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