Exemplar Essay: How does Dickens present Pip’s characterisation throughout ‘Great Expectations’?

Initially, Pip is depicted as the most vulnerable, timid and wildly imaginative characters in the serialized Bildungsroman ‘Great Expectations’. The analytical retrospective narrative of young “childish” p.4 Pip from that of his older, experienced self, offers a unique perspective into his emotions as well as acting as a quasi-autobiographical parallel to Dickens’ own experiences. Written in Pip’s “infant tongue” p.4 he highlights the “universal struggle” p.4 of being an innocent in Victorian Britain; the suffering endured by the most vulnerable in society and Dickens’ own philanthropic outlook which seeks to tackle this by creating fiction that shines a light on social disparity.

The meek presentation of Pip is further underscored in his treatment by the adult characters early in the novel; Mrs Joe and Magwitch both brutalise Pip physically and emotionally, leaving him “timidly” p.4 passive in his sense of self. This is also redolent of Dickens’ own experiences in the blacking factory after the arrest of his father and emphasises the common themes of crime and guilt throughout many of his novels. Pip himself also is drawn into the world of criminality in his earliest experiences with Magwitch which is equally an opportunity to demonstrate change, growth and a shared humanity which whilst vindicating Magwitch to some extent also offers Pip an opportunity to atone for this increasingly cold treatment of the Gargerys in his adult years. Perhaps this can be seen as a reaction to and reflection of Mrs Joe’s exploitation and misuse of the young and vulnerable Pip in the beginning of the novel: ““She brought me up ‘by hand’…and knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand” p.8. But not unknown to children in a Victorian society: “Tickler was a wax-ended piece of cane, worn smooth by collision with my ticked frame.” The personified cane and Dickens’ humour highlights could allude the commonality of this occurrence.


These threats of violence are first witnessed in the desperate barbarity of Magwitch: “Keep still you little devil or I’ll cut your throat!…’Oh! Don’t cut my throat sir’ I pleaded in terror.” Taking a further gruesome turn to this chilling milestone: “What fat cheeks you ha’ got…Darn me if I don’t eat ‘em’ said the man with a threatening shake of his head.” p.4. In both cases, Pip is illustrated as at the mercy of others. His limited lexical field highlights his victimisation: “pleaded…earnestly…timidly…crying” p.4 and cements his position firmly for the readers that he is the lowest in their social hierarchy as a result of his powerlessness.


Pip’s frightened disposition in the opening chapters is evidenced in Dickens’ use of pathetic fallacy. Mirroring Pip’s own vulnerabilities and sense of foreboding with that of the environment he finds himself in:

“dark flat wilderness…low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.” p.3

Such an exposition can be coupled with Pip’s own introspection after stealing the file and pie for Magwitch:

“The marsh-mist so thick…I was quite close under it…it seemed my oppressed conscience like a phantom devoting me to the Hulks…everything seems to run at me. This was very disagreeable to a guilty mind.” p.15

Despite being aware of his wrong-doing Pip also demonstrates kindness and empathy for Magwitch which is entirely undeserved at the point and therein reveals an innocence and beauty in youth. His fear of retribution, again underscoring crime and guilt as major themes, exemplify his vulnerability and exaggerated sense of self as if his environment will turn upon him and reveal his sins to the world: “a boy with somebody-else’s pork pie! Stop him!’ The cattle came upon me with a suddenness, staring out of their eyes and streaming out of their nostrils, ‘Hollo, young thief!” p.15.

Towards the end of novel Pip is reinvented once more into a penitent character as his former cruelties and ignorances fall away in his coming-of-age journey. Unlike most Bildungsroman, Pip’s “discomfiture” and enlightenment come much later and only once he returns to the forge to the “simplicity and fidelity” of Joe and Biddy can he accept “the truth of my position” and not the day in which he comes into his fortune which was the original expectation. Throughout, Pip speaks in past tense and remarks on his own “wild fancy” which in his fits of imagination populate the serialization with key themes of the Victorian Gothic: “out of such remembrances, I brought into the light of the fire a half-formed terror”. This illustrates he may not be an entirely reliable narrator as his “blood again ran cold” to maintain the pace and moment of the unusual formatting, perhaps colouring events to his intense emotional reaction. However, it also serves to underscore the poignancy of his own return and acceptance of the “pettishly” “impatient” “condescension…[and] shame” which he heaps upon himself. His “penitent remonstrance” although not as vocal to Joe as it is to the reader, reveals a personal growth on his part and a move away from the “Boyish want” of his 21st birthday. Interestingly, Dickens maintains this naive and childlike depiction of Pip throughout as this is mirrored in Pip’s own descriptions of returning like a “forgiven child” as he also reflects on his encounters with Magwitch the convict “with my childish eyes”. Not presented as a regression but rather a heightened sense of Pip’s “own worthless conduct” whilst knowing “I could never, never, never, undo what I had done” but reinforces his contrition during this moment. This infantilisation is exemplified in Pip’s illness, which Joe nurses him through: “In my weakness and entire dependence on him, the dear fellow had fallen into the old tone, And called me by the end by the old names, the dear ‘old Pip, old chap’ that now were music in my ears.” Pip’s penitence is painfully apparent as directly after, he questions his previous callous manner: “and to think that in prosperity I should grow cold to him and cast him off?” Dickens presents Pip’s journey from innocence to experience; from cruelty to remonstrance and high society to salvation most profoundly in the symbolic walk Pip takes in the penultimate chapter towards Joe and Biddy: “I went towards them slowly, for my limbs were weak, but with a sense of increasing relief as I drew nearer to them, and a sense of leaving arrogance and untruthfulness farther and farther behind.”




Jancke Schwartz

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