Great Expectations

If I could have any say in the fate of Pip, he would have been far better off not knowing Miss Havisham and Estella. I liked him best in the early chapters when he was a timid and sensitive child, loving Joe and feeling content with his apprenticeship as a blacksmith and with this life, even though I did feel sorry for him when the adults terrorised him. After he left home, everything just generally went down hill. His education didn’t take him anywhere useful. His wealth didn’t achieve anything apart from his great debts. His childhood kindness towards the convict evaporated when he met him again. His attachment to Estella showed his lack of sensible judgement and a very low self-respect, which was exasperating and I despised him for it. But hey, if I were the author, there would be no story to tell.

It’s such a familiar story there’s no need for me to ‘review’ it in the general way. I’d like to draw your attention to the chapters where these ‘great expectations’ came to Pip in the person of Mr Jaggars and to the immediate and unfortunate influence it had on Pip.

Before fortune smiled on him, Child Pip was extremely sensitive and careful about other people’s feelings. It contrasted with Estella’s hasty judgement on account of his appearance that Pip was a coarse and common labouring boy. One singular example was when watching the convict wolfing down the breakfast Pip stole from home, Pip referred to the other convict with leg-irons as “Dressed like you, you know, only with a hat, and—and, and with—the same reason for wanting to borrow a file. (p18)*” Pip “was very anxious to put this delicately” and worried that saying ‘leg-irons’ out loud would humiliate the convict. Even though Pip was terrified by the threats and the consequence of his theft, he couldn’t help feeling sorry for the convict. When the search party set off like hounds after the convicts, Pip “treasonably whispered to Joe, ‘I hope, Joe, we shan’t find them.’ (p31)”

Another example was that he checked his comment on the house in ruin half-sentence to Miss Havisham “fearing I might say too much, or had already said it” (p54) and as a result might have embarrassed or offended her. Likewise, he could not bring himself to tell Joe the truth that he looked awful in his Sunday clothes knowing Joe dressed up for his sake (p90).

You might be able to tell from my first paragraph that whatever the world’s opinion is of Great Expectations, I don’t like it very much. I don’t like the drama and I don’t like the cast. But I did enjoy chapter seventeen where the spotlight found Biddy, the modest and bright girl, the complete opposite of the detestable Estella, and Pip and Biddy went for a walk.

Pip describes Biddy in a well of unreserved lovely words:

“… her hair grew bright and neat, her hands were always clean. She was not beautiful,—she was common, and could not be like Estella,—but she was pleasant and wholesome and sweet-tempered (p113-114)”, “she had curiously thoughtful and attentive eyes; eyes that were very pretty and very good (p114)”, she was capable of managing the whole domestic life, looking after an disabled adult and learning everything Pip learns without anyone noticing and without stopping sewing in her hands. She was self-forgetful, habitually turning the subject of conversation away from herself. And she was “the wisest of girls” according to Pip.

On their walk on the marshes that lovely summer day, the most extraordinary conversation happened: no one had put Pip’s case so simply, about him wishing to be a gentleman and the reason for the wish, and showed him what a fool he was.

“Instead of that [settling down as a blacksmith and marrying Biddy],” said I, plucking up more grass and chewing a blade or two, “see how I am going on. Dissatisfied, and uncomfortable, and—what would it signify to me, being coarse and common, if nobody had told me so!”

Biddy turned her face suddenly towards mine, and looked far more attentively at me than she had looked at the sailing ships.

“It was neither a very true nor a very polite thing to say,” she remarked, directing her eyes to the ships again. “Who said it?”

I was disconcerted, for I had broken away without quite seeing where I was going to. It was not to be shuffled off now, however, and I answered, “The beautiful young lady at Miss Havisham’s, and she’s more beautiful than anybody ever was, and I admire her dreadfully, and I want to be a gentleman on her account.” Having made this lunatic confession, I began to throw my torn-up grass into the river, as if I had some thoughts of following it.

“Do you want to be a gentleman, to spite her or to gain her over?” Biddy quietly asked me, after a pause.

“I don’t know,” I moodily answered.

“Because, if it is to spite her,” Biddy pursued, “I should think—but you know best—that might be better and more independently done by caring nothing for her words. And if it is to gain her over, I should think—but you know best—she was not worth gaining over.” (p117)

I love how sharp her thinking is in discerning Estella’s words and her character completely accurately: “neither very true nor very polite”. Estella is indeed a rude, proud and cold-hearted monster. I also love the quiet self-confidence Biddy possesses in who she is. She’s not intimidated by Estella or compromised in her judgement because Estella is from a higher class. Estella’s words and actions have proved plainly that she’s not worthy and Biddy sees clearly. Lastly, I love her adding “but you know best—” twice humbly. Pip clearly doesn’t ‘know’ best in this case or I don’t think Pip can ever judge anything better than Biddy does. But gentle Biddy is not Mrs Joe Gargery, who is constantly on “Ram-page”.

The wholesomeness in Biddy drew out the goodness in Pip and almost brought him to his senses.

We talked a good deal as we walked, and all that Biddy said seemed right. Biddy was never insulting, or capricious, or Biddy to-day and somebody else to-morrow; she would have derived only pain, and no pleasure, from giving me pain; she would far rather have wounded her own breast than mine. How could it be, then, that I did not like her much the better of the two? (p118)

In the next chapter, the great expectations arrived with Mr Jaggars. Pip’s acute embarrassment over being labelled as “coarse and common”, in a flick of fingers, turned into the despising and belittling of his fellow villagers with exactly the same words (p131). When Pip, in the next chapter again, prepared to depart for good, he could hardly contain his superiority over the village he grew up in:

After our early dinner, I strolled out alone, purposing to finish off the marshes at once, and get them done with. As I passed the church, I felt (as I had felt during service in the morning) a sublime compassion for the poor creatures who were destined to go there, Sunday after Sunday, all their lives through, and to lie obscurely at last among the low green mounds. I promised myself that I would do something for them one of these days, and formed a plan in outline for bestowing a dinner of roast-beef and plum-pudding, a pint of ale, and a gallon of condescension, upon everybody in the village. (p134)

It’s arrogant for Pip to now see the villagers as “poor creatures” simply because he’s now leaving them behind in pursuit of his new life, “for London and greatness”. It’s also ignorant that he should promise to “bestow” a feast on them one day, knowing that he never did. Even worse, he never did anything worthy for Joe and Biddy. And most telling of all, his great debt in the end was paid off by Joe, the humble blacksmith.

Pip’s ridiculousness magnified when it came to his conversation with Joe and Biddy. He’s ashamed of Joe being a blacksmith and illiterate. He assumes because he prefers being a gentleman that Joe should also prefer it and would want to leave the forge one day too. When Biddy again, wisely challenged Pip and pointed out that “pride is not all of one kind (p135)” and Joe is proud being a competent and respectful blacksmith in the village, Pip instead of recognising his patronising behaviour, deemed Biddy “envious”, “grudging” and “dissatisfied on account of my rise in fortune (p136)”.

He’s so overwhelmed by the prospect of an upperclass wealthy life and the hope of marrying a beautiful woman that he’s forgotten to be grateful to the people who protected and loved him, and he’s forgotten to be sensitive to other people’s pride and feelings as he so naturally used to do when he was little.

There is a lot of discussion around the different endings of the novel and whether Pip and Estella were married in the end. People who are against the idea give the reason that Estella doesn’t deserve Pip’s love. But I rather think Pip doesn’t deserve anyone more worthy; if he worships a horrid woman, let him have her along with the consequences. I was glad Biddy and Joe were married and formed a family; they do deserve each other.

*All the page numbers are from the Oxford World’s Classic edition.

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