Literature Opinions

The Representation of, and the Relationship Between, Childhood, Happiness, and Virtue in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations

Great Expectations – a story of moral redemption, a parable about the corrupting influence of wealth, and a look at the nature of virtue as it relates to class, crime, and childhood. It’s a novel that deals with weighty topics, and constantly blurs the lines between right and wrong, moral and immoral, as it sees Pip through his journey of understanding and discovery. Along the way, we as readers trace this journey, from naive child to grown man, and all the discoveries and realizations of the self that come with it. At the heart of Pip’s many revelations is his childhood, a restrictive and often unhappy period which holds the key to a great deal of repressed guilt, desire, and ambition.

Pip’s guilt in the novel is complex and multi-faceted, and in it we can find much about his understanding of the notions of happiness and virtue. In the first sense, Pip feels a criminal guilt for his association with Magwitch at the start of the novel, and his committing of a crime in stealing from his sister. This first kind of guilt coincides with a sort of awakening in the young pip, who claims his meeting with Magwitch to be the time when he first develops a “vivid and broad impression of the identity of things”. David Trotter (Penguin 2004) suggests that this awakening of the senses means that “Pip feels uneasy from the moment he begins to feel at all”. Perception itself is guilt, and it infuses Pip’s domestic world with the visual symbolism of crime – Pip imagines the bread shoved down his trouser leg as an iron chain bound to him, a “part of his consciousness”. He likens the sound of flint and steel to a pirate rattling his chains, and he imagines his journey up the stairs in the dark as a solitary journey towards his damnation at the Hulks.

But Pip’s guilt is also manifest from a much younger age. In chapter four, Mrs Joe and the other guests at dinner are all quick to judge Pip and assign blame to him wherever possible, and in doing so so they reveal a deep-seeded emotional guilt that has followed Pip since birth. As he says: “They seemed to think the opportunity lost, if they failed to point the conversation at me, every now and then, and stick the point into me…I got so smartingly touched up by these moral goads”. Mrs Joe then finally reveals the source of Pip’s guilt, when she expresses to everyone how much of a burden he has been to her: “[she] entered on a fearful catalogue of all the illnesses I had been guilty of, all the acts of sleeplessness I had committed…all the times she had wished me in my grave, and I had contumaciously refused to go there”. Pip’s perpetual guilt is a Freudian craving for the affection of a mother figure, the source of all his ingratitude and restless ambition that he is forced to confront at the end of the novel. Pip is led to believe that he is without virtue, and his journey to emotional redemption can be seen as his attempt to reclaim it from the shadow of his adoptive mother.

Pip undergoes a second awakening when he is introduced to Miss Havisham and Estella, and it is here that he develops another kind of guilt, a guilt for his social position and his working class status. When Estella comments on the coarse nature of his hands and his boots, Pip says that “I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before, but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. [Estella’s] contempt was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it”. This moment is the first that leads Pip down a path in which he tries to fill a void of virtue and happiness using money. Pip’s association of personal value with monetary value, however, is deep seeded and again dates back to his childhood. Pip notes in chapter four how Pumblechook always refers to him as “sixpennorth of halfpence”, assigning him a monetary value (a very small one) as it relates to his character. Pip has been conditioned, then, to associate wealth with strength of character, morality, and virtue, and he is forced to confront this notion when he learns that Magwitch is his benefactor – he learns that the rich are not always virtuous, and the virtuous are certainly not always rich.

Joe proves to be a model of such working class virtue throughout Great Expectations. Warm, generous, grateful and content, he is everything Pip has been led to believe he is not, but Pip, blinded by the virtue of wealth, is unable to recognize him as a model of character and virtue. This is perhaps Pip’s most damning crime of all in the novel, particularly his admission in London that “If I could have kept him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money”. In this passage we can see the full influence of Pip’s wealth, how it has replaced Joe entirely and serves some protective, familial purpose towards him. Joe’s virtue is of a pure, almost childlike kind – he finds good in everyone, including Magwitch. During chapter five, when the soldiers are about to take Magwitch to the Hulks and they are all resting together in the wooden hut, Magwitch admits to having stolen a pork pie among other food, from the pantry. Joe’s responds with, “God knows you’re welcome to it…we don’t know what you’ve done, but we wouldn’t have you starved to death for it, poor miserable fellow-creatur”. This exchange recalls Pip’s earlier encounter on the marshes, where, having brought the pie to Magwitch, he “[makes] bold to say, “I’m glad you enjoy it””, to which Magwitch replies “Thankee, my boy, I do”. These small moments of kindness are the innocent and perhaps naive virtues of childhood, and although Pip loses them amongst the streets of London, he reclaims them with his eventual redemption at the novels end.

But does virtue lead to happiness? For Pip in his childhood, this certainly seems not to be the case. If the happiness of childhood is blissful ignorance, then Pip is constantly made aware of himself and the world around him, aware of his own faults and the faults of the society in which he lives. His childhood is largely solitary, with only Joe, Mrs Joe and the marshes for company. This is largely adult company, which forces him to understand the world and himself long before many other children do. It would be difficult, in these circumstances, to say that Pip’s childhood is a happy one. His childlike innocence is perceived as nagging curiosity by his sister, while every other adult in his life (save Joe) patronizes and vilifies him seemingly without reason. By the end of the novel, however, surrounded by good friends and, just as importantly, good deeds, Pip is able to find happiness. His friendship with Wemmick restores his faith in the family as a functional unit, his homely fortress Walworth serving symbolically as a last bastion of domesticity in Pip’s life and in the busy streets of London. Wemmick’s selfless care for his half-deaf father, despite his being a burden, is everything Pip’s sister could never give to him as a child, and it is through his association with these characters that Pip is finally able to recognize his own rejection of domestic life, and his deep affection for Joe.

This final revelation is the one that brings him a true and lasting happiness, one founded on a selfless desire to see Joe happy with his new wife and family. This re-embrace of the domestic is the culmination of the lessons Pip learns about the nature of virtue throughout Great Expectations – how it can come from strange and unexpected places, how it cant be bought with money, and how important are gratitude, selflessness, and affection for those we love.

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