‘Great Expectations’ follows part of the life of Pip, whose full name is Phillip Pirrip, starting from when he is about 7 to the age of 23. It is narrated by Pip, when he is about 40, looking back on his younger days. Pip follows an unsettled life, having no parents and being led astray on his way to genteel status, and falling in love with Estella. There are several ways in which Great Expectations can be read or viewed depending on how sharp the reader is and how well the reader understands what Dickens is trying to portray, and the different ways in which it can be read are a key factor to this book.
Before we can decipher if the title above is how we should read the book, we firstly have to know what a snob is to determine whether this question is correct. The Collins English dictionary defines a snob as ‘a person who strives to associate with those of higher social status and who behaves condescendingly’ – a definition which is virtually the same in other dictionaries I have viewed. As the next step to determine whether the question is correct, we have to examine Pip’s ‘progress’ and behaviour, to see if it conforms to the definition of snobbery, taking into consideration the background in which the novel is set, the mid 1800s, and the prevailing customs and beliefs in this period.
Victorian social theories of the day suggested that if a person had a chance to better themselves to a genteel status, they should take that opportunity. England at this time had a ladder society of different classes, called the hierarchy, spanning from the lower classes such as criminals, to the genteel classes headed by the Royal family. At this time, eight million people in England and Wales could neither read nor write, yet only about one thirtieth of the population were of a genteel status. Samuel Smiles put forward the theory of self-help and books were written on the subject with Thomas Carlyle, for instance, exploring the theory that you have to work to rise in status and repay moral debts.
Pip is from a very low social class, living with a Mr Joe Gargery, the village blacksmith, and his sister ‘Mrs Joe’, but he determines to better himself by getting an education and he asks Biddy to help him by teaching him to read and write. He gradually makes progress in ‘a purblind groping way’ (P75), but at this stage his writing is still very primitive as we can see in a letter to Joe, which takes him an hour or two to write, which starts ‘Mi deer JO I ope u r krwrite well…’ (P75). Although Pip wants to become educated, in the beginning of the book he is unaware of his social differences and what class he is in but he is made aware of this when he first visits Miss Havisham, a rich and eccentric lady, and meets Estella.
Estella constantly refers to Pip as ‘boy’, instead of Pip (‘don’t loiter boy’ – P86) and is shocked at the fact that Pip calls knaves jacks ‘He calls the knaves jacks, this boy’, and also comments on ‘what coarse hands he has!’ (P89), ‘and what thick boots’ (p89). Pip realizes his ignorance and the class difference between himself and Estella, particularly when Estella prepares him some food and leaves it on the floor for him, showing that she is of a higher class and he no better than a dog, and he acknowledges this and starts to cry. The name ‘Estella’ actually means star, so this could mean that she is Pip’s shining star, which he will follow, and his encounter with Estella at Miss Havisham’s makes him very ashamed of his lower class origins. He is determined to get closer to Estella but realizes that he can only do this by being educated and rising to a genteel status.
As the story unfolds, Pip continues to notice the social differences between himself and Estella and, when he returns from Miss Havisham’s, he finds a lawyer at his house called Mr Jaggers. This is the turning point in Pip’s life because he discovers that he has a mystery benefactor, whom he mistakenly thinks is Miss Havisham, who wants him to go to London to be transformed into a gentleman. Jaggers tries to pay Joe off with some money to compensate for loss of Pip’s services but Joe refuses as it is the loss of Pip’s friendship which matters to him and not the money.
Pip is already showing signs of snobbery by rudely offending Biddy by saying ‘If I could only get myself to fall in love with you’ (P158). Pip also goes to the local tailor’s shop and meets Mr Trabb and his son, ‘Trabb’s boy’, whom he refers to as ‘the most audacious boy in all that country’. This is the language of a genteel person, rather than someone from a low class, which reminds us that this is a story being narrated by Pip many years later, when he has become a gentleman, and gives us a clue about the things to come.
The story then follows Pip to London where he meets Jaggers in his office to discuss financial matters, after which he goes to stay with a Mr Herbert Pocket, who becomes his friend. Herbert and Pip have a meal in his new lodging house and Pip has terrible table manners, so Herbert teaches him the table manners of a gentleman. By this time Pip is becoming extravagant with his new found wealth, wasting his money by spending twenty pounds on things which he does not need. Joe comes to visit Pip to tell him of the return of Estella, but Pip is not proud of Joe being there and comments ‘If I could have kept him away by paying money…’ (P240)