This month I have read Great Expectations that tells the story of Pip a poor orphan boy living with his sister and her husband Joe. Pip is able to raise his ambitions and improve his lot in life thanks to a secret benefactor. But what does it mean to be a gentleman and will his new life live up to his expectations?
Sitting in the park this morning with my pencil and paper coming up with ideas for my new review I chuckled at the curious juxtaposition of new and old in what I do - talking about classic novels in social media! This month I set myself the task of finding in Great Expectations the answer to Charles Dickens' question on the back of my copy of the novel - How do men know who they are? Faced with this question today what would the author do? Google it I guess! So that's what I did. In this review I will use WikiHow's guide - 'How to know who you are' and compare some of the ideas in the article with what I can gleen are Dickens' opinions in the novel. The WikiHow article is divided into 3 main areas - taking a closer look at yourself, asking yourself important questions and examining how you interact with others. I will look at Dickens' possible interpretations of these points based on quotes I found while reading and then add some extra points.
1. Taking a closer look at yourself
This first section of WikiHow asks the reader to figure out what he likes and doesn't like, ask himself whether these preferences are too rigid or not, examine his strengths and weaknesses, what brings him comfort and how he would describe himself to others. This is all about who you believe you are, your name, your family, your background. On the very first page of the first chapter of Great Expectations, Pip defines himself through first his name, then by introducing his parents and siblings and the marshes where he lives. As a young boy, this is his world. Even though his parents and siblings are dead and buried in the cemetry, his place in the world is represented by a tombstone in a graveyard. Pip is a diminuitive of Philip Pirrip, pip literally meaning a small seed in a piece of fruit. The fact that his benefactor puts a proviso on his bequeath precising that Pip must be always known by his nickname seems at first a means of keeping him inferior, then turns out to be a way of forever remembering Pip as a young boy and finally it may also be an indication of the benefcator's ignorance that Pip could be a suitable name for a gentleman. Biddy, a distant relative of Pip's and later Joe's second wife also has an unfortunate name, biddy usually refering to an old unatrractive or talkative woman. In fact Pip's attention to explaining his name in first chapter is echoed in the life story of Magwitch an escaped convict that Pip helps.. Magwitch's first memories of himself are in hearing his name. Without a family of his own it is all he has to hang to, all that identifies him.
Pip is content with his lot as long as he remains in his limited context. Your origin does not necessarily define who you are: Joe's childhood is more difficuly than Pip's, he has a violent, alcoholic father and has no education but nevertheless he is kind and loving to his wife's brother, raising him as a son. On the other hand he does remain strictly in his comfort zone, defining himself by home and work. When Joe goes to visit Pip in London, he is obviously out of place, confirming the lawyer Jagger's theory that 'No varnish can hide the grain of the wood.'
2. Asking yourself important questions
The questions here are: What are you core values? What makes you proud? What are you passionate about? What would you do if money were not an issue? Blinded by his ambitions to be a gentleman Pip first refuses and then comes back to the core values of his early life. WikiHow suggests looking at the traits of two people you admire. We can imagine that for Pip two people with good core values could be Biddy and Joe as Pip describes Joe as 'zealous and honourable' and Biddy as 'pleasant and wholesome and sweet-tempered'. Surely it is from Joe that Pip learns the generosity and empathy to help the escaped convict and at the same time has the conscience to regret having to hide it from Joe. Later after leaving the forge where he grew up, Pip himself admits 'It is the most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home'. I can forgive him for this because people who move away from home are often critical of the place they have left. I don't think it is necessarily meant as an insult but rather perhaps it is done as a way of justifying a difficult decision and reassuring yourself that you have made the right one. The question 'Are you living a life you are proud of' is difficult for Pip. With his fortune he has everything he dreamed of, living as a gentleman, but he does not always behave in a gentlemanly way. At a certain point in his life Pip looks up to people who have only status without core values, like the rich Miss Havisham who invites him into her house when he is just a boy. As a result of this encounter, Pip becomes passionate about 'improving' himself without really understanding what that will be like.
3. Examine how you connect with others
Decide what kind of friend you are, evaluate those around you. Pip is content with his life until he compares himself with others. When the opportunity of Pip spending soem time with Miss Havisham comes up, Pip's sister and Joe's 'Uncle Pumblechook' are delighted at the prospect of Pip's being 'raised up', perhaps as a way of them achieving their ambitions of grandeur through him. Only when he meets Miss Havisham's adopted daughter Estella does Pip become aware….
'that I was a common labouring-boy; that my hands were coarse; that my boots were thick; that I had fallen into a despicable habit of calling knaves Jacks; that I was much more ignorant than I had considered myself last night, and generally that I was in a low-lived bad way.'
The idea that someone is 'made' by others, is very prevalent in this novel. Pip's sister insists that she 'brought him up by hand' and so deserves all the merit for how he turns out. Uncle Pumblechook, believing Miss Havisham to be Pip's secret benefactor, takes all the credit for Pip's fortune as he was the one who introduced Pip to Miss Havisham in the first place. Pip believes he is to be made into a gentleman by Miss Havisham, in order to become a suitable match for Estella, who is herself being shaped to be hard and avoid the heartbreak that her mother experienced. Pip feels dependent as his whole life seems to depend on one person. Meanwhile Magwitch is putting money aside in the New World to 'make a gentleman' as if money alone were enough. Perhaps Pip's ambitions to be a gentleman do depend on one person, but maybe that person is Estella, he wants to be a gentleman for her.
Cutting off all ties with others is not the solution either as Dickens criticizes Miss Havisham's isolating herself because mixing with others is essential for a healthy life and mind, saying that it is against what God, the ultimate 'maker' wants. Pip refers to Estella and himself as 'mere puppets'. However even God allows for free will, is it possible to be 'made' if you don't really want it somehow deep down?
What about education? fate? society?
Well thanks WikiHow but for Dickens it's also about education. Although Pip's education is only very basic, Joe admires Pip's learning to read and Pip asks himself if 'he pondered over the question whether he might have been a better man.' Education is closely linked to class. When Pip comes into his fortune he is sent to London to be educated for his destiny, to be able to 'hold (his) own'. Fate also plays its part. Pip feels unable to escape the life that is set out for him, a 'poor, dazed, village lad' fearing that it is impossible to 'bend the past out of its eternal shape'. This 'eternal shape' could also refer to a society that has certain expectations from different categories of people.
While all these things are true, what or who you are is not set in stone but rather evolves over time. The quote
'Life is made of ever so many partings welded together'
really resonates with me as I feel I can define clear seperate stages in my life, related to where I was or what was important to at that time. So even if Pip makes mistakes in the novel there is always the opportunity for him and us to redeem ourselves. I love bildungsromans because they help us to believe that whatever path we choose in life we can get better everyday. I haven't written a review for six months but here I am getting up, brushing myself off and getting back up on my feet. See you next month!
Every month, I publish a review of the book I ahve read that month.