Fractal Myth

Exploring Dickens' Great Expectations.

[Michelle Chapman ©1994]

"O, that he had never come! That he had left me at the forge ... his preservation would then have naturally and tenderly addressed my heart." Great Expectations, Chapter 39, pp.339-40 (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1965)

Show how this passage relates to the concerns and methods of the novel as a whole.

The passage from Great Expectations in which Magwitch returns to England and reveals himself as Pip's true benefactor is the last turning point in the novel. It is connected to the theme of the moral and social connotations of the word 'gentleman', as it is the revelation of the real source of his 'great expectations' that destroys Pip's snobbishness and ends the useless, passive life he had been living. As his illusions of grandeur decline, the themes of conversion and repentance are brought in, and Pip gradually becomes the mature and moral man we have seen from the start in the voice of the narrator. The change allows him finally to act unselfishly and acknowledge the true worth of those around him. Another theme suggested by the passage is that of vengeance against society by those who are outcast from it. This theme is central to the actions of both Magwitch and Miss Haversham. The passage also shows Dickens' use of visual detail and imagery, and his use of dialect and language to distinguish between the social status of the characters.

One of the major concerns of the novel is the need to distinguish between social prestige and moral worth. Dickens explores this theme by questioning ideas about the nature of a gentleman. Pip is central to this debate, as he represents the link between the social classes. He is the village boy who becomes a 'gentleman' with the help of a criminal. Magwitch's repetition of the word "gentleman", and his obsessive delight in the social status he has bought for Pip: "which on you owns a brought-up London gentleman?" (Great Expectations p.339) show that, to him, a 'gentleman' is a man with high social status, wealth, education and sophisticated manners. However, the contrasting view given through Herbert Pocket and his father shows us that "no man who was not a true gentleman at heart, ever was, since the world began, a true gentleman in manner." (Great Expectations p.204) Although Herbert has very little money, he is unquestionably a gentleman, both in the social sense, as he is well-born and has received an upper-class education, and in the moral sense, as he teaches Pip table manners, and , by example, that manners are meaningless unless they derive from sound moral principles. This is also illustrated through Compeyson, Miss Haversham's lover, who possessed a superficial elegance that blinded people to his real nature: "He's a gentleman, if you please, this villain." (Great Expectations p.67) Drummle is yet another example of an exaggerated 'type' of gentleman. Although he has inherited money, and great expectations, he has no moral standards and remains "idle, proud, niggardly, reserved and suspicious" (Great Expectation p.225) throughout the novel.

The theme of revenge is also connected to this question of gentility. Magwitch uses the socially accepted notion of a 'gentleman' to wreak his revenge on that society. In his colonial exile, the class divide rankles more than ever, so Magwitch plots to overturn the hierarchy. Through hard physical labour he earns a fortune which he spends on Pip's education and enjoyment, constructing a gentleman who has no property of his own but is, instead, the 'property' of his benefactor: "I says to myself, 'If I ain't a gentleman, nor yet ain't got no learning, I'm the owner of such. All on you owns stock and land; which on you owns a brought-up London gentleman?' This way I kep myself a going" (Great Expectations p.347) Miss Haversham's vengeance echoes this, as she creates Estella, the perfect 'lady', beautiful and talented, but designed to break the heart of any 'gentleman' who comes near her.

'Hear me, Pip! I adopted her to be loved. I bred her and educated her, to be loved. I developed her into what she is, that she might be loved. Love her!'

She said the word often enough, and there could be no doubt that she meant to say it; but if the often repeated word had been hate instead of love - despair - revenge - dire death - it could not have sounded from her lips more like a curse.
(Great Expectations p.261)

Pip's longing to become a gentleman is inspired by his love for Estella and he dreams that becoming a gentleman will allow him to "do all the shining deeds of the young Knight of romance, and marry the Princess." (Great Expectations p.253) This mixture of romantic fantasy and social pretension does not save him from a growing personal dissatisfaction with his life as a gentleman, and the use he is making of his new-found wealth: "my tendency to lavish expenditure, and to patronize Herbert, and to boast of my great prospects"(Great Expectations p.291). Pip's erroneous view of gentility becomes a prison that forces him into useless social extravagances, like joining "The Finches of the Grove" club, and keeping a servant who is so unnecessary that Pip describes the "degrading shifts to which I was constantly driven to find him employment."(Great Expectations p.268) This extravagance, which he feels is appropriate to his exalted situation, leads both Herbert and himself into debt. As Pip confesses, they "spent as much money as we could, and got as little for it as people could make up their minds to give us." (Great Expectations p.293)

The contrast between financial superiority and moral superiority is further illustrated by Pip's snobbish and patronising attitude towards his old friends. In chapter nineteen, he plans to raise Joe to a "higher sphere" (Great Expectations p.175) and dreams of bestowing "a gallon of condescension" (Great Expectations p.173) on the village as a whole. These ideas appear benevolent, but Pip considers them because they would make him look good. On discovering the true identity of his benefactor, Pip immediately feels his own status has been diminished. If this secret comes out he will look bad, regardless of how much money he has. He feels "the guilty coarse and common thing it was, to be on secret terms of conspiracy with convicts" (Great Expectations p.107-8) and he is repulsed by Magwitch's affection: "for anything I knew, his hand might be stained with blood." (Great Expectations p.339) This is ironic, as it is the rough and uncouth Magwitch who has paid for Pip's refinement and fastidiousness. Pip assumes that becoming rich has made him a better man, and that he deserves to be admired for it. Dickens uses his comic characters to reinforce this theme. Pumblechook's obsequious repetition of "well-deserved" (Great Expectations p.179) increases Pip's conceit, while his assumption of high social status threatens to render him, like Mrs Matthew Pocket, "highly ornamental, but perfectly helpless and useless." (Great Expectations p.212)

It is Magwitch's return that begins to change Pip's attitude, as the destruction of his false dreams allows his better instincts to operate, and he begins to think about other people rather than himself. He convinces Miss Haversham of the real worth of Matthew Pocket and Herbert, and arranges for the continuation of "the only good thing I had done, and the only completed thing I had done, since I was first apprised of my great expectations."(Great Expectations p.427) He is selfessly concerned about Estella's future with Drummle, pleading with her not to "fling yourself away upon a brute"(Great Expectations p.377) and forgiving her, and Miss Haversham, for their manipulation of him.

Pip's attempt to save Magwitch is marked by the revival of his moral values: "my repugnance to him had all melted away, and in the hunted wounded shackled creature who held my hand in his, I only saw a man who had meant to be my benefactor." (Great Expectations p.456) Although the escape fails, their new friendship allows Magwitch to meet his death with a calm resolve. This new maturity also allows Pip to appreciate Joe as "this gentle Christian man" (Great Expectations p.472), for although Joe can never be socially accepted as a gentleman, he is a 'gentle man' in the moral sense, which Dickens shows us is much more important. Throughout the novel, Joe exhibits an intuitive knowledge of the qualities necessary for a gentleman: "lies is lies ... That ain't the way to get out of being common, old chap" (Great Expectations p.100) but Pip is unable to recognise this until after his experiences with Magwitch.

The theme of exiles and new worlds is also introduced in the passage set for study. Magwitch has made his fortune while in exile in Australia, and this is paralleled by Pip, after the destruction of his great expectations. He, too, goes into a self-imposed exile in "the land of the Arabian Nights" (Great Expectations p.428), where he must "work pretty hard for a sufficient living" (Great Expectations p.492), but where he is able to retain his self-respect and become a gentleman in every sense of the word. Miss Haversham exiles herself from society by enclosing herself within her feelings of "wild resentment, spurned affection, and wounded pride" (Great Expectations p.411), but in contrast to Pip and Magwitch, her exile is non-productive and stifling: "in shutting out the light of day, she had shut out infinitely more; that, in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences." (Great Expectations p.411) Pip and Magwitch are able to be successful as outcasts because their exile takes them to new worlds, where they can start afresh. Miss Haversham has not escaped, as she has simply shut out the world of change, and remains surrounded by the gloomy and decaying reminders of her past.

In Great Expectations, Dickens uses visual details and imagery to complement the action of the main plot, and add an extra dimension to his characters. Magwitch shows his lowly position in society, describing himself as "that there hunted dunghill dog" (Great Expectations p.337), while the references to his "iron grey hair" (Great Expectations p.346) and Pip's comment about Magwitch "loading wretched me with all his gold and silver chains for years" (Great Expectations p.340) are a constant reminder of the convict leg irons so integral to the plot. Miss Haversham's existence in "the distinct shadow of the darkened and unhealthy house" (Great Expectations p.321), surrounded by the decaying remnants of her youthful dreams, gives us an insight into the bitterness of her experiences, while Pip's fantastical description of his first visit to Miss Haversham's house, with its "black velvet coach" (Great Expectations p.97) and the dogs which "fought for veal cutlets out of a silver basket" (Great Expectations p.97), prepares us for the themes of wish-fulfilment and 'greatly disappointed expectations'. This theme is also shown in the visual contrast between the broad sea and sky of Pip's humble childhood and the reality of the "ugly, crooked, narrow and dirty" (Great Expectations p.187) streets of London where his dreams of gentility take him.

The passage in which Magwitch returns also illustrates the narrative method Dickens employs in the novel. Graham Greene commented on "the tone of Dickens's secret prose, that sense of a mind speaking to itself with no one there to listen,"(1) and this is borne out through the duality of the narrative, as the older Pip offers moral judgments, and a commentary on, his younger self. "Throughout, I had seemed to myself to attend more to the wind and the rain than to him; even now, I could not separate his voice from those voices."(Great Expectations p.339) Pip's first meeting with Magwitch again illustrates this, with the contrast between young Pip's imagination and terror at Magwitch's threats: "your heart and your liver shall be tore out, roasted and ate" (Great Expectations p.38) and older Pip's retrospective recollection of the pitifulness and discomfort of Magwitch's state: "A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones and cut by flints, and stung by nettles and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled." (Great Expectations p.36)

Another aspect of the set passage is Dickens' use of dialect to distinguish between the social status of his characters. Magwitch's position as "a old offender of wiolent passion" (Great Expectations p.365), and his lack of education, are illustrated by his language: "If I ain't a gentleman, nor yet ain't got no learning ..." (Great Expectations p.339) and he is one of the few characters in the novel who is permitted to swear: "By G--, it's Death!" (Great Expectations p.340) Joe's diction also marks him as belonging to a lower social class. His attempts to pronounce difficult words such as "unacceptabobble" (Great Expectations p.473) and "architectooralooral" (Great Expectations p.244) leave him tongue-tied, while his embarrassed recognition of Pip's embarrassment makes him even less eloquent than normal: "Which I meantersay that what I say, I meantersay and stand or fall by!" (Great Expectations p.169) In contrast, Herbert's fluent conversation and classical knlowledge mark him as a member of the upper class, despite his lack of money: "Would you mind Handel for a familiar name? There's a charming piece of music by Handel, called the Harmonious Blacksmith." (Great Expectations p.202) Pip's language also alters as he moves towards 'gentility', adopting a higher diction under the sting of Estella's scorn.

In a contemporary newspaper, Great Expectations was described as "all the more enjoyable because it defies criticism."(2) This statement confirms the modern view of Dickens as one of the 'great' authors of English literary history. In the novel, Dickens discusses many of the concerns of Victorian society, such as rigid class distinctions, and the workings of the legal system, and yet it "seems not only to reflect his own times accurately but also to be a disturbingly close likeness of our own."(3) The novel is also enjoyed today for its discussion of the eternal human themes of guilt, revenge, romance and relationships as portrayed through Dickens' expert characterisation. Finally, Dickens' skill as a novelist is shown by the way in which one small passage can suggest so many of the concerns and methods of the novel as a whole.


1. Greene, G., 'The Young Dickens' in The Lost Childhood and Other Essays (1962) p.57.
2. The Times October 1861; quoted by Angus Calder in the Introduction to Great Expectations (Penguin edition) p.14.
3. Calder, A., ibid.


Dickens, Charles
Great Expectations
(ed) Angus Calder, (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1965).

Greene, Graham
The Lost Childhood and Other Essays
(Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1962).

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