Great Expectations

by: Charles Dickens

Study Questions

Further study Study Questions

Discuss Pip as both a narrator and a character. How are different aspects of his personality revealed by his telling of his story and by his participation in the story itself?

Pip’s story—the story of the novel—traces his development through the events of his early life; his narration, however, written years after the end of the story, is a product of his character as it exists after the events of the story. Pip’s narration thus reveals the psychological endpoint of his development in the novel. Pip’s behavior as a character often reveals only part of the story—he treats Joe coldly, for instance—while his manner as a narrator completes that story: his guilt for his poor behavior toward his loved ones endures, even as he writes about his early life years later. Of course, Dickens manipulates Pip’s narration in order to evoke its subjects effectively: Pip’s childhood is narrated in a much more childlike voice than his adult years, even though the narrator Pip presumably writes both parts of the story at a single later date. Dickens also uses Pip’s narration to reinforce particular aspects of his character that emerge in the course of the novel: we know from his actions that Pip is somewhat self-centered but sympathetic at heart to others; Pip’s later narration of his relationships with others tends to reflect those qualities. When Magwitch reveals that he is Pip’s benefactor, for instance, Pip is disgusted by the convict and describes him solely in negative terms; as his affection for Magwitch grows, the descriptive terms he chooses to apply to the convict become much more positive.

What role does social class play in Great Expectations? What lessons does Pip learn from his experience as a wealthy gentleman? How is the theme of social class central to the novel?

One way to see Pip’s development, and the development of many of the other characters in Great Expectations, is as an attempt to learn to value other human beings: Pip must learn to value Joe and Magwitch, Estella must learn to value Pip, and so on. Throughout the novel, social class provides an arbitrary, external standard of value by which the characters (particularly Pip) judge one another. Because social class is rigid and preexisting, it is an attractive standard for every character who lacks a clear conscience with which to make judgments—Mrs. Joe and Pumblechook, for instance. And because high social class is associated with romantic qualities such as luxury and education, it is an immediately attractive standard of value for Pip. After he is elevated to the status of gentleman, though, Pip begins to see social class for what it is: an unjust, capricious standard that is largely incompatible with his own morals. There is simply no reason why Bentley Drummle should be valued above Joe, and Pip senses that fact. The most important lesson Pip learns in the novel—and perhaps the most important theme in Great Expectations—is that no external standard of value can replace the judgments of one’s own conscience. Characters such as Joe and Biddy know this instinctively; for Pip, it is a long, hard lesson, the learning of which makes up much of the book.

Throughout the novel, Pip is plagued by powerful feelings of guilt and shame, and everywhere he goes he tends to encounter symbols of justice—handcuffs, gallows, prisons, and courtrooms. What is the role of guilt in the novel? What does it mean to be “innocent”?

At the beginning of the novel, Pip’s feelings of conscience are determined largely by his fear of what others might think, a state of mind no doubt reinforced by Mrs. Joe’s “Tickler.” He has strong feelings of guilt but an inadequate system by which to judge right from wrong; unable to determine the value of his own actions, he feels guilty even when he does the right thing. He acts with compassion and sympathy when he helps the convict, but he nevertheless feels deeply guilty and imagines that the police are waiting to take him away. As the novel progresses, Pip comes closer to trusting his own feelings; when he helps Magwitch at the end of the novel, he feels no guilt, only love, and he remains with the convict even after the police arrive to take him away. Throughout the novel, symbols of justice, such as prisons and police, serve as reminders of the questions of conscience that plague Pip: just as social class provides an external standard of value irrespective of a person’s inner worth, the law provides an external standard of moral behavior irrespective of a person’s inner feelings. Pip’s wholehearted commitment to helping Magwitch escape the law in the last section of the novel contrasts powerfully with his childhood fear of police and shows that, though he continues to be very hard on his own shortcomings, Pip has moved closer to a reliance on his own inner conscience—which is the only way, as Joe and Biddy show, that a character can truly be “innocent.”