Symbol Of Moral Self-Improvement: Charles Dickens’ "Great Expectations"

Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ is a bildungsroman novel narrated by Pip who is an orphan. Dickens’ characterization of Pip sets him out as an idealist who hopes and works for self-improvement. This serves as the catalyst for Pip’s progression from the innocence of childhood in Kent to the demands of adulthood in London. Dickens creates a motivational and attentive protagonist through the progression of his narrative who learns the true value of social status within Victorian Society and the triumph of good over evil.

The theme of ambition and self-improvement are central to the novel. This can be seen through Dickens’ characterization of Pip who falls in love with his benefactor Magwitch’s daughter Estella who was adopted by Miss Havisham in order to become a Lady. Dickens introduces Estella to the reader who serves as the first symbol of wealth and beauty for Pip. Despite treating him ‘coldly’ Pip falls in love with her whilst maintaining the hope of one day becoming a wealthy and honourable gentleman that would be deemed worthy of marrying her. The use of the bildungsroman literary genre allows the reader to create direct contrasts from the juxtaposition of the characterization and beliefs of the young Pip to the older Pip. As Pip comes of age as the novel progresses the readers learn the lessons alongside him such as the concept of a social hierarchy within society is superficial and used as a façade for the rich to hide behind. Intrinsically Pip’s persona reveals that traits such as love and loyalty are valued more highly than social status within the class system of Victorian England. Dickens determines this through his title ‘Great Expectations’ as he utilises the first-person narration through the perspective of Pip to reveal the different types of self-improvement including moral, social and educational.

At the beginning of the novel, Dickens reveals to the reader that Pip craves moral self-improvement. This is portrayed as feelings of extreme guilt when his behaviour does not meet his high personal standard of conduct towards the other characters specifically his family members such as Joe and Mrs Joe. Pip later craves social self-improvement in order to marry Estella whom he is in love with. He wishes to become a gentleman within society and therefore be socially equal to her character. Dickens’ uses this wish to expose the true nature of the superficial Victorian class system. We as readers learn that Pip’s new life as a gentleman with social and finical freedom is no more moral or noble than his life before as Joe’s apprentice. The juxtaposition causes a simultaneous contrast that reveals life in high society does not entail happiness or satisfaction by default as Pip previously thought.

Finally, Pip craves education improvement which is rooted in his love for Estella, Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter. In order for Pip to become a gentleman, he must have an education which includes being able to read and write. Before moving to London his education was hindering his social improvement through the class system. In a romantic sense, we are encouraged by Dickens’ to admire Pip as his motivation to become a gentleman is rooted in his love for Estella. However, this is unrequited but his feelings are so deep and genuine he truly believes the ‘cold’ and ‘stark’ woman will fall in love with him once they are socially and financially equal. Dickens ‘creates’ the blunt contrast in their individual characterization to portray them as complete opposites. Subtly the trope of unrequited love is placed into the narrative amongst the two contradictory characterizations. Dickens’ uses this to give the reader a glimpse of hope that Pip and Estella will end up together.

Social class is another theme that is central to ‘Great Expectations’ set in Victorian England as its structure was based on the post-Industrial Revolution model of the class system. Pip learns as the narrative progresses that a persons’ character is not related to a persons’ social status within society. This can be seen through Dickens’ characterization of Estella’s husband Bentley Drummle. He is a member of the nobility and uses social status to abusive the other characters due to his own sense of self supremacy. This is a prime example to show that ones’ status does not correlate with their persona. Whereas Magwitch who is a convicted criminal makes his fortune in Australia and then becomes Pip’s secret benefactor and sponsors him to become a gentleman in London. He is a convict who redeems himself in the eyes of the reader for helping Pip. He does this as a repayment of the kindness that Pip showed him as a young boy by fetching him food and an iron file. Magwitch is the opposite of Drummle as he comes from a low social class but becomes wealthy through commerce and is a ‘invented; by Dickins as a kind-hearted, generous character. The readers are lead to believe that Dickens tends to disregard the inheritance of characters wealth and power within the nobility of society. He instead praises his characters that have made their capital through trading. Such as Magwitch making a fortune in Australia and Miss Havisham’s family making their fortune with the brewery on her estate. The brewery acts as a physical and metaphorical symbol of the connection and correlation between commerce and wealth. The fortune that Miss Havisham possesses is due to her families’ modern success within the market of industrial capitalism, not aristocratic birth which is what the reader is lead to assume. The concept of social class is linked to the conclusion of work as that inherently creates capital and simultaneously crystallises the main theme of the plot as self-advancement again.

Dickens’ uses the themes of crime and innocence throughout ‘Great Expectations’. The use of the binary opposition for the abstract concepts of ‘guilt’ and ‘innocence’ is reinforced through the portrayal of characters such as Magwitch representing ‘guilt’ in comparison to Jaggers, a criminal lawyer who represents ‘innocence’. However Dickens’ manipulates the reader to redeem Magwitch of his crimes through his role as a benefactor for Pip by supporting him to become a gentleman within high society. However, the concept of a gentleman was defined in the later part of the nineteenth century as a man who received a traditional and ‘liberal’ education based predominantly on the teaching of Latin and having attended an exclusive public boarding school regardless of their background. The symbols of crime are apparent throughout the narrative and symbolise a part of Pip’s battle with his moral principles and internal conscience in regard to the justice system. Just as Pip learns that the hierarchy of social class and its value, in reality, is a façade; he also realises that the justice system is also a façade of morality that he learns to look beyond the bounds of by trusting his instincts. This is demonstrated by Dickens through his characterization of Magwitch whom Pip helps out of fear as he is a convict which causes him to feel guilt. Yet it is revealed to the reader that Magwitch is Pip’s secret benefactor who possesses the quality of nobility. This allows Pip to help him escape the police towards the end of the novel due to Pip’s ability to see past his label as a convict placed upon him by society. This reveals a modification within Pip’s conscience as he trusts his own judgement and subsequently replaces reinstates the external label of a ‘convict’ with an internal label of a ‘friend’.

Dicken’s uses Bentley Drummle’s characterisation to serve as a contrast to Pips’. Drummle is symbolic of the whimsical nature of the social hierarchy. He is a member of high society and the predominant example that social advancement has no correlation with the moral value of a person. His characterization is unpleasant and cruel and possesses a strong sense of superiority in comparison to his contemporaries. His obnoxious and thankless persona allows Pip to see the true value of the kind and compassionate characters such as his brother in law Joe and benefactor Magwitch. Drummle also serves as a symbol of a character who has inherited extensive wealth and does not work and is subsequently undeserving whereas Joe works long hard hours as a blacksmith but earns very little money. This foregrounds the subtheme of inheritance within society and how wealth is often taken for guaranteed by the least deserving members of society.

Drummle also marries Estella whom Pip is in love with and has been since a child when they first met in ‘Satis House’ which is owned by Miss Havisham. They have an unhappy and miserable marriage and Drummle dies after eleven years. This marriage reveals to the reader the power and influence that Drummle possesses over Pip as by birthright he was a gentleman born into the aristocratic upper class of society. Therefore he was a more suitable and impressive match for a Lady such as Estella who married into an established family with an honourable reputation. Drummle has more financial and social power and influence in comparison to Pip who has once gained financial means through a benefactor and was born into the lower class of Victorian society as an orphan. Dicken’s creates Drummle’s dramatic construct to act as a potential warning of the greed and atrocity that wealth can cause. This then allows Pip to reject his childish dreams and fantasies surrounding his old beliefs of wealth; this encourages him to develop a new comprehension of class and wealth which is more realistic and charitable.

The gothic symbol of ‘Satis House’ which is owned by Miss Havisham physically represent Pip’s romantic ideas and perceptions of the upper class. It was the first concept of the general decadence of the wealthy and powerful despite the house itself being dilapidated. It is also where Pip first meets Estella which I believe causes him to displace his feelings of love and adoration towards her onto the house itself. However, for the reader, the house causes a discomforting atmosphere to the narrative as it is a time warp where ‘time’ has literally been stopped by Miss Havisham on every clock in the house. This symbolises her attempt to stop time by rejecting any attempts to change the way her house was on her wedding day. Miss Havisham is permanently in her wedding ‘dress’ which she never takes off her decomposing body. It subsequently becomes a physical symbol of death and decay within the novel.

It foregrounds the pain she suffered at the hands of Compeyson which was the man she loved deeply and trusted. Dicken’s states that’s she only wears one ‘shoe’ as this was when it was revealed to her that her husband to be was not going to attend the wedding. She was left emotionally heart-broken which has meant she has maintained everything the way it was on what was hoped to be the happiest day of her life. The readers are encouraged to feel a deep sense of sympathy towards her as she has never gotten over the shock and pain of the situation. Dicken’s has determined her to grieve the loss of her future forever and condemned to relive the pain and memories every day as she sees the table laid for the guests and the wedding cake. This is due to her being jilted at the altar. Her characterization is used to demonstrate the risks of lacking the ability of forgiveness and hating men for the heartbreak caused to her. As revenge for this, she has raised Estella to be cold and heartless and intended for her to break Pip’s heart.

Dickens ‘invents’ Pip’s character to possess ambition which encourages him to desire and additionally work for the best outcome of his situation. At the end of the novel, Pip learns through the dramatic constructs and characterizations of Magwitch, Joe and Biddy that personal qualities such as love and conscience are valued more greatly to those that matter than social status. Pip finally learns throughout his life that moral self-improvement is more valuable to your own self-worth than social and educational self-improvement which in essence only benefit yourself. The overarching theme of the novel as a whole is self-improvement as it benefits ones’ self and the others surrounding you.

10 October 2020
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