Great Expectations is a novel that not only satires the issues of Victorian society, such as status and crime, but additionally centres on the rites of passage for a child living in that society. It is through this central focus on rites of passage that Dickens is able to convey to the reader messages about the serious issues he felt so strongly about. One such issue is an issue that concerns all humans. It is the desire for contentment in ones life, which is central to the novel, as it follows Pip during his attempt to achieve this for himself.
However, it is not until the end of the novel that Pip finally accomplishes some measure of contentment in his life. What is meant by ‘contentment’? When defined, contentment is a state of happiness and satisfaction, or a sense of self-fulfilment, that allows you to feel at peace or at rest with your successes and failures in life. Dickens queries whether this is attainable in the novel by posing the question: how can this be achieved?
Many philosophers and writers have tried to answer this question, for example, philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) said that humans strive to achieve satisfaction through the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. This theory is shown with Pip in the novel as he himself tries to achieve a measure of contentment by aspiring to become a gentleman, who has no need to work, therefore avoiding the ‘pain’ of life. The novel begins with Pip being about five or six years old. He is living at the forge with his sister Mrs Joe Gargery and her husband Joe, a blacksmith, because both Pip’s parents and his five brothers have died.
Mrs Joe proudly brings Pip up ‘by hand’, so Pip seeks refuge from his sister’s violent temper in his friendship with Joe. At the age of about twelve, Pip visits Satis House, the residence of jilted Miss Havisham, and her adopted daughter Estella. It is Estella’s beauty that becomes the driving force for Pip’s aspirations to become a gentleman. Ashamed and discontent with life at the forge, Pip is relieved when a mysterious benefactor gives Pip great expectations of becoming a gentleman, and Pip goes to live in London, leaving behind his apprenticeship to Joe.
In London, Pip’s fantasies of Estella being intended for him by Miss Havisham thrive, because Pip is deluded that Miss Havisham is his benefactress. His selfishness whilst he is in London means he disregards all of his previous traits and values, in the hope he can become the gentleman he think Estella wants him to be. However, Pip’s dreams are shattered when he realises that an escaped convict, Magwitch, is his benefactor, and that Estella is not meant for him. Despite this, Pip becomes altruistic toward Magwitch, and plans and executes a failed attempt to get Magwitch abroad to save him from the death sentence.
The novel ends with Pip returning home to Joe, and begging forgiveness from everyone he had previously hurt whist he had been a gentleman. Throughout these three stages of the novel, Pips ideas as to how he can achieve satisfaction change, because his ideas about contentment change. In order to attain a level of contentment, Pip must first learn the lessons that the novel illustrates to be essential. These vital issues can be applied to us, the readers of Great Expectations, today, to give us guidance on how we ourselves can achieve a measure of contentment.
In this essay, despite it being an extremely intense novel full of deep meanings and further dimensions to the writing, I will be exploring just several of the central lessons that I feel Pip must learn before he can achieve contentment. The first of these, I believe, is of good and bad values. A value is a moral principle or belief that is important to you. Factors included in Pip’s search for good values are the pressure of peers, money and confusion. As a young boy, the life Pip leads at the forge with Joe and Mrs Joe dictates the course of his life.
It is all he has ever known, and therefore it is all he can ever dream of aspiring to. At this point of the novel, Pip is satisfied with all his life represents and all his life will lead to: he is content. The values Pip learns at the forge come from Joe, who teaches moral simplicity and altruism through his own honest personality. Pip describes him to be: “a mild, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easy-going, foolish, dear fellow- a sort of Hercules in strength, and also in weakness. ” (Page 6).
These few lines depict how Pip admires Joe as someone that has the values of a meek, self-sacrificing person; that has achieved their own happiness through living good values. Building up Joe as a character has been achieved well here by Dickens, as he uses numerous synonyms to generate Joe’s moral temperament. Pip likens Joe to the ancient heroic figure of Hercules portraying that, as a blacksmith, Pip recognises Joe to be physically strong, but “also in weakness” indicates that Joe has a psychological or behavioural flaw or weakness: he is timid and shy.
Despite this, Pip looks to Joe as a hero, someone that can save him from his violent sister, and Pip takes on the family, moral values his life at the forge represents. However, Pip is pulled away from these good values when he first goes to the materialistic Satis House. Anxious for Pip to make a good impression, Mrs Joe, a desperate social climber, adorns Pip up for the occasion, symbolising the disregard of moral values: “When my ablutions were completed, I was put into linen of the stiffest character, like a young penitent into sackcloth, and was trussed up into my tightest and fearfullest suit…
I had never parted from him (Joe) before, and what with my feelings and what with soap-suds, I could at first see no stars out of the chaise cart. But they twinkled out one by one, without throwing any light onto the question why on earth I was going to play at Miss Havisham’s and what on earth I was expected to play at. ” (Page 50) This passage shows how leaving the moral values of the forge and entering the world of material value confuses Pip. Dickens uses symbolism here with Pip being “put into clean linen of the stiffest character, like a young penitent into sackcloth, trussed up in my fearfullest suit.
” because it is like he is being prepared to take on the material values he yearns to take on after Satis House to please Estella. Dickens also uses this passage to show how many wealthy people dress themselves up on the outside, and behave how society expects them to behave, but inside they are not truly happy. Further symbolism in the passage comes when Pip talks about the stars as he leaves he forge. They symbolise the good values he had embraced at the forge, but when they “twinkle out”; it shows how Pip abandons these values as he gets further and further away from the forge.
At Satis House, the introduction of Estella shows how material possessions and desires cause moral values to disappear and be replaced with a developing greed and fantasy of material beauty and value. This is a theme that is central to the novel, as it is as a result of Estella’s enchanting beauty infatuating Pip that changes the course of Pip’s life; from a blacksmith at the forge, to a gentleman in London. Through her contempt of Pip’s commonness, Estella succeeds in changing Pip’s discernment of life, and his perception on contentment:
“‘He calls the knaves Jacks, this boy! ‘ said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. ‘And what coarse hands he has! And what thick boots! ‘ I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it. She won the game, and I dealt. I misdealt, as was only natural for me to do when I knew she was lying in wait for me to do wrong; and she denounced me for a stupid, clumsy, labouring boy (Page 58)