Similar to Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography and Frederick Douglass in his Narrative, Pip in Great Expectations also demonstrates the archetypal boyhood to manhood narrative. Each story recounts a journey of growth and development, of maturation and self-discovery through experience. In addition, the protagonist of each novel has a purpose which directs his actions and decisions throughout the course of his journey.
However, one significant difference exists between the two historical characters and the fictitious Pip-while Franklin and Douglass both strive for realistic and self-improving goals, Pip, like his imaginary character, entertains an idealistic dream. Pip desires to leave his former social class as a common boy and advance in life as a gentleman. This idealism quickly consumes Pip and becomes both the thematic center of the novel and the psychological mechanism that encourages much of Pip’s development.
Ironically, many instances in the novel show that the symbols and figures of the wealthy class that Pip idolizes are in fact his greatest tormenters. From their unfavorable effects on Pip such as abuse, pain, and unhappiness, manifests the idea that social standing does not determine one’s happiness and well being, and most importantly, one’s self worth. Even before Pip becomes a member of the wealthy class, his mere exposure to it initiates a procession of pain brought about by physical, verbal, and emotional abuse.
Miss Havisham, despite her eccentricity, represents the class, wealth, and advancement that direct Pip’s actions and emotions for a large portion of the novel. Upon hearing about Miss Havisham’s desire to see Pip, Mrs. Joe “pounced upon [Pip], like an eagle on a lamb, and my face was squeezed into wooden bowls in sinks, and my head was put under taps of water-butts, and I was thumped… and rasped, until I really was quite beside myself” (52). Dickens’ clever use of violent rhetoric such as “pounced,” “squeezed,” and “rasped” and the metaphor, “like an eagle on a lamb” paints an unpleasant predator-to-victim scene in the reader’s mind.
Mrs. Joe’s ecstatic reaction over the idea of Pip’s opportunity to befriend the wealthy class makes this scene the novel’s first hint of social advancement that will later consume Pip’s life. Consequently, Mrs. Joe becomes the first instrument of the upper class to inflict pain on Pip, carried out by the violent and painful bath. The physical abuse Pip endures here, so early in his childhood, also foreshadows the misery and pain he will later encounter among the upper classes. Moreover, closing the scene with “my ablutions were completed” (53) presents a resemblance between the simple bath and a ritual cleansing.
The word ablution is most often associated with biblical allegories where priests were required to cleanse themselves before approaching the altar of God. Dickens’ word choice here seems to imply that Pip’s violent bath was necessary not only in cleansing him, but ridding him of the soil from his common life that might taint those in higher places. This bath scene serves as the novel’s first subtle but significant example that involvement with the upper class does not determine well being.
The pain Pip endures from his first exposure to the upper class alerts the reader that an apparently positive development in his life (Miss Havisham’s invitation to her world) may have results to the contrary. Apart from physical abuse and torment, Pip’s first interactions with the wealthy class also cause him to suffer emotionally. The general magnificence and grandeur of Satis House exists not only as a symbol of the lives of the upper class, but as a symbol of Pip’s romantic perception of the upper class as well.
In this aspect, it is also a source of misery for Pip and he realizes, “daylight never entered [Satis House]… and under its influence I continued at heart to hate my trade and to be ashamed of home” (125). The ornate grandeur of Satis House has raised in Pip a new consciousness of his own low birth and common bearings. After his first visit, he even lies about his experience there, unwilling to sully his thoughts of it with the contrasting plainness of his every day world, for it must remain “far above the level of common doings” (72).
Pip’s first visit to Satis House is a momentous event in his life. It raises in Pip an awareness of social contrast, robs him of his youthful innocence and sense of fulfillment and thus, further exemplifies the misery that is inherently linked with representations of the upper class. With the introduction of Miss Havisham and Satis House, the character Estella moves to the forefront of the novel as the ultimate symbol of Pip’s unattainable dream in Great Expectations, and the greatest cause of his sufferings.
Ironically, Estella’s condescension and spite matches Pip’s feelings about himself in the world of Satis House. He accepts her condescension, “Why, he is a nothing but a common laboring-boy! ” (60), without defending himself because he idealizes Estella and sorrowfully believes her to be right. This is particularly evident during times when the difference between their social classes manifest itself in the smallest things, “I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before… her contempt was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it” (60).
Moreover, Estella consistently refers to Pip as “Mr. Pumblechook’s boy” (58), “silly boy” (266), or simply “boy”, using any word but his real name. This is a form of verbal abuse because it ultimately degrades Pip to a gender with no unique identity. Estella practices a deliberate cruelty on Pip that wins his deepest love and causes him to develop a passionate but unrequited devotion for her. This is one of the harshest examples of the pain and torment Pip must endure as he interacts with the upper class.
Through these accounts, it becomes evident that social standing and wealth does not always determine well being. In fact, it may accomplish just the opposite-physical pain, emotional disturbance, and misery from the knowledge of one’s common bearings. Even when Pip becomes a gentleman and is received by society, there is a sharp decline in his confidence and happiness that accompanies this rise in social status. Pip’s unofficial entrance into the world of a wealthy gentleman can be marked as the event where he put on a real gentleman suit.
Interestingly, Pip describes, “after this memorable event… I felt rather like Mother Hubbard’s dog” (152). While a notable occasion such as this would have naturally allowed for happiness and celebration, Pip instead compares his elevated social standing to a common animal of a children’s poem. The demeaning effect of the suit, versus it’s intended dignifying effect, not only foreshadows the unsatisfactory life Pip will lead as a gentleman, but poses further doubt on the hopes and ideals Pip holds of the wealthy class.