Great Expectations is not just about criminality
and guilt but also about redemption [redemption: atonement for
guilt, deliverance from sin or crime]. Redemption in this novel comes
from love; it may be selfless love for a particular individual, like
Joe's love for Pip, or compassion for other human beings, like Joe's
kind feelings for the convict Magwitch. Redemption should not be
confused with happiness; redemption may be the result of
disillusionment or may even result in death. The greatest symbol of
redemption in Western culture is Christ, who offered human beings the
possibility of redemption from original sin by suffering the agonies of
crucifixion and sacrificing his life.
Confronted by Estella's
inability to love her and seeing Pip's torment because of his hopeless
love for Estella, Miss Havisham comes to understand the enormity of her
actions. More, she wants to make amends. She asks Pip if there is
anything she can do for him, not just for his friend. (Why does does
Pip refuse her money? Does it indicate growth in Pip, subconscious
anger against her, or some other motives?) She generously gives Pip the
money he needs for Herbert. In the agony of remorse, she kneels to Pip,
cries, falls to the ground, while repeating, "What have I done!" (page
401). Until released by death, the delirious Miss Havisham repeats,
like a mantra, three sentences: "What have I done!," "When she first
came, I meant to save her from misery like mine," and "Take the pencil
and write under my name, 'I forgive her!'" (page 405). Is Miss Havisham
A related question is whether Pip fully forgives her. At
a conscious level, he certainly is moved by her remorse and seems to
forgive her. Is this true at a subconscious level? Is his vision of her
hanging caused by resentment and hostility toward her? Are the same
feelings suggested in his description of extinguishing the flames
engulfing her, in their "struggling like desperate enemies" (page 404)?
Or does this reading push psychological interpretation too far and
should Pip's description of his last visits to Miss Havisham be taken
at face value?
As a result of the concern of Herbert and Pip for Magwitch's safety and
Pip's growing affection, Magwitch becomes, in Pip's terms, softer or
humanized. In court when he is referred to as a desperate criminal, he
looks at Pip
with a trustful look, as if he were confident
that I had seen some small redeeming touch in him, even so long ago as
when I was a little child. As to the rest, he was humble and contrite,
and I never knew him to complain (page 461).
As he lies dying in the prison infirmary, Magwitch appreciates the fact
that Pip has been closer to him and more accepting of him in his fall
than in his prosperity. Despite the fact that Magwitch was involved in,
perhaps caused, the death of Compeyson, is he redeemed by Pip's love
for him and/or his love for Pip?
The process of Pip's redemption brings up the question, how complete is
his transformation? Does he truly give up his snobbery and society's
false values, and if he does, at what point(s) does he give them up?
Pip's redemption begins with his relationship with Magwitch;
he moves from revulsion at Magwitch's appearance, manners, and social
status to perceiving his humanity and to finally loving him selflessly.
For now my
repugnance to him had all melted away, and in the hunted wounded
shackled creature who held my hand in his, I only saw a man who had
meant to be my benefactor, and who had felt affectionately, gratefully,
and generously towards me with great constancy through a series of
years. I only saw in him a much better man than I had been to Joe (page
He no longer cares about his status as a gentleman and accepts a
condemned criminal as his second father. Compare this attitude with his
unease at having visited Newgate with Wemmick as he waits to meet
Estella. Not until the end of the novel does the irony of his response
on that occasion become clear; the larger irony is that Magwitch is the
source of all Pip's dreams, as the father of Estella and the provider
of his great expectations.
When Magwitch dies, Pip prays, "O Lord, be merciful to
him a sinner!" (page 465). This prayer is a misquotation of the New
Testament verse, "O Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner!" (Luke 13:18).
Does Pip's substitution of me for him indicate some
remaining condescension and snobbery toward Magwitch? Or has Dickens
merely remembered the text incorrectly, so that the misquotation has no
significance in our understanding of Pip's growth? Paul Pickering
believes "The last stage of Pip's progression is reached when he learns
to love the criminal and to accept his own implication in the common
guilt." Is Pickering's view of Pip's regeneration accurate, or does Pip
still have to come to terms with his rejection of Joe? Is it enough for
Pip to wholeheartedly and unreservedly love Magwitch? Must he also be
able to love Joe in the same way? He has come to accept Magwitch's
love; does he still have to accept Joe's unconditional love?
Pip falls ill with brain fever. His hallucinations
express his passivity and his loss of identity or self in becoming a
gentleman; his distress at his social elevation and his inability to
control or even direct his life comes out in his cries to be released
from his place as a brick in the wall or a steel beam whirling over a
gulf. Joe nurses him back to health and protects him. Temporarily as
helpless as a child, Pip accepts Joe's love and attentions again.
Does Pip's convalesence give Pip the opportunity to
give up any remaining false pride and social values in his relationship
with Joe, his first father? When he chooses not to tell Joe about his
debts, does he want to keep Joe from paying his debts, which the
narrator Pip looking back hopes was his motive, and/or is he motivated
by pride, a desire not to let Joe see how he has fallen? Realizing that
Joe is pulling away as he recovers, he decides to trust Joe completely
and share the full truth of his situation–on the next day. Is
postponing his confession a valid decision or does it show reluctance
to admit his fall? Does the postponement, with the opportunity it gives
Joe to leave, foreshadow the fact that it is too late for Pip to return
to his old life or any part of his life with Joe? Is this why the adult
Pip finds another Pip sitting on his stool before the fire, when he
returns to England after eleven years in the East? The fires of his
childhood home and the forge have symbolized love, in contrast to the
cold light of the stars and Stella.
In Edgar Johnson's view of Pip's redemption, the virtues
that ultimately save him are mainly those he unconsciously absorbed
from Joe in his childhood, and his return to a life of modest
usefulness is a repudiation of the ideal of living off of other
people's work. Pip comes to realize that his society and its grandiose
material dreams cheapen, distort, and deny human values. Humphrey House
raises an interesting point in connection with Pip's snobbery, which is
one of Pip's moral and emotional crimes. He denies that Pip is a snob:
The real snobs are the characters blinded to
human considerations by the worship of wealth and social position,
[they] are Pumblechook and Mrs. Pocket, and Pip sees through them from
the start. ...to call him a snob is to suggest that he was wrong to
feel discontented with life on the marshes and could have chosen to act
otherwise than he did, whereas much of the energy of Dickens's
imagination in the early part of the novel goes in showing how mean and
limiting that life is, and how helpless Pip himself is in face of the
contradictory forces at work on him.
Is it true that Pip does not become "blinded to human considerations by
the worship of wealth and social position"? And is the moral crime of
snobbery one of degree, that is, does the fact that Pumblechook and
Mrs. Pocket may be greater snobs than Pip mean that he is not a snob?
Alternately, if Pip is a snob, is at least some of his alienation from
his childhood home and Joe justified by the "mean and limiting" life he
led as a child? Does House's analysis free Pip of some of his guilt or
even most of it?
After Estella's announcement of her marriage, Estella disappears till
the end, several hundred pages later. The history of her suffering in
an abusive marriage is briefly summarized; we do not see any of it. In
other words, we are presented only with the end result and none of the
process whereby she changed. The issue of her change is complicated by
there being two endings. In both endings,
she is chastened and shows feeling for Pip. Clearly she has changed,
but is her change convincing? Does Dickens intend the reader to see her
as redeemed? If so, is her redemption believable?
JAGGERS AND WEMMICK
Are Jaggers and Wemmick in need of redemption, and if so, are they
Jaggers sees but
cannot accept the cruelty of his society and "the atmosphere of evil"
in which he lives (page 416). He makes one compassionate effort to
change the fates of a mother and child. In comparison with Joe, does he
accept full or limited responsibility? He makes the mother his servant
and gives the child up for adoption, whereas Joe marries the sister or
mother-figure and accepts full responsibility and suffers all the
consequences of trying to save the child, whom he loves. Certainly,
there is a difference in their situations, for one mother is a
murderess who threatened to destroy her own child and Mrs. Joe's
criminality consists of emotional and physical abuse of the child and
her husband as well as her self-serving pretense of martyrdom.
Except for his involvement with Estella and her mother,
Jaggers refuses to accept responsibility by looking only at the facts,
which he can control. This system does not seem to be completely
effective; he still needs to dissociate himself from the immorality and
viciousness of his surroundings, as is expressed by his washing his
hands, using scented soap, and even, upon occasion, gargling and
cleaning his fingernails.
His clerk Wemmick leads a divided life; at the office,
he is unfeeling efficiency personified, as his mechanical post-office
mouth symbolizes. As Jaggers's representative, he walks through
Newgate, shaking hands only with the condemned prisoners and accepting
gifts of "portable property" from them. At home, however, he is a
different man; he loves his father and imaginatively transforms his
home into a castle. In his Walworth life, he becomes Pip's friend and
confidant. Does his love for his father and Miss Skiffins redeem him?
Or does it at least preserve him from the dehumanization and isolation
that afflict Jaggers?
The harmony in which Jaggers and Wemmick work is
temporarily disrupted when each learns of the softer or feeling side of
the other. Their normal impersonal relationship is reestablished when
Wemmick ejects a sniveling client from the office, "I'll have no
feelings here" (page 418). Dickens uses this incident to do more than
characterize Jaggers and Wemmick and their working relationship; he is
also attacking the lack of feeling in business and business
relationships. T.A. Jackson believes that Jaggers reflected "Dickens's
deepening sense that success in business in the bourgeois world can be
won only at the expense of everything nobly generous, elevating,
sympathetic, and humane."
Disabled after her attack, Mrs. Joe intensely wants to see Orlick. When
he appears, she kneels before him. Is she expressing remorse for past
unjust actions? As a consequence of her suffering, is she redeemed? or,
in her disabled state, is she beyond redemption?
Society, in the form of the legal system, continues to be cruel,
unjust–in a word, criminal. Jaggers tells of children being raised by
society to grow up to be criminals and finally transported or executed.
The casts of the hanged men in Jaggers's office, which for Pip are
inseparable from official proceedings, form a continuum with the mass
condemnation of thirty-two men and women to death. The bond that
connects all human beings is repudiated by the legal system; the
institutionalization of such a procedure condemns the legal system and
the society which created and perpetuates it. Dickens writes an
impassioned denunciation of the legal system and affirmation of the
bond connecting the condemned and the judge:
The sun was
striking in at the great windows of the court, through the glittering
drops of rain upon the glass, and it made a broad shaft of light
between the two-and-thirty and the judge, linking both together, and
perhaps reminding some among the audience how both were passing on,
with absolute equality, to the greater Judgment that knoweth all things
and cannot err (page 462).
Society is unredeemed. Do you find any hints that society is redeemable
or even reformable? Does the commonplace of Dickens criticism that he
was not a systematic thinker and lacked a social program apply to Great
Expectations? Does the fact that individuals are redeemable imply
that society as a whole is?
DISCUSSION OF GREAT EXPECTATIONS