Pip's quest for knowledge and eagerness to escape what he perceives to be his “commonness" is a recurring theme throughout Dickens's Great Expectations. His learnedness often comes at a price, and his worldly education is sometimes accompanied by not only emotional but physical struggle. When recounting a typical night at Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt's school, for instance, Pip may as well be describing a skirmish on the battlefield or fracas in a prison yard. He characterizes Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt as a heavy-handed overseer who awakens from her comatose slumber just long enough to let fly at some unlucky pupil's ears or whip her birchrod indiscriminately at the crowd of students. Moreover, the lesson plan is precariously held together by “ragged books" and “defaced Bibles" and is vulnerable to attack at any moment by foot-stomping competitions, combats between students and teacher, and an overall irreverence for the course material. The pupils seem more interested in mastering one another than in mastering their alphabet or Bible.
Having recognized the inadequacies of such an educational system, Pip actively seeks knowledge outside the classroom. He solicits Biddy's help in acquiring knowledge of the store's operations and is grateful for the tidbits of information she imparts to him. In some ways, his childhood relationship with Biddy mirrors or foreshadows his rapport with Herbert later on in London. Both friendships are characterized by a mentee-mentor dynamic, and, disturbingly, the educational aspect of their relationships seems to hinge upon violent circumstances or behaviors. Pip becomes Biddy's pupil because the turmoil of Mr. Wapsle's great-aunt's school compels him to, and he turns into Herbert's protégé after they bemusedly bond over their youthful bare-fisted fight at Miss Havisham's house. Pip's educational experiences appear inextricably linked to violence and, more specifically, violent forms of competition. He may ultimately acquire knowledge in spite of such tumultuous circumstances, yet his path to erudition (i.e. social versus academic) is nevertheless marked by what appear to be injurious rites of passage.
The Educational scheme or Course established by Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt may be resolved into the following synopsis. The pupils ate apples and put straws down one another's backs, until Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt collected her energies, and made an indiscriminate totter at them with a birch-rod. After receiving the charge with every mark of derision, the pupils formed in line and buzzingly passed a ragged book from hand to hand. The book had an alphabet in it, some figures and tables, and a little spelling--that is to say, it had had once. As soon as this volume began to circulate, Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt fell into a state of coma; arising either from sleep or a rheumatic paroxysm. The pupils then entered among themselves upon a competitive examination on the subject of Boots, with the view of ascertaining who could tread the hardest upon whose toes. This mental exercise lasted until Biddy made a rush at them and distributed three defaced Bibles (shaped as if they had been unskillfully cut off the chump-end of something), more illegibly printed at the best than any curiosities of literature I have since met with, speckled all over with ironmould, and having various specimens of the insect world smashed between their leaves. This part of the Course was usually lightened by several single combats between Biddy and refractory students. When the fights were over, Biddy gave out the number of a page, and then we all read aloud what we could — or what we couldn't — in a frightful chorus; Biddy leading with a high shrill monotonous voice, and none of us having the least notion of, or reverence for, what we were reading about. When this horrible din had lasted a certain time, it mechanically awoke Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt, who staggered at a boy fortuitously and pulled his ears. This was understood to terminate the Course for the evening, and we emerged into the air with shrieks of intellectual victory. [61; Place within the complete text of the novel]
Why might Dickens punctuate the schoolroom scene with violence between the pupils, teacher, and headmistress? Are these the mere high jinks of restless children refusing to cooperate with the demands of an educational institution? What can we make of their animal-like “shrieks of intellectual victory"? Why does Pip identify with the “we" of the class only to distinguish himself in the next passage as a critical and dissatisfied student?
Why do Pip's most impressionable educational experiences seem contingent upon violent competition? What lessons about class, society, and social etiquette is he really learning under these circumstances?
Why is it significant that the students cannot read their moldy, insect-splattered Bibles? Why would this particular segment of the class be “lightened" with “combats between Biddy and refractory students"?
What connection, if any, can we forge between Pip's experience in the tumultuous classroom and his fight with Herbert? Are the competitions in these two separate circumstances similar in any way? Why might they be different?
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Ed. Edgar Rosenberg. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.
Last modified 9 March 2010