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How Does Dickens Present Childhood in Great Expectations?

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    A tough childhood was typical for a child living in the Victorian period, and that’s only if a baby survived till childhood – as infant mortality rates were extremely high. This is an experience Pip – our protagonist – knows well, as all five of his brothers are dead, buried in the graveyard at the beginning of the book alongside his parents. Pip and his sister – Mrs Joe Gargery – are the only survivors. If a child does survive, he or she would expect a life of child labour as education was not compulsory – and even those who went to school had to deal with a lot of corporal punishment.

    Pip himself is will one day be the apprentice of a blacksmith – Joe Gargery, “When I was old enough, I was to be apprenticed to Joe”. Pip says “I was to be”, implying he didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. This sort of treatment children must endure affects the readers on an emotional level as nowadays children are seen as weak and innocent. In the Victorian period, it was always ‘survival of the fittest’. The government did not give benefits or help as we come to expect now and so there was little chance of an orphan making something of himself like Pip does – something that must have been quite surreal to Victorian era readers. The Victorian period was also very capitalist – a very individualistic ethos of an economy that made people believe it’s their fault if you’re in poverty – further playing on why people couldn’t pull themselves up from the dirt in the way Pip would do.

    Dickens’ main interests as a writer would be to entertain as well as to gain recognition to be successful and make money. However, Dickens was very much a ‘people’s writer’, meaning that he listened to the praises and criticisms of his readers, and did more of or improved, respectively. Also, he wrote this novel in a serial. With weekly instalments – making it much easier to receive criticisms and act upon them. Dickens did not cater to any specific group or social class, his work was published in newspapers or journals that everyone read from. Another very famous novel courtesy of Dickens is Oliver Twist. There are some stark similarities between both Great Expectations and Oliver Twist; such as how both Pip and Oliver are both orphans, they both have interactions with convicts at an early age and most of all – in both novels, the protagonists want an escape from the misery in their lives. This book very much belongs to a ‘hybrid genre’ as it contains elements of many genres such as action, romance, and adventure, and to a lesser degree: comedy and thriller. Dickens’ style of writing – such as caricature and the constant portrayal of squalid and poverty-stricken settings in his novels – became known as ‘Dickensian’.

    Pip’s upbringing and life is not at all uncommon for a child of the Victorian era. Pip has lost both parents and five of six siblings. His sister is left to raise him and she did so very harshly. She frequently reminds him by using the phrase “…brought you up by hand”, to remind him that not only did she raise him by herself, she did so with strict discipline. This is further shown by the fact that his sister has named a cane ‘tickler’ so that Pip knows what is coming when she utters the name. Mrs Joe Gargery is no stranger to using ‘tickler’ either, a fact given away by Pip when he says, “Tickler was a wax-ended piece of cane, worn smooth by collision with my tickled frame.” It has been “worn smooth by collision”, suggesting it has been used many times.

    However, as physically weak as Pip may be presented, emotionally he is reasonably tough for a seven year old orphan. For instance, there is no indication of Pip crying when Magwitch – an escaped convict – was threatening him, despite how terrified and close he was to doing so, “…to keep myself from crying.” Naturally, he wanted to cry, but he had enough integrity to “keep…from” crying. Pip is also a very polite and civil child. Again, while being threatened and interrogated by Magwitch, Pip remained polite when he asked his name, “Pip. Pip, sir”, and also when departing from Magwitch, “Goo-good night, sir.” Addressing a man threatening to cut your liver out ‘sir’ or wishing him ‘good night’ is not just doing so out of fright, but Pip’s courteous nature.

    Adults generally look down upon Pip. He is constantly pushed around by most adults, with only a couple sympathetic towards him. His sister treats him the worst and constantly verbally and physically abuses him. For example, during a dinner party on Christmas Day where friends of the family were invited, Mrs Joe openly says to the whole table, “`Trouble?’ echoed my sister; `trouble?’ And then entered on a fearful catalogue of all the illnesses I had been guilty of…” She makes it no secret that she regrets ever raising him. However, she does seem to care for Pip all the same. When he was gone for a long time at the graveyard, Mrs Gargery went out looking for him, and when she finally found him at home she said, “…to wear me away with fret and fright and worrit” She was ‘fret’ with ‘fright’ and ‘worrit’, therefore it is only logical to assume that his sister’s cold and indifferent attitude to Pip – and to a lesser extent Joe – is just how she deals with the bad life she believes she has, “Perhaps if I warn’t a blacksmith’s wife…”.

    Joe, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of Mrs Joe. Joe and Pip are more like best friends than a father and son relationship. Pip himself attests that Joe is just a larger version of a child to him, “I always treated him as a larger species of child, and as no more than my equal.” Joe also cares a great deal for Pip, as shown by his actions during the very dinner party his sister scolded him in. Every time something bad was said about Pip, Joe offered Pip gravy to show that he does not feel the same way, “he always aided and comforted me when he could… and he always did so at dinner-time by giving me gravy”. During this particular dinner, Joe had to give Pip a lot of gravy to comfort him to a greater extent.

    Magwitch, despite appearances, is the only other person to be kind to Pip. At first when he met Pip in the graveyard, he was quite threatening, “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!” It should also be noted that Magwitch does not enjoy being threatening or looking like the bad guy. This can be assumed by the fact he says a ‘young man’ – a companion of his will be the one to cut out Pip’s liver instead of he himself, “in comparison with which young man I am a Angel.” However, when Pip brings him food, drink and tools, Magwitch is grateful and well-mannered, “Thankee, my boy…” Also, when Magwitch is caught by the soldiers, he attempts to cover for Pip stealing from Mrs Joe by saying it was instead he that done it, “A man can’t starve; at least I can’t. I took some wittles… and a dram of liquor, and a pie.” This shows the thoughtfulness of Magwitch and his compassion will play an even greater role later in the novel.

    Miss Havisham and Pip have a very complicated relationship. She appears to be kind to him by inviting him over to her estate and giving him money – yet humiliates him for her own personal revenge. She has raised Estella to hate all men, and plans for her to break Pip’s heart. This is shown by when Miss Havisham tells Estella to play cards with Pip and Estella protests, “With this boy! Why, he is a common labouring-boy!” to which Miss Havisham replies “Well? You can break his heart.” Miss Havisham was dumped on her wedding day, so she holds an irrational loathing of all men; this quote shows that as she cannot carry out revenge anymore, she does it through Estella. Also, Miss Havisham speaks to Pip as if he understands such matters as a “broken” heart, when she tells him that her heart is “Broken!” Almost as if he is like an adult to her – it should be noted that Miss Havisham is the only character to do so. Everyone else treats him as his age.

    Estella is the antithesis of Pip. Where he is uneducated, she is intelligent. Where he is poor and shabby, she’s rich and high-class. Pip thinks she is very pretty as he admits to Miss Havisham, “I think she is very pretty.” However, he also finds her rude, “I think she is very insulting”, and stuck up, “I think she is very proud.” Despite all this, he will soon fall in love with her – exactly what she and Miss Havisham want.

    Conversely, Estella holds great disdain for Pip as a child and she enjoys his misery, as shown when she inquires to him, “Why don’t you cry?” This question is asked as if she condemns him for not crying like she wants to see him do. She also deliberately makes him feel insignificant – almost second class – compared to her, as shown on his walk home when he feels bad about who he is and how he acts, “and deeply revolving that I was a common labouring-boy; that my hands were coarse; that my boots were thick; that I had fallen into a despicable habit of calling knaves Jacks; that I was much more ignorant than I had considered myself last night, and generally that I was in a low-lived bad way.” Overall, as can be seen – Pip is very much chasing what he believes he could never have, and partly due to Estella intentionally leading him on.

    Perspective is very important when reading Great Expectations. Especially when reading the beginning. As the novel is something known as a ‘bildungsroman’, where we follow the protagonist from childhood as he matures into adulthood – and we first see Pip as a seven year old and the book follows him well into manhood. Therefore, as the novel is in the first person, it is important that we are shown things through the perspective a child would see them. This is where Dickens uses caricature, as to a child – any abnormal features are always exaggerated in their minds. During the dinner party is the best illustration of this as caricature is used multiple times. A good quotation of this given caricature would be of Uncle Pumblechook, “Mr Wopsle, united to a Roman nose and a large shining bald forehead…” The word “united” would suggest that his nose was almost like a separate entity to him. Also, a “large” and “shining” forehead is an obvious exaggeration of size and appearance. Another example would be Mr. Hubble, “…his legs extraordinarily wide apart: so that in my short days I always saw some miles of open country between them when I met him coming up the lane.” A person’s legs being so wide apart that you could see “some miles” of land between them is an obvious amplification of reality and in fact a quite humorous thing to think of – this is caricature in action to have an effect on the reader.

    Pip’s childhood eyes do not just affect how he perceives adults, but the environment and objects around him too. An example would be in Mr Pumblechook’s corn shop when Pip looks in one of the drawers, “I wondered… whether the flower-seeds and bulbs ever wanted of a fine day to break out of those jails, and bloom.” Seeds staging a “break out” is obviously something of a child’s imagination.

    In addition, it should be noted that caricature shouldn’t be confused with characterisation as caricature exaggerates a character’s bodily features to a comedic – almost cartoonish level. In contrast, characterisation is how a writer completely creates a character. Such as the characterisation of Estella would be a rude, snobby and cold-hearted person on the whole. Whereas Joe would be a kind, caring and warm-hearted individual, characterisation helps draw wide contrast between different characters.

    To conclude, Great Expectations is very much the ‘rags-to-riches’ story of the Victorian period. It is quite dark and gloomy in both storyline and setting, although it balances this sombre tone with humour through the use of devices such as caricature. Moreover, it emphasizes the difficulty of being a child in the Victorian period. However, it also portrays the world through the eyes of a child quite accurately unlike other authors who write as if a child has the same maturity and thoughts as an adult – for instance in chapter eight; in the Satis House garden, Pip says (referring to Estella) “…she seemed to be everywhere.” Someone being “everywhere” would only be the imaginings of a child’s viewpoint – which suits the seven year old orphan perfectly.

    How Does Dickens Present Childhood in Great Expectations?. (2017, Oct 16). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/dickens-present-childhood-great-expectations/

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