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The forms that stand in closest competition with those undergoing modification and improvement will naturally suffer most.
–Darwin, The Origin of the Species (1859)
Christopher Ricks poses the question, in his essay on Dickens’ Great Expectations, “How does Pip [the novel’s fictional narrator] keep our sympathy?” (Ricks 202). The first of his answers to this central inquiry are: the fact that Pip is “ill-treated by his sister Joe and by all the visitors to the house” and that Pip “catches” his unrequited lover, Estella’s, “infectious contempt for his commonness” (Ricks 202). In answering like this, Ricks immediately assumes a dichotomous contrast between the natural human and the taught (acted-upon) human. Ricks is saying that the natural Pip is good and therefore holds the reader’s sympathy while the manipulated Pip is bad and behaves in ways with which the reader cannot sympathize, and wants to condemn. The reader sides with the basic Pip and blames not him, but his circumstances and others, for his problematic conduct.
The abbreviated childhood narratives that many of the novel’s characters provide support this loaded nature / nurture division, in which nature is the base and nurture is the skewed corruption of that base. The reader sympathizes with and is intrigued by the stories the characters tell of their childhoods because the stories easily explain why these people act as they do, and render excuses for them when they act maliciously. Children act according to the way they are raised so as to remedy and balance out the past, and their basic good nature only re-emerges after that task has been completed. Miss Havisham, the novel’s schadenfreud terrorist, “was a spoilt child. Her mother died when she was a baby and her father denied her nothing” (Dickens 165). Thus, when she grows up to want a particular man and doesn’t get him, she becomes, quite literally, stuck at that point in time (twenty minutes to nine) until she balances the scales by “breaking” Pip’s “heart” with her adopted daughter, Estella. Miss Havisham’s brother, Arthur, who grew up under similar circumstances (dead mother, same father) “turned out riotous, extravagant, undutiful — altogether bad” (Dickens 166). He is so used to getting everything that he wants that when his father denies him a large inheritance he essentially steals it from his sister with the help of her ill-meaning fiancé, Compeyson.
The young Estella falls into this mold also. When Miss Havisham asks her for love, Estella responds, “if you ask me to give you what you never gave me, my gratitude and duty cannot do impossibilities” (Dickens 279). She cannot love because Miss Havisham denied her that in raising her, and therefore poor Estella enters into a loveless relationship with Drummle that causes her to suffer. Only after this can she begin to engage with an actual heart.
The characters residing on the other end of the economic spectrum surrender to the same pattern. Magwitch explains that he was “brought up to be… a warmint” by his indifferent environment (Dickens 301). He cannot remember ever having adults looking out for him and so he had to steal in order to preserve his life. Like Miss Havisham, he changes when he balances the scales by giving Pip the money and help he never had, and getting love in return. We don’t know how or by whom Orlick, Mrs. Joe’s aggressor and Pip’s would-be murderer, was raised, and the lack of this knowledge is what allows the reader to view him as so utterly vicious.
The importance of nurture on the adult human doesn’t just hold for the novel’s antagonists, it may equally be applied to its protagonists. Joe gives a diplomatic account of his youth to Pip in front of the fire toward the beginning of the book. He tells us that his father “hammered away at my mother most onmerciful… [and] hammered at me with a wigour only to be equaled by the wigour with which he didn’t hammer at his anvil” (Dickens 44). In order to balance things out in his adult life, he intentionally enters into a relationship wherein the woman abuses the man. His relationship with Pip’s sister is the complement to his parents’ relationship, much as Pip’s relationship with Estella concludes Miss Havisham’s relationship with Compeyson. Even Mrs. Pocket, who we don’t see much, we know to have “been brought up from her cradle… as one who must marry a title, and who was to be guarded from the acquisition of plebeian domestic knowledge.” As a result she “had grown up highly ornamental, but perfectly helpless and useless” (Dickens 174). It is “perfectly” for it is exactly what was intended, and the only suitable ending to such a start.
The natural aspect of each character is good, while the nurtured manipulation is bad. The way the narrator uses the words “natural” and unnatural” in his descriptions of people supports this. He consistently describes his best friend, Herbert Pocket (173), Herbert’s betrothed, Clara (343), his helpful tutor, Mr. Pocket (173), and Joe (259) as “natural.” “I use the word ‘natural,'” he tells us, “in the sense of its being unaffected” — “unaffected,” that is, by corrupting hands, like those of Mrs. Joe and Miss Havisham (Dickens 173). Correspondingly, he describes those he doesn’t like using the word “unnatural.” All the players of the Hamlet production, for example, fall into this category, including the Jewish theater man who takes Pip to see Wopsle and Wopsle himself (235). Collaborating with this sense that nature is good is the outright improper use of the notion of “bad nature” by the novel’s same narrator. The only time such a thing is mentioned is by Pip in relation to Biddy. “It’s a bad side of human nature,” he says to her (Dickens 139) when he projects onto her that she is jealous of his leaving her and Joe behind to go off to his “great expectations.” It is clear immediately that Pip is not right in accusing her of having these feelings, and when he comes back and tells her of them again, saying, “This really is a very bad side of human nature!” (Dickens 261), it is even more evident that he is entirely off-base. In the end, his melodramatic apology to her for his disloyalty shows that he too understands that the phrase was inappropriate. The fact that this is the only time the concept comes up, though it seems relevant to actually malevolent characters like Orlick, Compeyson, and Drummle, shows that Dickens is dismissing its validity as a concept. He leaves us only with the notion of good nature.
However, while it seems explicitly that the good lays with nature, the bad with unbalanced nurture, Dickens’ underlying message is more complicated. There is a Darwinian undercurrent to the development of our primary blossoming heroes. Evolution is, of course, natural, but is simultaneously acted out by nurturers: it is both. The critic, John Schad, says that Dickens describes Pip’s unknown patron, the convict Abel Magwitch, who instigates Pip’s evolution from a blacksmith to a gentleman as “Nature” itself:
Pip is visited by a man [Magwitch], or rather a nature – ‘hardened’, as he is, ‘by exposure to weather’, indistinguishable in voice from the wind and rain, and as repugnant ‘as… a snake’ or ‘terrible beast’ – that subsequently proves to know itself in exactly the same way as it knows the outside world: ‘I know’d my name to be Magwitch…. How did I know it? Much as I know’d the bird’s names in the hedges’. (Schad 66)
Likewise, Schad states that Pip, when visited by Magwitch on this same revealing occasion, finds to his horror that it is this ‘dunghill dog… beast… [or] snake’ who has ‘made a gentleman’ of him, that it is – as Pip declares – a ‘creature who [has] made me’ and that therefore he has, as it were, a natural history… [an] animal genealogy within which he is just the latest generation. (Schad 73)
Pip is a product of literary evolution (that is to say, the process acted out in a singular life). He moves to a higher stratus in society by an act of personified nature, and then is knocked down to yet another stratus by the same personification. In this one scene, the reader sees how Nature itself, in the body of Magwitch, both brings him into his new life as gentleman and out of that life.
Mr. Jaggers indicates that there is an evolutionary strain in Estella’s life as well. This time he, like Magwitch with Pip, plays Nature. When Pip tells Mr. Jaggers of Estella’s odd parentage. Jaggers responds with his story of putting Estella under Miss Havisham’s care, speaking of himself in the third person. “Put the case that,” Jaggers begins, “he [Mr. Jaggers] lived in an atmosphere of evil, and that all he saw of children was, their being generated in great numbers for certain destruction… Put the case that here was one pretty little child [Estella] out of the heap who could be saved” (Dickens 377). Here, Jaggers describes a landscape of children in competition with one another and the environment for life. Jaggers himself is the natural selection that saves one and lets the others perish, perhaps, even, because of her “prettiness.”
After Pip has undergone his two evolutions: from blue-collar worker to gentleman, and from gentleman to white-collar, he emerges, like his burned arm, “disfigured, but fairly serviceable” (Dickens 380). It would be ridiculous to say that fire is any less a part of nature than the arm itself, and this is a physical metaphor for the influences that others have had on Pip. Nurture (the others, the fire) is an element of nature, it is not separate from it. That is why Dickens uses evolutionary language to describe the changes Pip and Estella undergo — evolution itself is integral to nature, change is integral to essence. Human nature is not stagnant. The scene in which Estella finally rejects Pip epitomizes this. Speaking of her lack of feelings, Estella states, “It [the lack] is in the nature formed within me” (331, emphasis added). One normally thinks of nature as something set in stone from birth onward, immovable and unchangeable. However, Dickens’ work points out the artificiality of setting human behavior apart from nature’s larger plan. It is not a binary system operating on Pip in Great Expectations, it is singularly natural. Estella, and others, are not born with a certain nature, but rather grow into it, much as in the evolutionary process monkeys turned to humans over time.
Furthermore, the aspects of evil (or bad) Dickens gives some of his characters are appealing to the reader because they are complicated and interesting. We are curious as to the reasons Orlick commits heinous acts, but we are not curious as to why Biddy is kind. Hereby Dickens communicates that the purely good characters he portrays are perhaps not the best after all. He conveys this deeper message not through common Victorian pedantic means wherein the good characters win happiness. Like his contemporary, George Eliot does in her novels Silas Marner and Adam Bede, Dickens uses a marriage-ending for his unwaveringly good ones, Biddy and Joe. But, in addition to that, he reveals a deeper flaw in their seemingly perfect attitudes to the reader by making his reader feel bored by them. As Ricks says, “Joe and Biddy, despite all their occasional vividness, remain characters sadly insubstantial” (Ricks 208). While I disagree with him about the two part influence on the creation of human beings, I agree with him here. We like hearing about those characters who contain some ‘bad.’ And, that is another way to recommend a certain type of lifestyle, for who wants to be boring? Again, Dickens undermines the duality implied by the ‘essence vs. communally created human’ world. Biddy and Joe are the good ones, but they are boring. Others, like Magwitch and Miss Havisham are bad, but are interesting. Thus, Dickens’ recommendation to us, his readers, is convoluted. He does not make a clear suggestion or paint an ideal. Accordingly, the superficial claim I made earlier in my essay about nature being closer to good and nurture being closer to bad in Dickens’ novel is even more debunked. Not only is the nature / nurture line nonexistant, but the bad / good line is too. Though the connection seems to exist at first glance, a more thorough look shows that there are actually no distinctions to be made at all.
Unfortunately, I think that what Dickens leaves his reader with after stripping away these polarities is mere plot. By having his characters so intermingled with their circumstances as to incorporate their selves into them, the novel becomes simply a series of events. Miss Havisham asks Estella “Are you tired of me?” and Estella replies, “Only a little tired of myself” (Dickens 279). Estella has no self and so all the intrigue of personal dilemma and development disappears. Even Miss Havisham is not a self, but is only the blunt response to rejection. This extreme example is representative of all the characters in Great Expectations. They are not subjects; they are objects in a world of pure, artless evolution.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. London: Penguin, 1994.
Ricks, Christopher, “Great Expectations,” from Dickens and the Twentieth Century. Ed. John Gross and G. Pearson, 1966. pp. 199-211.
Schad, John. The Reader in the Dickensian Mirrors. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
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