Characterisation is important in Great Expectations. The names of many of the characters reflect their personalities. For example, Pip and Joe are short simple names to reflect their simple upbringings. Joe keeps his name throughout, but when Pip moves to London, he adopts the name of Handel – a famous composer. This shows that he has become more cultured and sophisticated.
Dickens’s well-educated audience would most certainly have studied Latin, and would have thus been aware that Estella derives from the Latin word for star. This highlights her radiance and beauty, but shows how unattainable she is to Pip. Pip, who can only just read English, let alone Latin, is unaware of this but still comments that “her light came along the dark passage like a star”. (p49)
‘Jaggers’ sounds like jagged. This reflects the fact that he is a hard-nosed man, with a sharp mind.
‘Pumblechook’ is a long name that suits his pompous, foolish attitude.
These ‘characternyms’ allow the reader to create a picture of the characters, without having to read lengthy descriptions. Therefore they can get to know the characters better.
Pip is the protagonist of Great Expectations. His journey of self-discovery is the cornerstone of the novel. The reader’s response to the different stages of his character is integral to their response to the whole novel. Therefore Dickens begins to build up a relationship between Pip and the reader from the very beginning line:
“My father’s name being Pirrip “my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip” (p3)
This humorous anecdote serves two purposes. Firstly the humour makes the young Pip appear charming and loveable. Dickens then reveals that Pip is in fact an orphan. This is done slowly, first by mentioning a ‘tombstone’ then in the next couple of lines saying that Pip “never saw (his) father or mother”. Because we hear of Pip’s family and then hear they are dead, we share in Pip’s loss to a certain extent. This increases the audience’s sympathy for Pip, and later in the story, we are quicker to forgive him when he behaves badly.Its second purpose is to sow how simple Pip was before his expectations.
Dickens shows how kind-hearted and non-judgemental the young Pip is in the episode in which he brings the convict the file.
Firstly, even after the convict has violently threatened Pip (“Keep still you little devil or I’ll cut your throat” (p3) Pip still repeatedly refers to him as ‘sir’. This shows that the young Pip is respectful to his elders, regardless of their status.
This is also shown through his early respect for Joe.
“Young as I was I believe that I dated a new admiration for Joe that night…when I sat looking at Joe and thinking about him, I had a new sensation of feeling conscious that I was looking up to Joe in my heart” (p40).
We know that Joe is at the bottom of the social ladder; however Pip is able to see past this and admire him regardless. This shows the reader that essentially, Pip is a good person, and has the capacity to love and be open-minded.
However, as the story progresses, we become conscious of an other, less admirable aspect of his character – his desire to better himself and move above his social and economic status.
When Pip is teaching Joe to read, Joe remarks that he is a scholar and Pip replies that he would “like to be” (p37). This seemingly throwaway comment shows that even at this early stage in the novel, when Pip knows nothing of high society, he striving to be better than the illiterate Joe is in his own innocent unassuming way.
However, this up previously recessive trait begins to come to the fore after Pip’s first visit to Satis House, home to Estella and Miss Havisham.
He is profoundly aware that Estella looks down on him, as she calls him a “common labouring boy” and recognises that she looks upon him “with the greatest disdain”. (p49)
When Estella asks what card games he can play, he says “nothing but beggar my neighbour”. (p49) By saying ‘nothing but’, he is drawing attention to the fact that he knows no others, so he is subtly putting himself down, and mirroring the derision Estella shows him. Older Pip articulates this when he says, “her contempt was so strong it became infectious and I caught it” (p50)
Instead of being angry with Estella and recognising that she is a mean snob, he becomes self-doubting insecure and painfully aware of his lowly upbringing.
“I took the opportunity…to look at my coarse hands and my common boots…They had never troubled me before but they troubled me now as vulgar appendages…I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too.” (p51)
Pips hands and boots are a symbol of hard work, and by becoming disgusted by them, Pip is rejecting the hard-working values he has been brought up to uphold. By denouncing Joe us ungenteel, he is denouncing what Joe stands for, which is honesty and integrity. This marks the beginning of his desire for self-advancement obscuring his childhood innocence.
After this first introduction to Miss Havisham, Estella and the upper class lifestyle, Pip is in a kind of purgatory. Psychologically, he is a member of the upper classes – he now looks down on poor people. However, socially and economically, he is still a member of the lower classes. This causes great turmoil for Pip, as he can no longer feel at home at the forge, and now feels distanced from his family. This is shown when he returns home and his sister is “very curious to know all about Miss Havisham’s” (p54). Pip makes up a fantastical story that Mrs Havisham is “Very tall and dark” and “sitting in a black velvet coach” in which they “all had cake and wine on gold plates” with “four dogs” that were “immense” and “fought for veal cutlets out of a silver basket”. He also tells them that they “played with flags” and “waved…swords”.
In the first chapters, when he had to lie and cheat for the convict, he did so very reluctantly though it was to save him from being eaten. After his visit to Miss Havisham’s, he lies effortlessly and has no motivation to do so other than that “there would be something coarse and treacherous in [his] dragging her as she really was (to say nothing of Miss Estella) before the contemplation of Mrs Joe. This shows that not only are the honest parts of his character being suppressed, but also he is unwilling to share his new high-class acquaintances with his lower class family. This illustrates the divide that has now grown between Pip and his family.
When Pips expectations are realised and he is to move to London, he is very quick to drop the people who had been his friends and family in case they embarrass him when he is a gentleman. His snobbery increases to the extent that he is ashamed even to be seen with Joe.
“I told Joe that I wished to walk away all alone. I am afraid – sore afraid – that this purpose originated in my sense of the contrast there would be between me and Joe if we went to the coach together. I had pretended with myself that there was nothing of this taint in the arrangement but I felt compelled to admit that it might be so” (p131)
This passage shows that, though Pip’s desire for self-advancement has made him ashamed of Joe, his good-natured side is making him feel guilty for doing so. Thus the reader knows that though Pip is behaving badly, he is dong so against his better judgement, and therefore there is some hope for him to be redeemed in the future.
The first stage of this redemption is getting Herbert established in business. Pip feels guilty that he has gotten Herbert into debt, so with the help of Wemmick, gets Herbert involved with a merchant.
“I did really cry when I went to bed to think that my expectations had done some good to somebody”
It is to Pip’s credit that he has helped Herbert. His emotional reaction shows that at heart, he is still a generous person who likes to help others.
When Pip’s belief that Miss Havisham is his benefactor is crushed, so too are his stuck-up ways. In the end he achieves humility through his acceptance of the convict as a friend.
“…and when took my place at Magwitch’s side, I felt that was my place henceforth while he lived. For now my repugnance to him had all melted away and…I saw a man who had felt affectionately, gratefully and generously towards me…a much better man than I had been to Joe ”
This passage shows that he has fully realised the wrongness of his actions. It also shows that Pip now values human ideals such as kindness and compassion over social status. Pip’s new ideology is affirmed when he writes letters to important people to try to save Magwitch from being executed because he is risking his standing in society, by associating himself with a convict. This redeems him in the reader’s eyes.
Another pivotal character in the story is Joe. Unlike Pip, his essential character does not change and he stays the model of kindness and humility throughout. Dickens uses his physical appearance to reflect this.
“Joe was a fair man with curls of flaxen hair on each side of his smooth face, and with eyes of such a very undecided blue that they seemed to have somehow got mixed with their whites” (p7)
The word ‘fair’ is used for its several layers of meaning. Literally, its primary meaning is that Joe is of a light complexion. However, this is a play on words, as fair also means, just and open-minded, which definitely describes Joe. It also means adequate or average, which shows that Joe is a man with few expectations, and is content with his simple life. However, the word also has connotative meaning through its association with light, and implies that Joe must be ‘good’.
His blonde hair and extraordinary blue eyes are not unlike the traditional characteristics of angels. By associating him with these pure innocent higher beings through his appearance, Dickens is showing the reader that Joe stands apart from the other more devious characters in the story, because he has purely good motives.
It is older Pip describing Joe. This foreshadows that Joe will look after Pip in the future and act like somewhat of a ‘guardian angel’.
Joe’s behaves admirably throughout the story and is always dignified in response to Pip’s rejection.
“I’m wrong in these clothes. I’m wrong out of the forge…you wont find half so much fault in me if…you come and you put your head in at the forge window and see Joe, the blacksmith…And so god bless you dear old Pip, old chap, god bless you” (p185)
Here Joe is displaying a sharp contrast to Pip’s aspirations and ambitions. Joe is content and at ease with himself, and though he had just been insulted by someone whom he has cared for, he is still affectionate and good-natured. This highlights the meanness of Pip’s actions. It also points to one of the central themes of the play. Though Pip is the ‘gentleman’, and Joe the common blacksmith, Joe behaves with much more courtesy and thoughtfulness. He is eventually rewarded because he marries Biddy, when Pip secretly wants to.
Pip is the narrator of great expectations, however in effect, there are ‘two Pips’ contributing to the narration. Pip the young protagonist, and Pip the adult looking back on his own story.
This is exemplified when Pip is articulating his feelings of inadequacy in regards to Estella and Miss Havisham and his family.
“I thought how Joe and my sister were then sitting in the kitchen, and how I had come up to bed from the kitchen, and how Miss Havisham and Estella never sat in the kitchen, but were far above the level of such common doings.”(p60)
The voice in the passage is young pip, and he is communicating his feelings in his simple naïve way. He has identified the difference in class between him and Estella by the fact that Estella and Miss Havisham eat at a dining table every day and his own family usually eat in the kitchen. This allows us to understand the profound effect Pip’s visit to Miss Havisham has had on him. He has begun to detest every aspect of his life, even things as basic as where he eats dinner.
“That was a memorable day for me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same way with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. “Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns and flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.” (p60)
The voice in the following passage is clearly that of the mature Pip, reflecting on his past, he is commenting on the significance and poignancy of that day, and how that first visit set in motion his quest to become a gentleman. The use of the phrase ‘bound you’ shows that from that point on, Pip’s desire to become a gentleman, and win Estella, are the driving force for many of his actions, and that they have taken him over.
The use of this two-tiered narrative technique allows Dickens to lead the reader through Pip’s early life with the intimacy and surprise of a first person narrative whilst being able to comment perceptively and insightfully with an all-pervading narrator that is not involved physically in the story and has the benefit of hindsight. Therefore the reader is able to feel an emotional connection with Pip; whilst at the same time have a greater understanding of his feelings, motives, and actions.
Dickens intersperses Pip’s narrative with others for effect at pivotal points in the book.
For example, at the start of chapter 42, the narrative voice shifts to Magwitch’s as he tells Pip and Herbert the story of his life
“Dear Boy and Po’s comrade. I am not-a-going fur to tell you my life like a song or a story-book. But to give it to you short and handy” (p284)
From the moment of his arrival, Pip regards the convict with revulsion, and therefore he is painted in a negative light.
“... I was so wretched in having him at large and near me, and ... would far rather have worked at the forge all the days of my life than I would ever have come to this!”
Therefore allowing the convict to speak for himself allows the audience o form an opinion of him, untainted by Pip’s revulsion. We are also able to experience, with Pip, the peeling back of Magwitch’s character to reveal an essentially good man. It breaks up the narrative, and makes it more interesting.
Dickens extensively describes the marshes in the opening of the story. “My first and most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things…This bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard…and the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard…was the marshes…the low leaden line beyond was the river…the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea…” (p3)
The language in this description mirrors Pip’s harsh life in respect to his being orphaned and losing five of his siblings. ‘overgrown with nettles’ suggests neglect, and Pip as an orphan does not have a mother and father to look after him. The alliteration in ‘low leaden line’ creates a sombre and mournful mood and a ‘savage lair’ is the home of a beast or monster. We do not know it yet but Pip is forced to live with his cruel older sister.
After the incident with the convict, Pip describes the marshes again but this time he describes it in terms of long black lines and the sky as “a row of long angry red lines”. Red and black are commonly associated with death and danger, and it is no coincidence that Pip only recognises these features in the landscape being violently threatened and abused.
The fact that the marshes mirror Pip’s life and his emotions, coupled with the fact that it is the first setting Dickens introduces, causes the reader to regard them as an important place – and when Pip returns there in the future, this knowledge crease further tension and apprehension.
Dickens uses humour to great effect throughout Great Expectations. Joe is often used as a vessel for this humour and never more so than when he comes to visit Pip in London.
Pip can hear him climbing up the stairs in “state boots” that were “too big for him” and it takes him a long time to do so because he takes time to “read all the other names on the other floors in the course of his ascent”. Then when he finally does reach Pip’s door, he can be heard “breathing at the keyhole”. (p180) Joe’s clumsy ways of doing things create a comic picture and draw out the whole visit, making Pip feel increasingly uncomfortable.
The way Joe behaves with the hat is also an object of humour. Joe is behaving extremely oddly with the hat – and that is the basis of the humour. It makes this chapter interesting and entertaining. However, it also alerts the reader to the deeper symbolic meaning Dickens it trying to convey.
“…taking it up carefully with both his hands, like a birds nest with eggs in it, wouldn’t hear of parting with that piece of property, and persisted in standing talking over it in a most uncomfortable way” (p180)
“Joe getting the bird’s-nest under his left arm and for the moment and groping in it for an egg with his right” (p181)
The hat is symbolic of Pip and Joe’s relationship. Joe is trying to protect by coming to see Pip and does not want to let the relationship go, hence he never puts the hat down, or gives it away. Likening it to a birds nest shows just how precious the hat, and therefore his relationship with Pip is to Joe.
“Joe, being invited to sit down to table, looked all around the room for a suitable spot on witch to deposit his hat – as if it were only on some rare substances in nature that it could find a resting place – and ultimately stood it on an extreme corner of the chimney piece, from which it ever after fell off at intervals” (p182)
“Indeed it demanded from him constant attention, and a quickness of eye, and hand, very like that exacted by wicket keeping. He made extraordinary play with it and showed the greatest skill; now rushing at it and catching it neatly as it dropped; now merely stopping it midway, beating it up, and humouring it in various parts of the room and against a good deal of the pattern of the paper on the wall, (p182-183)
This passage shows how Joe is willing to inconvenience himself, and make himself look stupid, to protect what he has with Pip. The fact that the hat will never stay where Joe puts it highlights the precariousness of the relationship, and shows that try as he might, there are other forces, namely Pip’s expectations, working against him to ruin the relationship.
“…finally splashing it into the slop-basin, where I took the liberty of laying hands upon it.” (p183)
The hat ending up in the slop basin is symbolic of how the relationship has broken down. And Pip finally picking it up and taking it away from Joe, is symbolic of Pip not wanting Joe to keep trying to save it.
This incident is an example of how humour is combined with symbolism in Great Expectations to convey a serious message to the reader in a light-hearted, unsentimental manner. The effect of this is entertaining the reader whilst at the same time giving them deeper insight into the important relationships in the story.
Dickens uses understatement to create humour in the opening of the book. When the convict says ‘Darn me if I couldn’t eat (Pip’s cheeks), Pip ‘earnestly expressed (his) hope that he wouldn’t. This creates humour because obviously Pip would be more adamant about not being eaten alive. This light-hearted portrayal of the situation diffuses the tension of a potentially terrifying moment, allowing the reader to feel less concerned for Pip, and therefore less afraid of the convict. This prepares us to like the convict later in the story.
Wemmick, the dry lawyers clerk who leads a double life as the whimsical architect and smallholder at Walworth, provides a lot of the humour in the novel though his eccentric behaviour.
He refers to his profoundly deaf father, as ‘the Aged’ there are several comic scenes in which Pip and Wemmick nod exaggeratedly at him as a means of communication. Wemmick, his Walworth home and his humorous ways are used to diffuse tension. For example, Wemmick’s rushed marriage to Miss Siffkins is sandwiched between the Magwitch’s capture and his trial.
Dickens also uses irony to entertain and engage the reader, and point to some of themes of the novel. The first obvious example of irony is about Mrs Joe Gargery. She has taken her husbands names, and this is usually a symbol that a wife is her husband’s property. However, their relationship is completely the opposite, and he treats Joe as no more than a child. This reverts the typically stereotype that women are more weak-willed than men are.
Satis house is also ironically named. It means enough, and is the root of the word satisfaction. However there can be no satisfaction there for Miss Havisham, Estella or Pip.
Dickens uses the mists as a metaphor for Pip’s mind. When he is about to leave for London, he says, “the mists had all solemnly risen now and the world lay spread before me” (p152), it shows that in Pip’s mind, everything has been resolved, and he is on his way to where he belongs.
There are many themes interlaced with the story. Firstly that of class and what makes a true ‘gentleman’. Pip associates being a ‘gentleman’ with having money. However through the characters in the story, Dickens shows that this is not true. Bentley Drummle is rich, yet has many undesirable characteristics. He is Pip’s nemesis. Herbert Pocket on the other hand is poor, but Pip admires and loves him.
Miss Havisham also represents a paradox in Pip’s world of money = happiness. She is extremely rich; however, her money is the worst thing that happened to her. It is the reason Compeyson started a relationship with her and then broke her heart.
Through the story, Pip learns that money is not the most important thing in the world, when he accepts the convict as his benefactor and friend.
Another theme central to the novel is that of justice. Justice is always done. Joe behaves admirably throughout the novel, and Pip does not. In the end Joe is rewarded by winning Biddy.
Estella mocks Pip for being common and breaks his heart. However, she marries Drummle who treats her badly, and in the end it is she, with a convict as a father, who is of the lowest class.
Compeyson and Magwitch are both criminals, but Compeyson is by far the worse of the two. They both die, as penance for their crimes, but Compeyson’s death is horrific and painful, whereas Magwitch’s is a more dignified affair.
Another theme is that pride and revenge are destructive. Miss Havisham sets out to destroy the male sex, but in the end only ruins the lives of two females, her and Estella.
The historical context is another reason why Great Expectations is a great novel.
Britain had just undergone an industrial revolution, which had widened the gap between the rich and urban dwelling poor. A similar situation in France had led to a political revolution. The British authorities were mindful of this and thus imposed a harsh regime – executions and transportations were commonplace. Dickens felt that this was wrong, so one of the ‘good’ characters in the story was executed to highlight this and the law that transported convicts were not allowed to return is one of the obstacles in the story.
Dickens own family situation is also shown in the novel, which makes it not only entertaining, but also informative and reliable. His father was a criminal and Dickens spent some of his childhood living in a debtor’s prison. This gave him an unfavourable impression of the British justice system and this is shown in the novel when Pip first comes to London, and sees the gallows and the prison. Also, Jaggers is the main exponent of the law and he is cold and unforgiving.
So in conclusion, Dickens combines complex characters, a wide range of underlying themes and many literary techniques with other things to create a successful novel. These wide ranges of techniques and devices help the play to engage the audience on many different levels, by stimulating them verbally, emotionally and intellectually. The novel also entertains and informs at the same time.
Although, for analytical purposes, I have divided these things up, the reader responds to them as a whole and they all work together to make an impact. However, literature, by definition is an art. So although great Expectations is technically a good novel, due to the subjective nature of the literature, it is up the individual whether they enjoy it or not, and whether they prefer it to any of Dickens’s other novels.