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“We have no choice, you and I, but to obey our instructions. We are not free to follow our own devices, you and I.” (265).
The question of self-determination is central in Great Expectations. Dickens struggles to determine and express to what extent an individual person decides his own fate. This struggle is represented in the lives of two orphans, Pip and Estella, who are searching for their own identities. Both are heavily influenced by other characters, in particular their respective benefactors. The difference between them lies in whether this influence comes only from the benefactor, or if it is internalized, and they are shaped by their own psyches as well. While both Pip and Estella are shaped by other people and by circumstances in Great Expectations, and to an extent find comfort in this subservience, this control is far more encompassing for Estella. Estella is shaped emotionally so that another determines her very character and identity. Pip, however, is controlled more externally, and has more power to think independently and form his own character and central identity, allowing him a greater potential for moral redemption in the end of the novel.
Estella is a person who has been turned completely into an instrument of revenge. Miss Havisham, in her attempt to assert control and strike back for the wrongs done to her, turns this desire to into a total control over a little girl, saying “I adopted her to be loved. I bred her and educated her, to be loved. I developed her into what she is, that she might be loved. Love her!” (240). In the world in which Estella was raised, even play and love, those basic shapers of character in young children, were orchestrated. Estella was shaped against love, Miss Havisham “stole her heart away and put ice in its place” (399), and love becomes something Estella can’t understand. Miss Havisham seems surprised by the degree to which she has determined Estella’s identity when she realizes that the woman she has created is incapable of love even towards her adopted mother.
Estella exhibits this concept that her life is not her own consistently throughout the novel. She often assumes an attitude and behavior that does not seem to be of her own making. Says Pip, “You speak of yourself as if you were someone else.”(266). It seems, however, that she is assuming this role of her own will. Estella has so internalized the control exercised over her, that she is shaping herself to completion. She seems acutely aware of this control, telling Miss Havisham “I am what you made me?I must be taken as I have been made. The success is not mine, the failure is not mine, but the two together make me.” (304-306). Later she explains to Pip how she cannot escape from this construction, telling him “It is in my nature?It is in the nature formed within me.” (362). Estella is made an unnatural person because of the influence of how she has been shaped.
Pip is influenced by a long list of masters, including Mrs. Joe, Estella, Joe, Jaggers, and Magwitch. With so many influences it is difficult to see to what extent he is controlling his own destiny. His earliest shaping came from his abuse from Mrs. Joe. This abuse led to feelings of self-loathing and criminality, and he does internalize this connection to crime. The humorous presentation of these incidents of abuse, however, emphasizes Pip’s autonomy beyond them. In the first pages of the novel we see Pip wandering the marshes, and can already see that he has more freedom through his gender than Estella, who remained trapped in Miss Havisham’s old house.
Joe serves as a moral example for Pip. Joe respects and acknowledges his own nature, telling Pip “I’m wrong out of the forge, the kitchen, or off th’meshes.” (224). Through example he encourages Pip to retain some independent identity. Joe’s influence on Pip can be clearly seen at the beginning in his compassion toward the convict. When Pip meets the convict, he describes himself as “Pitying his desolation” (19), just as Joe later tells Magwitch “We don’t know what you have done, but we wouldn’t have you starved to death for it, poor miserable fellow-creatur.” (40). Joe through this is a gentle moral influence on Pip, versus an aggressive shaping influence, like his wife.
Miss Havisham and Magwitch are aggressive influencing forces on Pip’s life. He is physically molded into what they want to see, and like Estella becomes an instrument of another’s desires. Miss Havisham desires a dancing playing boy, and makes him engage in those actions. She forces him into his “coarse common” (92) class identity. Magwitch wants a gentleman and so constructs him as one, saying “‘If I ain’t a gentleman, nor yet ain’t got no learning, I’m the owner of such'” (321). Both of these, however, represent a physical identity change only.
The most influential shaping of Pip occurs through Magwitch and, more specifically, the great expectations imparted on Pip by him. With these expectations, Pip takes on an identity of a gentleman as he sees it. In this identity he becomes increasingly concerned with appearances. Pip becomes like Herbert, who “still rather confounded his intention with his execution.” (176). Pip also, however, realizes the constraints of money, and comes to see how it is reducing his control over his own destiny, saying “What I was chained to, and how heavily, became intelligible to me” (331). Through money he is owned, as Estella is owned through affection and money. Estella is not treated with love, and so does not give love to others. Pip too is objectified and so begins to form all of his relationships in this way, treating Joe and Biddy as objects at his disposal. The main contrast between Pip and Estella in this respect is in Pip’s power to resist this ownership construction of social relations. All Pip has to do is detract himself from the money that binds him. He is less a helpless victim, and gladly enters into and remains within the collective fantasy of his gentleman identity.
Jaggers, through his frequent assertations of separation from the lives he deals with and his regular hand washing to wash away his connection with what he does, imposes some influence on Pip, teaching him to avoid responsibility. Pip acts in alignment with this teaching in his monetary affairs in respect to the debts that he accrues, and in his affective ties in his abandonment of Joe, but he recoils from it morally, showing his maintained autonomy of moral thought. Pip further shows his ability of self-determination in his reflections on the influences that shape him and their negative results. “As I had grown accustomed to my expectations, I had insensibly begun to notice their effect upon myself? Their influence on my own character? I knew very well that it was not all good.” (272). He also reflects on how he has been shaping himself. “All other swindlers upon earth are nothing to the self-swindlers, and with such pretences did I cheat myself.” (225). Pip is able to escape from a complete internalization of the shaping influences upon him by realizing these influences and their effects on him before they are set in his character. Pip, unlike Estella, has the luxury of an identity crises. The independent identity he is holding onto runs against the identities imposed on him by others (which he enters into willingly), leading him to question in what role he really fits. In the social environment in which he lives, a person cannot be a blacksmith, scholar, and gentleman together, and so he struggles to form himself between these.
Both Pip and Estella seem to find some comfort in their submission. In submission they are given the identity that they seek, and have a connection to others. Pip willingly ties himself to Jaggers and to his benefactor, though this is only a new form of servitude, and one that proves to be more encompassing than the servitude to class in which he was constrained at the forge. Even when he escapes from submission to his gentleman status, it is for a new, happy submission back at the forge, where he says contentedly of Joe “I was to submit myself to all his orders.” (464). He also eagerly puts himself in a subservient position to Estella, following her around to let her disdain and control him, describing “The air of completeness and superiority with which she walked at my side, and the air of youthfulness and submission with which I walked at hers” (237). Estella also seems to seek subservience. She forms her entire identity in submission to Miss Havisham, and is totally shaped by her servitude. However, instead of seeking to free herself, she binds herself in a subservient role to Drummle when she marries him. After being controlled their entire lives, both Pip and Estella find comfort in the familiarity of submission to the will of another.
When, at the end of the novel, both Pip and Estella are relieved of the controlling influences upon them, Pip is more able than Estella to morally redeem himself because of the difference in how they have been shaped. Pip recovers his morality by reverting to his independent agency and self-created identity. But even though Miss Havisham is dead, Estella will forever be trapped in the mind she created. Financial control can be broken away from for moral redemption, but complete dependence and emotional control is binding beyond death. Pip had Joe to help counteract the negative shaping and to teach him how to form his own character, but for Estella the parent that she was utterly dependent on for love was the one that sought to control her. Pip’s moral redemption occurs when he returns to compassion, realizing that life is more than just class. Through this he earns the moral stature of a gentleman. It occurs when “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?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.” (446). Estella’s moral corruption went far beyond just falling for the seductions of money. She gains some redemption in her final humbled scene, but she can never escape from who she was made into.
Both Pip and Estella were shaped greatly in their identities in Great Expectatitons. Pip, however, was shaped in a way to allow for independent thought, while Estella’s whole being was bound up in the will of others. The similarity of their orphan’s plight drew them together. Both found themselves trapped in “a long chain of iron or gold” (72), but one stark difference remained between them. Estella’s shaping by Miss Havisham was so complete that she was incapable of love. Pip in the end asserts that he is an independent creature, while Estella remains the lady Miss Havisham constructed her into. People are constantly shaping each other in the world of Great Expectations, some, like Pip, are able to extract themselves, but like Estella, many others fall victim to this ongoing social construction of identity.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations.
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