Great Expectations is one of Dickens’s most famous novels. It deals with the young boy who strikes it rich and has the opportunity to become an educated “gentleman,” the bumbling and stumbling Pip who, in his ascent to greatness, enters the terrible world of social politics and grievance that dominates English high society. In this tale of a poor boy becoming spoiled aristocratic gentleman—or at least the want to be that—Dickens also exposes the horrors of aristocratic English life.
There is no idyll for high society. Miss Havisham was cruelly abandoned on the altar of marriage and left to rot in her resentment, which ruined Estella and affected the originally innocent spirit of Pip. While characters like Herbert Pocket represent the more humane face of English high society, we also learn that he and his family isn’t exactly the “wealthiest” among the aristocratic class. Likewise, the new-moneyed class of professionals, the lawyers Jaggers is the great example, are equally cruel and empty human beings.
Throughout the maturation of Pip’s character, Dickens is asserting that high society and the pursuit of self-gain (Pip’s desire, along with the likes of Jaggers and others) and revenge (Havisham), has a disastrous consequence on the soul and human life. The originally loving and charitable Pip becomes cold and callous. He turns away Joe, he becomes a mirror of the cruel society he seeks to emulate and become part of.
It is the shocking revelation of the kindness of Magwitch that shatters the illusion of Pip’s dark desires, along with the eventual revelation of the tragedy of Miss Havisham which leads to Pip’s unsuccessful attempt to save her when she immolates herself in her sorrow. Pip’s confrontation with Orlick and Drummel also represent the wrestling with his inner demons and the need to break away from the dark ghost that Orlick represents (his evil half, so to speak).
Through kindness, through love, through friendship, Pip’s better side is nurtured and restored. The haughty young man is brought “bent and broken…into a better shape.” While Estella says this at the end of the novel in their concluding meeting—leaving an open ending as to whether they will have any future together—that statement of being “bent and broken…into a better shape” is also applicable to Pip. We saw Pip “bent and broken” through the story. At the end, he has come out “into a better shape.” We welcome Pip back into that family of joy and charity that he was originally, though we also know the innocence is gone forever. Losing innocence is necessary as we age. Losing the kindness, love, and deep friendship that makes life meaningful, Dickens implies, is not. We must retain that kindness, love, and spirit of friendship as we lose our innocence if we are to remain “great” souls.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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