Sources of Sympathy for Pip in Great Expectations

 

By Patricia Cove, Amherst Regional High School, class of 2001

 

    

 

     Great Expectations is a novel in which each character is a subject of either sympathy

 

or scorn.  Charles Dickens implies through his use of guilt and suffering that Pip is a

 

subject of sympathy.  Frazier Russell wrote that in Great Expectations “the protagonist

 

(through his suffering and disappointment), learns to accept his station in life.”1  Also

 

through Pip’s suffering comes the sympathy the reader feels for him.  The majority of the

 

suffering Pip is subject to in the novel is a result of the guilt he feels.  As a child he

 

suffers under an unfair burden of guilt placed on him by his sister.  He also feels guilty

 

because of his association with criminals and criminal activity throughout his life. 

 

During the second part of the novel, Pip falls from innocence into snobbery.  Because of

 

the double narrative Dickens chose to employ, the reader never loses sympathy for Pip. 

 

His final redemption comes when he is able to see his faults and recognize that he is

 

guilty of snobbery.

 

     As a child, Pip is pitied by the reader because of his situation as the younger brother of

 

Mrs. Joe, by whom he is constantly tormented.  Mrs. Joe’s treatment of Pip is not only

 

unjust, but it influences Pip’s view of himself and establishes in him a sense of guilt for

 

merely existing.  Pip is constantly feeling guilty and suffering because he is led to believe

 

that his life causes nothing but grief and evil to those around him.  Mrs. Joe uses threats

 

of punishment and accusations of ingratitude to keep Pip silent and well-behaved: “ ‘I tell

 

you what, young fellow,’ said she, ‘I didn’t bring you up by hand to badger people’s lives

 

out.  It would be blame to me, and not praise, if I had.  People are put in the Hulks

 

because they murder, and because they rob, and forge, and do all sorts of bad; and they

 

always begin by asking questions.  Now you get along to bed!’”2  The guilt Pip is forced

 

to feel by Mrs. Joe is illegitimate; that is, his own conscience makes him pay for crimes

 

he didn’t commit and for innocent actions (such as asking a question) which were twisted

 

around to appear criminal.  Mrs. Joe is not the only character who enjoys the harassment

 

of young Pip; Pumblechook, Wopsle and the Hubbles torment him endlessly during

 

Christmas Dinner.  Pip the Narrator recalls that “They seemed to think the opportunity

 

lost if they failed to point the conversation at me, every now and then, and stick the point

 

into me.  I might have been an unfortunate little bull in a Spanish arena, I got so

 

smartingly touched up by these moral goads.”3  In this scene, Wopsle and Pumblechook

 

procede to compare Pip to the swine on the table, saying that he should be grateful he is

 

who he is, because were he a swine he could await no better fate than to arrive on the

 

dinner table of an ungrateful boy such as himself.  When Pip looks back as an adult, he

 

recognizes his innocence as a child and can even be amused by the absurd accusations of

 

his tormenters.  In this sense, he is separated from his past, by being able to observe it. 

 

However, scenes such as this still create vivid images in Pip’s memory, indicating that as

 

a child he is very much troubled by the guilt his elders force upon him.  He is still too

 

young to realize that he is innocent and his accusers are really to blame.  He is left to feel

 

that he is treated terribly but that he somehow deserves it.

 

     From the earliest chapters, Pip feels another kind of guilt, a criminal guilt.  This guilt

 

is more justifiable than the guilt he is made to feel by Mrs. Joe because it is a result of the

 

actions Pip performed, knowing he shouldn’t.  From the moment Pip first sees Magwitch

 

he feels he has blood on his hands.  Julian Moynahan wrote that “Regardless of the fact

 

that Pip’s association with crimes and criminals is purely adventitious and that he

 

evidently bears no responsibility for any act or intention of criminal violence, he must be

 

condemned on the principle of guilt by association.”4  In fact, Pip is never free from

 

being associated with criminals.  The Hulks, Jaggers, Newgate and other criminal related

 

people and things meet Pip at every turn in his life.  The reader, however, does not

 

condemn Pip, because his own conscience causes him enough suffering.  He carries a

 

burden of guilt and disgust for crime throughout the novel.  Robbing Mrs. Joe as a child,

 

Pip tortures himself with guilty visions and a self-accusing imagination:

 

 

     The mist was heavier yet when I got out upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything,                            

      everything seemed to run at me.  This was very disagreeable to a guilty mind.  The gates and dikes and    

      banks came bursting at me through the mist, as if they cried as plainly as could be, ‘A boy with  

      somebody else’s pork pie!  Stop him!’  The cattle came upon me with like suddenness, staring out of 

      their eyes, and steaming out of their nostrils, ‘Halloa, young thief!’  One black ox, with a white cravat

      on- who even had to my awakened conscience something of a clerical air- fixed me so obstinately with

      his eyes, and moved his blunt head round in such an accusatory manner as I moved round, that I

      blubbered out to him, ‘I couldn’t help it, sir!  It wasn’t for myself I took it!’  Upon which he put down

      his head, blew a cloud of smoke out of his nose, and vanished with a kick-up of his hind-legs and a

      flourish of his tail.5

 

 

When he re-encounters Magwitch later, his memory is flooded with the images of his

 

childhood.  Likewise, his conscience haunts him when he hears of the attack on Mrs. Joe. 

 

In this case, he actually feels more guilty than he is.  He recalls that “It was horrible to

 

think that I had provided the weapon, however undesignedly, but I could hardly think

 

otherwise…. the secret was such an old one now, had so grown into me and become a

 

part of myself, that I could not tear it away.”6  Although Pip does not physically attack

 

Mrs. Joe, his conscience tells him that he is to blame for providing the weapon, and later,

 

for urging on the attacker.  Orlick, in Chapter 53, accuses Pip of driving him to commit

 

the crime:  “ ‘I tell you it was your doing- I tell you it was done through you,’ he

 

retorted…. ‘You done it; now you pays for it.’”7  What Orlick doesn’t realize is that Pip

 

has paid for it already in the agony of conscience he has suffered through.  In all of Pip’s

 

criminal associations he recognizes his role and is punished by his sense of guilt.

 

 

     The method Dickens used to narrate the novel is key to the reader’s sympathy for Pip. 

 

Pip the Narrator tells, as an observer, the story of his early life looking back after several

 

years.  As he tells the story, Pip the Narrator recognizes the faults of the ways of Pip the

 

Character.  John Barnes wrote that “In retrospect  he does not spare himself, and this

 

becomes an important element in retaining our sympathy, and on the whole our liking, for

 

Pip through all his actions.”8  Pip as the Narrator does not need to be redeemed because

 

to the reader he has never fallen.  Where Pip the Character fails to see his guilt, Pip the

 

Narrator recognizes it, and takes the burden on himself.  As Pip the Character falls into

 

snobbery, Pip the Narrator criticizes himself for his past actions, though he has overcome

 

his snobbery by the time he relates the story.  Pip the Narrator believes that the greatest of

 

his faults was his meanness to Joe and Biddy.  He says, looking back, “I was capable of

 

almost any meanness towards Joe or his name.”9  Because he is able to see the wrong in

 

his past behavior towards Joe, Pip the Narrator rises above Pip the Character, who is

 

blind to anything but his expectations, in the esteem of the reader.  In a sense, the two

 

Pips are almost separated into two different beings.  Robert B. Partlow, Jr. believes that

 

the Narrator “looks at Pip rather than out from him.”10  This implies a distinctness

 

between the thoughts and feelings of the two Pips.  Pip the Narrator, in the reader’s mind,

 

is sympathized with, while Pip the Character is scorned.

 

     If, however, as Partlow suggests, the two Pips are completely separate beings, Pip the

 

Character has no hope of being redeemed.  It must be remembered that in Pip the

 

Narrator, the future of Pip the Character is seen.  Even at his lowest points, the reader

 

sees a grain of goodness in Pip because of the faith that he will become Pip the Narrator. 

 

The reader cannot separate the two Pips from one another because they live inside of

 

each other.  Pip the Character gives birth to Pip the Narrator, and Pip the Narrator lives

 

inside the Character as the potential he will someday reach.  In the last chapters of

 

Great Expectations, Dickens gives the turning point in which Pip the Character is reborn,

 

almost identical to Pip the Narrator.  This change in Pip occurs when he realizes in the

 

present what snobbery he is guilty of and how he is repressing his guilt:  “For now my

 

repugnance to him had all melted away, and in the hunted wounded shackled creature

 

who held my hand in his, I only saw a man who had meant to be my benefactor, and who

 

had felt affectionately, gratefully, and generously towards me with great constancy

 

through a series of years.  I only saw in him a much better man than I had been to Joe.”11 

 

In this realization, Pip is able to come to terms with his past.  He suffers through the guilt

 

he feels in his treatment of Joe and rises above his snobbery.  He is also able to free

 

himself of his criminal guilt when he sees Magwitch as a friend and benefactor, rather

 

than a criminal.  In this instant, Pip suffers for his failings and is finally forgiven by the

 

reader.

 

     Pip suffers greatly through the burden of guilt he carries.  His lowest point in the novel

 

occurs when he fails to acknowledge the fact that he is guilty of behaving like a snob. 

 

However, he is redeemed to his situation of being a subject of sympathy when he realizes

 

his guilt.  When someone has fallen, it is only possible for him to rise again when he

 

recognizes that he has fallen.                            

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ENDNOTES



1 Frazier Russell, “ ‘When I Was A Child’- An Introduction to Great Expectations,” Yahoo Homepage, 1, Penguin Reading Guides, 7 Nov. 2000,

< www.penguinputnam.com/academic/classics/rguides/dickens/frame.html>.

2 Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (New York: Signet Classic, 1961), 21.

3 Dickens, 33.

4 Julian Moynahan, “The Hero’s Guilt: The Case of Great Expectations,” in Discussions of Charles Dickens, William R. Clark, ed. (Boston: D.C. Heath & Co., 1961), 83.

5 Dickens, 23-24.

6 Dickens, 136-137.

7 Dickens, 459.

8 John Barnes, “The Method of Narration,” in Dickens’ Great Expectations (London: Macmillan, 1966), 32.

9 Dickens, 380.

10 Robert B. Partlow, Jr., “The Moving I: A Study of the Point of View in Great Expectations,” in Assessing Great Expectations (San Fransisco: Chandler Publishing Company, 1960), 201. 

11 Dickens, 479.

 

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WORKS CITED

 

 

Barnes, John.  “The Method of Narration.”  Dickens’ Great Expectations, 23- 32.  London: Macmillan, 1966.

 

Dickens, Charles.  Great Expectations.  New York: Signet Classic, 1961.

 

French, A.L. “Old Pip: The Ending of Great Expectations.”  Essays in Criticism__, no.__.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 357- 360.

 

Moynahan, Julian.  “The Hero’s Guilt: The Case of Great Expectations.” Discussions of Charles Dickens, 82-92.  William R. Clark, ed.  Boston: D.C. Heath & Co., 1961.

 

Partlow, Robert B., Jr.  “The Moving I: A Study of the Point of View in Great Expectations.”  Assessing Great Expectations, 194-201.  Richard Lettis and William E. Morris, ed.  San Fransisco: Chandler Publishing Company, 1960.

 

Russell, Frazier.  “ ‘When I Was A Child’- An Introduction to Great Expectations.”  Yahoo Homepage, 1. Penguin Reading Guides, 7 Nov. 2000.   <www.penguinputnam.com/academic/classics/rguides/dickens/frame.html>.