PIP'S SENSE OF GUILT
The frightened Pip is tormented by a sense of guilt
which some readers have found excessive, for it is not justified by the
events in his life. Julian Moynahan asserts, "Pip has certainly one of
the guiltiest consciences in literature." They explain this guilt in
terms of Dickens's biography and attribute it to Dickens's own guilt
over his affair with Ellen Ternan and the breakup of his marriage of
over twenty years. But is Pip's guilt excessive, and is it unjustified
by the events in his life? First of all, this question assumes that our
sense of guilt is always proportionate to our actions, but is this
true? Do we sometimes feel guilty over behavior, feelings, or thoughts
which are natural, which are minor transgressions, or which we have no
control over? Do children, for instance, take responsibility for their
parents' divorce or a parent's alcoholism and feel guilty?
Second, is there indeed no justification in his life for
his sense of guilt? Consider the way that he is physically, verbally,
and emotionally abused by his sister. Could such treatment give a child
a sense of being somehow wrong and deserving to be punished? A close
reading of the opening chapters suggests other possible causes for
- His behavior at times causes his sister to assault
Joe; when Joe's oblique references to Pip's supposed bolting of his
bread drive her to knock Joe's head against the wall, Pip looks on
helplessly and "guiltily" (page 10, chapter 1).
- In taking food to the convict, Pip is stealing, and
he certainly knows that stealing is a crime.
- When Pip asks what a convict is, the only word Pip
understands of Joe's explanation is "Pip." Reinforcing Pip's
identification of himself as a criminal, his sister says criminals who
murder and rob (which Pip intends to do) always start by asking
questions (which Pip has been doing). A little later he thinks he has
somehow murdered Pumblechook with the doctored brandy. When he runs
into the sergeant at the door, he thinks the handcuffs are for him.
- Pip is made to feel that his very existence is a
crime: "I was always treated as if I had insisted on being born in
opposition to the dictates of reason, religion, and morality, and
against the dissuading arguments of my best friends" (page 21, chapter
sister tells the Christmas dinner guests about
the acts of sleeplessness I had committed
and all the high places I had tumbled from, and all the high places I
had tumbled from, and all the low places I had tumbled into, and all
the injuries I had done myself, and all the times she had wished me in
my gave, and I had contumaciously refused to go there. (page 26,
She constructs a scenario of the ordinary actions of childhood as
crimes; the final crime is his stubbornly continuing to live. The
acquiesce. Only Joe, who is powerless to protect Pip, offers solace; he
ineffectually spoons more gravy onto his plate.
- Pip several times refers to the corruptness of his
- The adult Pip wonders what terrible acts he might
have committed as a child, under the pressure of fear and the
consciousness of having no adult to turn to for help: "I was in mortal
terror of myself... I am afraid to think of what I might have done on
requirement, in the secrecy of my terror" (page 13, chapter 2).
- He does not confess the theft to Joe because he
is afraid of losing Joe's love and trust. He sees this failure and the
theft as examples of deliberate moral transgressions: "In a word, I was
too cowardly to do what I knew what was right, as I had been too
cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong" (page 40, chapter 6).
- In the fight with the pale young gentleman in
Miss Havisham's garden, Pip confesses, "I am sorry to record that the
more I hit him, the harder I hit him." Looking back, the adult Pip
hopes that he regarded himself "as a species of savage young wolf, or
other wild beast" (page 90, chapter 11). The young Pip suffers agonies
to be arrested or otherwise punished for the young gentleman's
- The culmination of Pip's being treated as a criminal
occurs with his apprenticeship. Pumblechook takes Pip "into custody"
and physically handles Pip as if he committed a crime; bystanders in
court think he has been caught "redhanded"; one even comments that he
don't he?" and another gives him a tract written for young criminals
(page 103, chapter 13).
- After his visit to Satis House, Pip becomes ashamed
of himself, his home, and Joe and dreams of becoming a gentleman. Could
the rejection of the loving Joe, his true friend and constant
companion, contribute to a child's feeling guilty?
THE ASSAULT ON MRS. JOE
Pip's internalization of guilt is expressed in his
reaction to the assault on his sister. He agrees to participate in
Wopsle's reading of The Tragedy of George Barnwell, in which an
apprentice murders his uncle; Pip is, of course, now an apprentice.
he is annoyed at Wopsel's identifying him with the murder, at the same
time he accepts the identification because of the way Wopsle and
Pumblechook treat him: "When Barnwell began to go wrong, I declare I
felt positively apologetic." He describes the murderous apprentice's
actions as his own, "Even after I was happily hanged" (page 117).
When Pip first hears of the assault on his sister, his
immediate thought is that he must have attacked her or that he will be
suspected as the assailant. He explains that he was still thinking of
the play. But is it possible, at a psychological level, that Pip is
expressing guilt at his own hostility toward and resentment of his
sister? Wouldn't anger and perhaps a desire for revenge be natural
responses to his sister's abuses? Another connection between Pip and
the assault is his belief that the weapon is the leg iron his convict
filed off using the file Pip stole for him.
DISCUSSION OF GREAT EXPECTATIONS