In Excellent Expectations, Joe serves as a father figure to Pip, when he remains in truth his brother-in-law, as Joe married Pip’s sibling, Mrs Joe Gargery.
We are presented to Joe as a “moderate, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easy-going, silly, dear fellow”. Pip describes him as a kind and gentle male, making the reader immediately like him. “Good-natured” and “sweet-tempered” provide Joe an endearing quality, so the reader is drawn to him. However, “absurd” introduces a possibly negative side to his character, like he is stupid, although this too could be considered charming.
Perhaps Dickens does this so that we can comprehend Joe’s actions much better, or at least don’t view him too negatively when he can’t protect Pip from Mrs Joe.
In contrast to his gentle character, he is a blacksmith, and for that reason a strong man. Pip thinks about him “like the steam-hammer, that can crush a male or pat an egg shell”. He is likening Joe to a machine in the forge, offering Joe a sense of power.
Although, “crush” is rather a violent word, suggesting Joe to be violent, which he definitely is not. Perhaps Dickens included this information to make us respect Joe, which is important for in the future in the unique, so we don’t just see him as a “sweet-tempered” man. However there is a sense of this good natured male in the word “pat”, it could possibly have paternal connotations. Maybe this links to the image of the egg shell too, as it is a fragile protector of life.
Additionally Joe might practically be seen as the protector of Pip’s life, as he saves him a number of times. Also egg shells can be strong, but have weak sides if they are put under stress, simply like Joe has a weak side – he can’t safeguard Joe from Mrs Joe Gargery. In addition to this, there is the concept that Joe remains in control, in the words “can” and “or”, he can select which side of himself to be, strong or gentle. This is a really adult idea, but Joe can often be really childish.
Joe can’t deal with the idea of death, despite being a strong blacksmith. When Pip asks Joe if Miss Havisham died, he eventually replies “she ain’t living”. This is a very backward way of saying it, a way we don’t normally use, showing Joe’s childish innocence. He avoids the subject of death again, when Pip asks him if he had heard of Magwitch’s death. Even though Joe never knew him personally, he avoids saying the words, instead he says he heard “something or another in a general way in that direction”. The vagueness of this statement is almost humorous, he can’t even just say “yes”. Joe is unable to confirm a person’s death, he just brushes over the subject, not fully acknowledging or possibly understanding it, like a child would.
Another way Dickens portrays this childishness is through making Joe illiterate. Pip writes him a letter, and all he can read is his name: “Why, here’s three Js, and three Os, and three J-O, Joes, in it, Pip!” The exclamation mark at the end implies he is excited and proud that he has managed to read, and that he is wanting Pip to recognise his achievement, like a child would want their father too. This childishness makes Joe a lovable character, the reader wants to see him do well. Perhaps it also makes Pip’s behaviour towards him seem worse, from the reader’s perspective, as Joe is such an innocent character.
Whilst Joe may not have great knowledge or academic skills, he possesses something most of the other characters don’t have, self-knowledge, he recognises he is illiterate and ‘stupid’. He tells Pip on two separate occasions that he is “most awful dull”. He is accepting of himself, he knows he is not the cleverest, in fact “awful” suggests that he thinks he is very stupid. Moreover, “dull” could imply many things, not only that he is stupid, but also that he isn’t sharp. Perhaps this is a reference to him being a black smith, that he is like one of his hammers, only good for physically things, he’s not sharp witted or clever. “Dull” could also intimate that he thinks he is boring, perhaps why he struggles to talk to, or be in the presence of people in a higher class to himself, because he considers himself boring and unworthy. But this ‘dullness’ does not stop him from being wise.
Throughout the novel, Joe gives Pip many pieces of advice, for example “if you can’t get to be oncommon through going straight, you’ll never get to do it through going crooked”. Joe, even though he is perhaps the most uneducated character (shown in the wording of the sentence) he can sometimes be the most wise and honourable. Because of this he acts as a hidden role model for Pip.
Not only is he honourable and wise, he understands his place: “I am wrong out of the forge” he tells Pip at their awkward reunion. Dickens suggests (through Joe) that people should stay in their class, and not aspire or try to move up; he argues for social immobility. Joe tells Pip that if he ever came back to the forge he’d “see Joe the blacksmith, there, at the old anvil, in the old burnt apron, sticking to the old work.” Joe labels himself “the blacksmith” implying that he believes it is all he is good at. The repetition of “old” makes him seem experienced, as he has been doing it a long time. There is also the idea that he clings or latches onto his work, in the word “sticking”, he fixes himself onto it so much that it has become how he defines himself.
The fact that he feels himself “wrong” when not in the forge could be the reason why he can’t talk to Miss Havisham: “Joe…persisted in addressing me.” It is like he cannot deal with the formality of he occasion, as he feels he doesn’t belong there. Dickens humiliates Joe here, presenting him as a shy and awkward character, making the reader sympathise with him. This is another negative quality, helping to balance out the character of Joe.
Joe also finds it difficult to deal with Pip when he is a ‘gentleman’. When Pip is ill, and needing Joe’s help, Joe is happy to call him Pip and treat him like he did when he was younger. But as soon as Pip starts getting better and gaining strength, Joe reverts to calling him “Sir”: “I shall be happy fur to see you able, sir”. This could show Joe’s insecurity, that when he is no longer sure if Pip needs him, he becomes very polite, and address Pip as if he is in a higher class again.
However, Joe does treat everyone equally, for example when Magwitch confesses about stealing the pie, Joe says that whatever he has done, “we wouldn’t have you starved to death for it, poor miserable fellow-creature.” This shows how Joe views the world, and the people on it, that we are all of the same kind, and all have the same rights. As well as this, “creature” implies that Joe believes humans are animals, perhaps why he struggles with classes and formalities. This may relate to the fact that Joe never shows a real desire to learn to read or write, because he thinks we are animals that just do physical things, such as make things, like a blacksmith does. “Poor” also implies that Joe sympathises with the convict, despite knowing it was his own fault that he is in the position he is in, showing that Joe is very forgiving, which the reader respects him for.
Joe shows this forgiveness on a number of occasions, for example, when he tells Pip about his abusive father, and how he came after him and his mother. He tells Pip it was because his “father were that good in his hart that he couldn’t abear to be without us.” One could argue that this was Joe’s innocent view on the world, and that he couldn’t accept that someone would deliberately want to hurt someone else. But, more likely, it is Joe forgiving his father for what he did. Forgiveness (or the lack of it) is a common theme throughout the novel, but Joe seems to be one of the only one who offers it readily.
Not only does Joe forgive his father for abusing him, but also Mrs Joe. He tells Pip that she is a “fine figure of a woman”. This is somewhat ironic as Mrs Joe has no feminine qualities, not even a female name. It also shows Joe’s respect, if not affection, for Mrs Joe, despite her treating him so badly. For example she regularly abuses him: “she knocked his head for a little while against the wall behind him.” Joe puts up with her, although he could easily fight back. The image if almost comic, especially the phrase “for a little while”, it makes it sound like she is just casually doing it for the sake of it. It could also link to the phrase ‘knock some sense into him’, perhaps this is what Mrs Joe is trying to do? At any rate Joe is submissive, showing his selflessness, as he lets her do it so she doesn’t hurt Pip as much (as he explains later). The reader pities Joe, as he is such a kind man, married to an abusive woman, who takes advantage of his kindness.
Joe is very loyal to Pip, and is always there when he needs him. One of Joe’s ‘catch-phrases’ is “ever the best of friends”. “Ever” shows his loyalty towards Pip, and gives a sense of stability, he gives Pip something to come back to. As if to prove this loyalty, he pays of Pip’s debts. This is such a big gesture as Joe is the poorest of all men. The moral and emotional image of debt appears a lot throughout the novel, perhaps because debt was a personal issue for Dickens. His family were imprisoned for debt, therefore stopping Dickens’ education, and he bailed his father out many times. In the novel, Pip becomes Joe’s debtor, an image of ownership, like Joe owns Pip. One could argue that this was to do with Joe’s insecurity, and that he needs something solid to connect him to Pip. However, throughout the book, Joe has been completely selfless, so this act could just another example of Joe’s kindness. There are also religious overtones to this, he is doing a Christian deed.
There are several religious links associated with Joe, for example, Joe takes in Pip a a child “God bless the poor little child, there’s room for him at the forge.” This could be a reference to the Nativity story, when the innkeepers turn Mary away. Add this to the Christian deeds he does (like paying off Pip’s debt), give Joe an almost saint-like quality. But Dickens needs to balance the character, otherwise we may just view him as a perfect religious figure and would then find it hard to view him as a realistic role model for Pip. So Dickens makes Joe childish, innocent, illiterate and also includes some comedy moments.
For example, when Joe has learned to write, he writes a letter to Biddy. Dickens writes this in a very comedic way, possibly overly so. Joe “constantly dipped his pen into space, and seemed satisfied with the result”, it is almost mocking him. As well as this, it is written like a performance for Pip, but throughout the novel Joe has been the only one who can’t act (e.g. he can’t deal with formal situations and pretend to be something he is not) or pretend. So why does Dickens include these humorous details? Possibly it could be to balance out Joe as a character, for if he was just a religious prophet, he would lose his power in the novel. Or alternatively, it could be to lighten the mood and relieve the tension between Pip and Joe. Or perhaps it is to show Joe fulfilling his mother’s expectations, of Joe being a “scholar”, to show that it can be done. This may provide hope for the reader, that Pip might be able to fulfill his own expectations eventually. Although that wouldn’t explain why it is so over the top.
Some characters only see this side of Joe, the awkward, clown-like side. Pip says that Jaggers “recognised in Joe the village idiot and me his keeper.” Jaggers doesn’t understand Joe, he doesn’t know about Joe’s forgiving, loyal nature, he just sees an “idiot”. This could be reinforcing our first introduction to Joe, where he is described as foolish. Again this could be to balance the character of Joe, rather then make the reader view him negatively, as we know Joe is a very wise character.
Jaggers believes this because Joe cries when he tells him about Pip’s expectations, and has to be comforted by Pip. Joe demonstrates many female tendencies throughout the novel, especially when he is caring for Pip at the end of the book, “Joe had actually laid his head down on the pillow at my side.” This is ironic considering his strength. Perhaps he is compensating for Mrs Joe’s lack of femininity, or he is filling in the gap left by her death, showing Joe to be a father figure for Pip.
Ultimately, Joe is the only true father to Pip, he gives him “the wealth of his great nature”, which is more than Magwitch ever did. He may not have a lot of money, but he is a true gentleman in character. Ironically, the poorest of all the men is the most gentlemanly. Moreover, Pip eventually comes to realise this: “there was a simple dignity in him.” Now, whilst he is recognising Joe’s dignity, he doesn’t sound very respectful. The tone sounds quite patronising, and “simple” implies stupidity.
Overall, Joe is the only constant in the book, he can’t act, he can’t pretend to be something he is not, he doesn’t change for anyone – “whoever came about me, still settled down into Joe.” Even the use of the word “settled” gives the idea of stability and constants, Joe is always there for Pip. He acts as a role model for Pip, and the other characters, even if they don’t realise it. But he does have his negative qualities, he is childish and awkward. However, this gives him more power in the book, as the reader can relate to him, and not just view him as a religious saint-like figure.