Great Expectations

by: Charles Dickens

Ambition

Quotes Ambition
I took the opportunity of being alone in the courtyard, to look at my coarse hands and my common boots. … They had never troubled me before, but they troubled me now, as vulgar appendages.

For the first time, Pip notices the difference in his hands and attire, both of which reflect his lower social status. Estella, Miss Havisham’s ward and a girl Pip’s age, has been criticizing Pip’s clothing and behavior as coarse and common. Pip would not have noticed or cared very much about the differences in dress and habit between his family and Miss Havisham’s household if Estella had not pointed them out. Seeing himself through Estella’s eyes, Pip suddenly has a very different feeling about himself. For the first time he sees Joe, his only true role model, as inadequate.

The felicitous idea occurred to me a morning or two later when I woke, that the best step I could take towards making myself uncommon was to get out of Biddy everything she knew.

Here, Pip focuses on education as the best way to change his current status and Biddy as the source. The niece of the old woman who runs what passes for a school in Pip’s town, Biddy knows marginally more than Pip, but not much. Biddy helps Pip by providing a few books and other reading material. The fact that Pip believes he can change his status at all is a testament to his own unusual ambition. The class system was still very rigid at this time in Britain and the “self-made man” was rare, though not unheard of.

I had believed in the forge as the glowing road to manhood and independence. Within a single year all this was changed.

Pip realizes his career goals have changed. Becoming a blacksmith had once seemed like a perfectly respectable way to live his life. Now, because of his exposure to Miss Havisham and Estella, working as a blacksmith seems beneath him. Unfortunately, at this point he is destined to apprentice to Joe and become a blacksmith. Blacksmiths were important and necessary in society at the time, but the job, being hard and dirty, was definitely not considered “genteel.” What Pip once looked forward to, he now dreads.

I wanted to make Joe less ignorant and common, that he might be worthier of my society and less open to Estella’s reproach.

As Pip begins to educate himself with books funded by small gifts of money from Miss Havisham, he wants to pass this knowledge on to Joe, but not simply out of the goodness of his heart. Pip has become ashamed of Joe’s lack of education. Although still in his apprenticeship to Joe, Pip has begun to think of himself as “above” Joe in some way. Only as an adult will Pip realize that Joe’s goodness and kindness give him more nobility of character than most of the upper-class people Pip has encountered.

“[W]hat would it signify to me, being coarse and common, if nobody had told me so?”

As Pip describes to Biddy his burning, thwarted ambition to be a gentleman, he reveals his desire’s origin—Estella’s criticism of him. Pip knows he could have had a happy life as a blacksmith if nobody had suggested he should be any other way. Biddy, sensibly, both disagrees with Estella’s description of Pip and observes that Pip should not bother trying to impress or win over anyone who would say such mean things about him. Pip realizes that Biddy is right but unfortunately, he cannot help himself.