Parent-Child Relationships in Charles Dickens' 'Great Expectations'

Categories: Great Expectations

In Charles Dickens' novel 'Great Expectations,' the relationships between children and their parental figures play a central role in the exploration of themes such as belonging, status, and identity. The protagonist, Pip, begins his journey as an orphan, never having known his biological parents. This initial condition sets the stage for a complex web of familial dynamics that Dickens masterfully portrays throughout the narrative.

Pip's early life is marked by a notable absence of traditional parental care. He grows up under the guardianship of his sister, Mrs.

Joe, who raises him "by hand." This recurring phrase in the novel underscores the idea that Pip's upbringing lacks the tenderness and nurturing commonly associated with a typical family. Instead, Pip is brought up in an environment where authority and discipline prevail over love and affection.

Mrs. Joe's character is depicted as domineering and stern, with a "hard and heavy hand" that she wields not only on Pip but also on her husband, Joe.

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Dickens' choice of words, such as "slapping dexterity," "sawed," and "hewed," vividly portrays her as an authoritarian figure who enforces her control with force. While she assumes a maternal role, it becomes evident that she does not wish to bear the responsibilities of motherhood, frequently repulsing Pip.

Despite her motherly duties, Mrs. Joe never lets Pip forget that he owes his existence to her. This estranged relationship is further emphasized by Pip's formal address of his own sister as "Mrs. Joe," highlighting the lack of emotional connection between them.

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Pip's experience with Mrs. Joe illustrates a fractured family life, where belonging is elusive, and the ideal motherly figure is absent.

The Role of Joe in Pip's Life

However, amidst the challenging family dynamics, Pip finds solace and affection in his brother-in-law, Joe. Dickens juxtaposes Joe with his wife, Mrs. Joe, highlighting the stark contrast in their characters. Joe is described as "mild, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easy-going, foolish dear fellow," showcasing his positive attributes and the high regard Pip holds for him. Throughout Pip's childhood, Joe serves as a father figure, protecting him from the harsh treatment of his wife and guiding him toward becoming a respectful young gentleman.

Despite the later stages of Pip's life when he distances himself from Joe, Joe remains a steadfast presence, maintaining his love and care for Pip. Even in the midst of Pip's illness, Joe's consistency in his role as a parental figure stands out. Pip acknowledges Joe's "tenderness," which is perfectly attuned to his needs, portraying Joe as a dedicated and responsible fatherly figure.

Pip's affection for Joe is palpable in his words, "But I loved Joe... because the dear fellow let me love him." This declaration reveals that, in Pip's early years, Joe is viewed as an equal, possibly because they both endure the harsh treatment meted out by Mrs. Joe. Pip even admits that he looked up to Joe, making Joe his comrade and confidant. While they may have shared an equal footing, it is also apparent that Pip sometimes failed to show proper respect for Joe in his role as a fatherly figure.

Magwitch: The Unexpected Father Figure

Another significant fatherly figure in Pip's life emerges with the revelation that Abel Magwitch, the convict from the marshes, is his secret benefactor. Pip's initial response to this revelation is far from enthusiastic. He had tried to suppress memories of his youthful assistance to the escaped convict, and his conscience seemed clear until Magwitch re-enters his life. Despite Magwitch's generosity being instrumental in Pip's transformation into a gentleman, Pip appears somewhat offended by his benefactor's behavior.

Magwitch, in contrast, is overjoyed to reveal himself to Pip and even goes as far as declaring himself Pip's "second father." His actions, such as saving money for Pip and working tirelessly to secure Pip's position in society, clearly demonstrate his paternal commitment. Magwitch treats Pip as the son he never had, having put in immense effort and risked his life to improve Pip's future.

Pip's frustration with Magwitch's involvement may stem from the realization that he abandoned Joe to pursue his own selfish ambitions of ascending the social ladder. This abandonment allows Magwitch to fill the void left by Pip's biological family and become a fatherly figure, albeit against Pip's initial wishes. It can also be inferred that Magwitch's motives are not purely selfless, as he seems to derive satisfaction from "owning" someone who has achieved success in life, making Pip a reflection of his own redemption.

Themes of Belonging and Love

Dickens employs these complex parent-child relationships to explore themes of true belonging and love. In Pip's case, his blood relationship with Mrs. Joe results in a formal and distant bond, devoid of the warmth and care expected in a family setting. Mrs. Joe, despite her responsibilities, fails to nurture a genuine connection with Pip, leaving him to contend with her harsh demeanor.

Conversely, Joe and Magwitch, who lack a direct blood relationship with Pip, provide him with the love, protection, and guidance that he craves. Joe, in particular, stands out as the unwavering figure in Pip's life, emphasizing that relationships founded on love, respect, and commitment often hold more significance than mere blood ties.

In 'Great Expectations,' Dickens masterfully portrays the intricate interplay of parent-child relationships as a means to delve into the human psyche and society's complexities. Through Pip's journey, readers are challenged to contemplate the true essence of belonging and the transformative power of love and devotion, transcending the confines of bloodlines.


Charles Dickens' 'Great Expectations' presents a rich tapestry of parent-child relationships that serve as a lens through which the themes of belonging, status, and identity are explored. Pip's early life as an orphan under the care of his stern sister, Mrs. Joe, highlights the absence of traditional parental love and sets the stage for his complex journey of self-discovery.

Joe, Pip's brother-in-law, emerges as a steadfast and loving father figure who guides him through the challenges of life, contrasting sharply with the authoritarian Mrs. Joe. Additionally, Abel Magwitch, the convict turned benefactor, unexpectedly assumes the role of a second father to Pip, despite initial resistance.

Through these diverse parent-child relationships, Dickens underscores the importance of love, respect, and commitment over mere blood ties. Pip's evolving understanding of belonging and the transformative power of genuine affection shape the narrative, ultimately challenging readers to reconsider conventional notions of family and identity.

Thus, in 'Great Expectations,' Dickens masterfully weaves a tale that not only entertains but also delves deep into the human heart, exploring the intricate bonds that define our sense of self and belonging.

Updated: Nov 02, 2023
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Parent-Child Relationships in Charles Dickens' 'Great Expectations'. (2017, Jan 10). Retrieved from

Parent-Child Relationships in Charles Dickens' 'Great Expectations' essay
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