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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 Pip's guilt:

  • 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 4). His 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, chapter 4)
    She constructs a scenario of the ordinary actions of childhood as crimes; the final crime is his stubbornly continuing to live. The guests all 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 own nature.

    • 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 afterwards, expecting to be arrested or otherwise punished for the young gentleman's injuries.

  • 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 "looks bad, 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?


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. Though 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.


Day 1 Pages 1-124
    Overview of Dickens
    Some General Comments
    Dickens and Society
    The Opening of Great Expectations
    Pip's Sense of Guilt
Day 2 Pages 125-253
    Pip, Estella, and Miss Havisham
Day 3 Pages 254-366
    Pip's Expectations
Day 4 Pages 367-490
    Redemption and Love
    The ending

March 22, 2011