The title of the book says it all. Charles Dickens was never afraid to take a jab at society. Almost every book does it with a burning lance, flooding vitriol into the moral ills of Victorian society. He wants you to know how the other half lives. And to do that he explores this other half through a complex body of characters. Of all the ones I’ve read so far (not too many I’m ashamed to admit) I have to say that my favorite is Pip from Great Expectations.
Pip is an orphan boy who unexpectedly comes across a large fortune endowed to him by an unknown benefactor. He is to become a gentleman in high-class society, leaving his old name and identity behind. And herein lies the conflict.
Much of the story centers around Pip’s desire to ingratiate himself into high society, mostly for the love of a girl, Estella. He becomes ashamed of his family and friends, ultimately shunning them when he goes away to London. As much as it angers you to watch unfold, you can actually emphasize with young Pip.
Pip has lived in poverty his entire life and now is offered the opportunity to climb the ladder in order to establish a name for himself. He is, as many of us, enamored with the prospect of rising upwards in society. And he is in love. Unfortunately, Pip sees his advancement as the only way to win Estella’s affections. And, under the tutelage of Miss Havisham, she cruelly shuns him every step of the way. And ultimately chooses another.
We accompany Pip’s journey as he makes his way into high society. He starts his career as an office clerk (if I remember correctly) and very quickly falls into debts and mismanagement. It’s breaking to watch the conclusion unfold (which I won’t give away), but needless to say, Pip comes to the realization that he has built his dreams on expectation, nothing more. His love for Estella and obsession in having her has blinded him to the love of his friends and family. He learns his lesson the hard way that money does not equal happiness. And it doesn’t give you the things you want.
But we ultimately have to sympathize with Pip. Like many Dickensian characters, he has the dilemma of being thrown into a vicious world of wealth and power, starting from the bottom. The only way for him to look is up. The idea of power comes so strongly to one who has never known it. Unfortunately, in Pip’s case, this is where “power” corrupts. He runs headlong into his new inheritance, desperately trying to make himself the gentleman that Estella deserves. And as the reader we feel his frustrations.
The ultimate message of Great Expectations may seem simple enough, but it is told with complexity through the eyes of its protagonist. A little bit of Pip resides in all of us: a curious child who looks at the world and wants everything in it they know they can’t have. But they’re told to seek it. Always. Some of us stop seeking and reach the conclusion that our world is sufficient. Others don’t realize it until the end. That is Pip’s tragedy. And a teaching moment for all of us.