morality?

5. How do Jane Eyre and Pip differ in their own consciousness towards class? How do the affluent folk in both Jane Eyre and Great Expectations compare and contrast regarding their views on materialism, education, and morality?


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 20 February 2008