The concept of the nineteenth century gentleman was always somewhat confused. Whilst members of the aristocracy immediately qualified, in the age of industrial progression and with people outside the upper class coming into great amounts of wealth, there seemed to be a need to define who did or didn’t qualify. To be considered a gentleman meant you had to have a certain social status; to simply behave with dignity, manners and respect was nothing if you weren’t projecting the right social image, because only then would you be seen as an individual worthy of recognition.
The focus of ‘Great Expectations’ is upon Philip Pirrip, or ‘Pip’.
As the novel is told from his perspective as he recounts the events of his youth, he takes the role of two characters; Pip the protagonist, whose activities make up the bulk of the book and Pip the narrator, who provides an older and wiser perspective on the actions of his youth. The two characters are made distinguishable from one another with great care by Dickens, as he makes sure to give them each an individual voice; the older narrator has perspective and maturity, whilst the younger protagonist gives his immediate thoughts and feelings on what happens to him as it happens.
This is most evident in the novel’s early stages, where Pip is a child and the narrator gently pokes fun at the naivety and innocence of his younger self, whilst still allowing us to observe the story from his own eyes.
The opening of the book introduces Pip in the surroundings of the graveyard, in front of the head-stones of his dead parents. This positioning of him makes him appear entirely vulnerable, and also quite nai??ve (as he theorises on what kind of people his mother and father were, based upon the typography on their headstones).
At this stage, Pip is basically a blank slate, with only his unrelenting idealism and groundless compassion at his disposal. Even from the beginning though, Pip’s aspirations are evident. Despite his position as an orphaned blacksmith’s apprentice, he still has high ambitions for his future, even to the point of idealism. He observes the respect and admiration people hold for even men like Uncle Pumblechook (who is really Pip’s uncle-in-law, being Joe’s uncle).
He is the first individual Pip meets who could be classified as a gentleman, and appears to shape his initial ideas on what constitutes one. Pumblechook’s innate desire for money and pompous attitude are in stark contrast to Pip’s naturally generous and selfless manner, and so leaves a lot to be desired as role-model. However, Pumblechook still demands respect because of his relatively lofty status as a merchant, although he would be looked down upon by higher society for being so crass.
It is with him that Pip’s exaggerated respect for money begins. It is also Pumblechook who first introduces Pip to Miss Havisham, an exceedingly wealthy yet entirely insane woman whose only interest is in the causing of pain and misery to all men, as a result of her being jilted by her fianci?? on the day of her wedding. The rotting mansion she inhabits is reflective of Havisham herself – a once proud, wealthy upper-class woman who has been reduced to littler more than a fractured shell of her former self.
She continually invites Pip to come to her house to play with her young ward, Estella, a beauty that Pip finds himself infatuated with, despite her entirely cold response to him. Pip soon finds himself fantasising that Miss Havisham will use her vast fortune to make him a gentleman and allow him to marry Estella. ; however, because of Havisham’s twisted obsession with vengeance, this dream never becomes a reality, as he overhears when playing with Estella in Miss Havisham’s company:
Also, when we played at cards Miss Havisham would look on, with a miserly relish of Estella’s moods, whatever they were. And sometimes, when her moods were so many and so contradictory of one another that I was puzzled what to say or do, Miss Havisham would embrace her with lavish fondness, murmuring something in her ear that sounded like, “Break their hearts my pride and hope, break their hearts and have no mercy! ” Despite his suspicions as to Miss Havisham’s true intentions, he remains convinced when he is summoned to London to gain an education and therefore to become a gentleman.
The examples of gentlemen and nobility provided in ‘Great Expectations’ are entirely reflective of the age in which it was written and Dickens’ own critiques of society. All the prosperous people featured are that way through commerce and their own means, rather than lineage or aristocracy. From the successful merchant, Uncle Pumblechook to the daughter of an industrialist, Miss Havisham, every prosperous figure in the book is so because of their (or their forebears) own efforts, rather than being born into aristocracy.
It also results in wealth being the one common factor amongst all the members of the gentry, emphasising the power and influence money had upon society at the time. The one character whose status relies entirely on his name is Drummle, who is also the most odious of all the characters Pip encounters. This is hardly coincidence, as Dickens despised the aristocracy and the way in which they held such great power and influence for no real reason.
Ironically enough, the one person who Drummle shares the most in common with is Pip’s former co-worker in the foundry, Orlick, the thug who cripples Mrs. Joe and almost succeeds in murdering Pip at the novel’s climax. Despite being on opposite ends of the social spectrum, they share a brutish, repulsive nature, a clear indication that social class is no test of character. However, not every character within ‘Great Expectations’ is a despicable snob. One such figure is Joe, Pip’s brother-in-law and one of the few entirely sympathetic characters in ‘Great Expectations’. He consistently shows Pip nothing but love and affection, even suffering through his marriage to the mean and malicious Mrs. Joe in order to allow Pip to have the best up-bringing possible.
He is content with his station as a blacksmith, and doesn’t seek to ‘better himself’ in anyway, preferring to focus his concerns on Pip’s aspirations and his future. Entirely uneducated and unrefined, he is the exact opposite of the traditional figure of the gentleman that the reader would come to have recognised. Despite this though, his naturally good-natured and generous persona is a reminder that social status does not make a man, and he is constantly the yard stick by which Pip is measured by the readers.
However, Pip’s opinions of Joe become horribly biased as he strives to become a gentleman. He remarks to Biddy that “Joe is a dear good fellow… but he is rather backward… in his learning and manner”. Such pomposity would surely make a less well-defined character immediately dislikeable, but it is made clear that Pip’s attitude is only the result of the effects of various negative influences such as Mrs. Joe and Miss Havisham upon his easily manipulated personality.
Along with the idea of the gentleman in ‘Great Expectations’ is the notion of the gentlewoman. There are several prominent female characters, the first being Mrs. Joe. Older sister of Pip and wife of Joe, she is the antithesis of the classic ‘angel of the house’ figure; despite keeping the house in spotless condition, her methods result in an uneasy atmosphere, with Pip commenting that “Mrs Joe was a very clean housekeeper, but had an exquisite art of making her cleanliness more uncomfortable and unacceptable than dirt itself.
Acting as a stern matriarchal figure to both Pip and her husband, she is dissatisfied with her position as a blacksmith’s wife, and seeks desperately to improve her social station (in keeping with one of the primary themes of the book). These attitudes are passed onto Pip, as she encourages him to essentially prostitute himself to Miss Havisham, pushing him not only out of the home but also into a materialistic mindset, where character and generosity take second place to wealth and influence.
It is at Miss Havisham’s decrepit mansion that Pip meets Estella, Havisham’s adopted daughter. Estella’s role in the book is to act as an incentive and catalyst for Pip to become a gentleman, so he will be of a high enough social status to woo the young beauty. Under the guidance of Miss Havisham, Estella remains a flawless object of desire that is always just out of Pip’s reach, forcing him go to further lengths to try and attain her; literally translated, Estella means ‘star’, which is exactly the role she plays in Pip’s life.
Having fallen in love with her (or forced into love with her by Miss Havisham, depending on the reading of the text), Pip spends all his time obsessing about her despite her never having brought any real happiness to his life, stating “I never had one hour’s happiness in her society, and yet my mind all round the four-and-twenty hours was harping on the happiness of having her with me unto death”.
The turning point on Pip’s ambitious journey to become a gentleman is the arrival of Jaggers, the commanding and foreboding lawyer from London who arrives entirely unexpectedly to inform Pip that a benefactor has enabled it for him to come to the city to receive an education to make it possible for Pip to climb the social ladder.
The figure of the dark, powerful lawyer is a common one used by Dickens within his novels (having acquired a particular distaste for them following the bankruptcy of his father in childhood, which resulted in the young Dickens being forced into a labour house), although Jaggers is slightly more sympathetic than Dickens’ earlier creations – he performs acts of kindness towards Pip on his road to becoming a gentleman, and before the events of the novel he plays a vital role in assisting Miss Havisham in the adoption of Estella.
However, like all of the ‘gentlemen’ that appear in the novel, he has faults; as one of the most important criminal lawyers in London, he has many connections with the more vicious and seedy inhabitants who represent the city’s underworld. However, despite his presence still commanding fear and respect from the most vicious criminals for his ability to clear them of even the worst crimes, he remains neurotic about his position; he obsessively washes and cleans his hands with lemon soap as a psychological mechanism to free himself of any negative association with the immorality he encounters on a daily routine.
Jaggers is not alone within the text as a potential antagonist who becomes somewhat sympathetic by the exposure of their flaws. Mrs Joe is another, whose behaviour towards Joe and Pip at the start of the novel gives the impression that she is a selfish, unfeeling person whose displeasure at her station in life results in her taking out her frustration upon those closest to her. However, after suffering a vicious attack by Orlick which leaves her a mute invalid, she seems to finally recognise that her life, as humble as it was, is still nothing to be ashamed or disappointed of.
Some similarities between Mrs Joe and Miss Havisham could be found; both are invalids, and like Mrs Joe, Miss Havisham has a similar ‘revelation’ to that which Mrs Joe undergoes. At first she uses the tragic incident of being jilted at the altar as an excuse to take her vengeance upon the rest of mankind. However, when she sees Pip broken-hearted as result of her manipulation of Estella, she sees the error in her ways and begs for his forgiveness.
The accident of the fire that follows almost immediately could be read as a punishment for her previous sins, or also as a purifying effect, destroying all the artefacts that reminded her of the fateful day on which her initial vengeance was based and cleansing her of her misery. Initially though, upon his becoming of a gentleman, Pip is no better than some of his adversaries. Pip’s immediate reactions towards his friends from the past are reprehensible; he acts very coldly and ostentatiously towards them, rejecting them because of his new found status.
Despite this though, both Joe and Biddy return his cool rebuffs with the same affection that they’ve always shown him, as if they can see through the veneer of Pip’s clothes, education, mannerisms and wealth to the philanthropic child in the foundry they once knew. However, this still doesn’t prevent Pip from descending into a life of affluent idleness; having fulfilled his youthful aspirations and unable to find any further way to progress, other than continuing his entirely fruitless attempts at wooing Estella, he sees no other options viable to him.
However, even the thin thread of hope that is the return of affection from Estella is snatched from him when she is married off to the sordid nobleman Drummle. The idea that someone who Pip holds in such high regard as Estella can be taken by someone as boorish and repulsive as Drummle severely damages Pip’s romantic notion that those of the highest social status are also of the highest value. However, hat provides the terminal blow to this foolish concept is the revelation that the lowly convict who he helped escape when he was a child is also the secret benefactor that enabled him to reach the eminence he had always dreamed of.
The realisation that his becoming of a gentleman was only possible due to someone who would be counted amongst the dregs of society forces Pip to examine just what the benefits of being a ‘gentleman’ are. He might be held in greater regard by the general populace, but as a result of his actions to uphold his position, he almost drove away the ones he truly loved and was loved in return by (Joe and Biddy). The idea of class not being in correlation with generosity is one that runs through-out the novel.
All the figures with the greatest social status and resources available to them are only interested in their own prosperity, yet the characters with the lowest social aspirations and the least to offer are generally more than prepared to aid anyone who needs their assistance. While Pip struggles to balance his natural benevolence with his social aspirations, he does manage to still show kindness. This is most obvious in his support for Herbert Pocket, a young friend who Pip secretly aids in buying his way into his chosen business.
However, the two soon find themselves languishing in the idleness of life as a minor member of the gentry, and as Pip says “we spent as much money as we could, and got as little for it as people could make up their minds to give us. We were always more or less miserable, and most of our acquaintance were in the same condition. ” The notion of class not being equal to generosity is most evident in the character of Magwitch, who Pip initially encounters as a convict escaped from prison.
Out of fear, Pip brings Magwitch some tools from Joe’s workshop for him to free himself from his shackles, and even though Pip’s act of kindness was done because of the terror he held for Magwitch, this one deed leaves a deep impression upon the criminal, and greatly influences his actions towards Pip later. When it is finally revealed that he in fact was the one who allowed Pip his life of prosperity, he is forced to question his existence as a gentleman if it was only possible through the actions of a murderer (reformed or otherwise).
It is at this point that Pip is able to finally overcome his desire to prosper as a gentleman and rely on his inner kindness which he has suppressed for so long. When Magwitch is arrested, he sees “in the hunted, wounded, shackled creature… only a man who had meant to be my benefactor, and who had felt affectionately, gratefully and generously towards me with great consistency through a series of years. I only saw in him a much better man than I had been to Joe.
With no thought put to his ‘proper place’, he takes it upon himself to care for Magwitch throughout his trial and until his death, even though all his riches are relinquished to the Crown. Following this though, Pip finds himself suffering from a serious illness, and in turn, Joe takes it as his responsibility to nurse him back to health, despite the horrible manner in which Pip treated him since leaving for London. Pip thanks him for this, resolving the divide between them, overcoming his social biases and finally maturing into a real gentleman.