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Charles Dickens’ bildungsroman Great Expectations (1913) cannot help but impress upon the reader an overwhelming sense of guilt that permeates the novel at various levels. As the plot unfolds, the characters develop; the sense of guilt, however, remains unchanging until the primary character, Pip, completes his transformation. This sense of guilt is thematically intertwined with the other themes of crime and punishment and the fallacy of human error; for Pip, it translates into a form of self-imposed guilt. Dickens’s narrator recounts Pip’s journey from a focus on false values to the development of self-awareness and moral fortitude. Early in the novel, Pip finds himself involved in an act of criminal complicity as he steals in order to aid the convict, Magwitch, an act that creates in the young boy immense feelings of guilt:
My state of mind regarding the pilfering from which I had been so unexpectedly exonerated, did not impel me to frank disclosure;… But I loved Joe — perhaps for no better reason in those early days than because the dear fellow let me love him — and, as to him, my inner self was not so easily composed. It was much upon my mind (particularly when I first saw him looking about for his file) that I ought to tell Joe the whole truth. Yet I did not, and for the reason that I mistrusted that if I did, he would think me worse than I was. The fear of losing Joe’s confidence, and of thenceforth sitting in the chimney-corner at night staring drearily at my for ever lost companion and friend, tied up my tongue. (33; ch. 6)
From the outset of the novel, therefore, the young Pip becomes embroiled in a world of criminal behavior in which his guilt constantly torments him. Instead of dissipating with time, Pip’s sense of guilt appears to overwhelm his consciousness until it becomes an integral part of his character.
As Dickens develops this theme, he uses a great deal of the novel’s atmosphere and setting to achieve his objective. For example, as a child, Pip’s world is bounded by the “long black marshes,” the black “beacon by which the sailors steered,” and “a gibbet with some chains hanging to it, which had once held a pirate” (6; ch1). On the water there are the “hulks” — the prison-ships — and on the shore, there looms the battery with the guns that warn of prisoners’ escapes. Pip’s immediate consciousness is, in effect, “bound” by the literal manifestations of the criminal world. The physical bondage created by Dickens’s use of this dark, foreboding imagery underscores for Dickens the influence of the vision of criminality that chronicles the life-path of his principal character. Explicit bondage translates for Pip into an implicit bondage: legally, he is bound in trade to Joe, while emotionally he is bound to Joe by gratitude. As a direct result of his meeting with Estella, and the perpetuation of several false values in his mind, he no longer views the honorable blacksmith’s profession as an admirable career. Rather, the forge becomes Pip’s figurative ‘prison’, binding him to a lifestyle that now dissatisfies him. His aspirations have changed, causing him to feel held captive. That mental dilemma adds to his cerebral turmoil: he feels guilty because he aspires to a different path. He is, in effect, signing his own “death warrant,” dooming himself to the “scaffold” as he binds himself in apprenticeship to Joe:
Here, in a corner, my indentures were duly signed and attested, and I was ‘bound’; Mr. Pumblechook holding me all the while as if we had looked in on our way to the scaffold to have these little preliminaries disposed of… Finally, I remember that when I got into my little bedroom I was truly wretched, and had a strong conviction on me that I should never like Joe’s trade. I had liked it once, but once was not now. (85-86; ch 13)
The physical setting of the city of London, which is the scene of several revelations for the main character, is similarly presented within a prevailing atmosphere of unwholesomeness as Pip comments upon on his visit to Smithfield Meat Market: “…that shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me” (133; ch 20). Given Dickens’s continued focus on Newgate prison as a metaphorical image throughout the novel, the assumption can only be made that the imagery of the prison and the heinous criminal world it represents serve to underscore the theme of crime and to reflect the appropriateness of justifiable punishment. Pip’s aspirations to wealth and success are inextricably bound to the image of crime, as evidenced by the irony of his wealth coming directly from a benefactor who is a convicted felon.
In addition to the physical setting with which Dickens surrounds his principal character, many of Dickens’s other characters in the novel who interact with Pip serve the purpose of the thematic perpetuation of guilt and criminality. An interpretation of the text as a Panopticon, in Prison-bound: Dickens and Foucault, suggests that Pip’s guilt and criminality may be viewed through the actions of true criminals such as Orlick and Bentley Drummie: Orlick strikes Mrs. Joe with the leg iron (which Pip is “guilty” of providing and thus, to an extent, of making the crime possible), while Bentley Drummie becomes the tool through which Pip achieves gratification for Estella’s treatment of him. Both characters are physical representations of Pip’s secret desires for revenge upon the people who have wronged him. As they enact these crimes, they also foster Pip’s guilt, which keeps him entrapped in the prison of his own consciousness (Tambling, Bloom). Even Dickens’s minor characters replicate the role of crime as a thematic influence in the text. This is reflected in characters such as Jaggers, who handles Pip’s financial affairs on behalf of Magwitch. Jaggers is also a direct link to the criminal underbelly of the world in which the characters live, providing legal representation to criminals on trial, including his housekeeper, Molly, who is acquitted of murder. Molly serves as a foil for Dickens’s theme in that the revelation of Estella’s parentage highlights Pip’s misguided values: when Pip professes to love Estella (although his values focus on the elevated lifestyle she represents), she soundly denounces and rejects his love based upon his low birth, considering him to be “a stupid, clumsy laboring-boy” (49; ch 8). In an ironic twist, however, Estella’s parents, Molly and Magwitch, are members of the criminal element that both Pip and Estella seek to avoid.
The novel does not commend Pip’s aspirations to wealth; rather, throughout the tale, Dickens appears to juxtapose the idea of wealth with the theme of guilt, an idea that is reinforced by Magwitch’s role as the vehicle for Pip’s advancement. “The awful personification of Pip’s guilt turns out to be the source of his expectations…. [H]is real guilt in pursuing them lies in his acceptance of the empty values…. [H]e [therefore] feels that he has deserted Joe, whose values are the right ones” (Mac Andrew, 166-167). Dickens appears to draw attention to the duplicity involved in the acquisition of wealth. He suggests that his principal character’s ascension to the moral high ground can only be attained through his disassociation from his false values. Thus, Pip’s one true crime — his snobbery toward Joe and Biddy, and his subsequent estrangement from them until he seeks their forgiveness — is the justifiable punishment for his conduct. “The unmasking of [the benefactor] instantly undoes the fairy tale, destroys its mirage, and transforms it into a hollowness…. Pip cannot attain wealth and gentleman’s status with Magwitch’s money… because the book Magwitch has written is utterly incompatible with his inner needs and desires” (Hara, 84-85).
Through the fallacy of his own human error and his belief in a false value system, Pip succumbs to aspirations that are contrary to those at his moral core. His character undergoes regeneration and redemption as he learns to value the people who honestly seek an interest in his future and well-being. His vain social ambitions, and by extension his guilt, are cast aside in his recognition of the value of duty and honest labor, such that his good deeds — for example, the financing of Herbert’s enterprise and his defense of Magwitch — to a great extent serve to represent his life’s achievements. The worthlessness of his great expectations is revealed to have “dissolved like the marsh mists before the sun” (379; ch 57). Ultimately this final image is one of purification, absolving Pip from his guilt as he realizes his unrealistic aims and reclaims his moral code.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 2003. Print.
Hara, Eiichi. “Critical Readings: Stories Present and Absent in Great Expectations.” Critical Insights: Great Expectations (2010): 69-96. Literary Reference Center. Web. 4 Nov, 2010.
Mac Andrew, Elizabeth. “Critical Readings: A Second Level of Symbolism in Great Expectations.” Critical Insights: Great Expectations (2010): 161-176. Literary Reference Center. Web. 4 Nov, 2010.
Tambling, Jeremy, and Harold Bloom. “Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: Great Expectations.” 2000: 235-250. Literary Reference Center. Web. 4 Nov, 2010.
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