The main character of Dickens' book Great Expectations, Pip, lives a mostly satisfactory life with his sister and her husband, Joe, a blacksmith, in the country, save the abuse he sometimes takes from his dissatisfied sister; and even this is lessened by the friendship of Joe and their maid, Biddy. But after he is summoned to the house of Miss Havisham, a wealthy and unmarried woman who lives alone with her adopted daughter Estella, he becomes ashamed of his supposedly lower origins in life. His love for Estella, which blinds him to the comforts and kindnesses of his roots, sparks a need to become a gentleman that is realized when an unknown benefactor made rich and sends him to London. The shame of his past follows him to London, however, whenever he thinks about his friendships with Joe and Biddy. He also feels ashamed whenever he thinks about his childhood encounter with a convict in a nearby marsh, who later reveals to Pip that he is the secret benefactor of Pip's great expectations. Crime, jails, and criminals come to be associated with his humble beginnings, and the scorn he feels for both become more and more intense as his love for Estella grows. He cannot seem to be rid of this stain of the past on his future, which comes to be exemplified when his secret benefactor reveals himself. He constantly contrasts this tainted feeling with the beauty of Estella, who is the epitome of the life to which Pip aspires.
How strange it was that I should be encompassed by all this taint of prison and crime; that, in my childhood out on our lonely marshes on a winter evening, I should have first encountered it; that it should have reappeared on two occasions, starting out like a stain that was faded but not gone; that it should in this new way pervade my fortune and advancement. While my mind was thus engaged, I thought of the beautiful young Estella, proud and refined, coming towards me, and I thought with absolute abhorrence of the contrast between the jail and her. I wished that Wemmick had not met me, or that I had not yielded to him and gone with him [to Newgate prison], so that, of all days in the year on this day, I might not have had Newgate in my breath and on my clothes. I beat the prison dust off my feet as I sauntered to and fro, and I shook it out of my dress, and I exhaled its air from my lungs. So contaminated did I feel, remembering who was coming, that the coach came quickly after all, and I was not yet free from the soiling consciousness of Mr. Wemmick's conservatory, when I saw [Estella's] face at the coach window and her hand waving to me. [p. 265]
1. Dickens is known for his technique of using the characters of his novels to signify larger ideas and themes. What do the characters of Estella and Magwitch signify for Pip, and for the novel as a whole? How does Dickens convey this to us (imagery, names, etc.)? How do the two contrast for both us and Pip?
2. How does Dickens use the imagery of being tainted in the rest of the novel, not just for Pip, but for other characters as well? Is the feeling of being tainted by these things only felt by the characters themselves, or does Dickens also believe that these things are to be avoided? Can the characters ever become cleansed of the taints, and if so, how?
3. Why does Dickens associate Pip's humble past with crime and jail? Are we to feel this is an association that only arises in Pip's mind, or one that we are to make as well? What meaning does this give to the fact that Pip is made a gentleman by a runaway convict?
4. In this passage the jail is referred to as “Mr. Wemmick's conservatory," and is earlier described as a garden that Mr. Wemmick tends, and the people inside as his plants. Why does Dickens lower these people's status to below human, and even animal, existence? How does he use descriptions of people as other objects function in the rest of the novel?
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Intro. by Stanley Weintraub. New York: Signet Classics, 1998.
Last modified 16 February 2004