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How does Charles Dickens present Victorian Childhoods in “Great Expectations”

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Great Expectations is a novel revolving around the protagonist and narrator of the novel, Pip, whose life is moralised and shaped through two major events that take place in his life. In the opening of the novel, Pip is faced with a mysterious encounter with an escaped convict, Magwitch. Near the end of the opening chapters, Pip is faced with another trial where he meets respected lady, Miss Havisham, who is trying to hatch her revenge against men through the help of her faithful apprentice, Estella, using Pip as her first victim.

The novel was published in the 1860’s during tough Victorian times. I believe Charles Dickens was inspired by his own life. When he was 12, his father was imprisoned for debt, during this time Dickens was sent to work in a boot-blacking factory. In the novel I believe that Dickens portrays his life through the protagonist Pip. Many other books written by Dickens are also written from his experiences in life like Oliver Twist and Hard Times.

Dickens’ sets a very “bleak” mood at the beginning of the novel. He describes an isolated marsh near where Pip lives, the grey weather, and the cemetery with Pip’s deceased parents’ graves, “derived” from their own tombstones. The churchyard was described to be gloomy, old and unkempt. The use of strong adjectives and the idea of it being “overgrown with nettles” imply this. Beyond the churchyard is “dark flat wilderness” which shows which state Pip might have been living in “intersected with dykes and mounds and gates,” in comparison to today’s London city the setting is very old and poor showing how very different the 1860’s where compared to the 21st Century. Throughout the novel, Dickens follows this pattern by using weather, time of day or night, and morbid locations (Miss Havisham’s house, and the cemetery) to reflect the harsh times in Pip’s life. While the novel does end on a more positive note, overall, its atmosphere reflects struggle from birth to live in an often unforgiving world.

Dickens uses first person narrative throughout the novel. The fact that Pip is also the narrator of the story makes it more instructive, because he is able to interpret the meaning of what is happening, as well as see it through a child’s eyes. The first person narrative makes the readers relate to Pip more, making us feel very sympathetic towards him. The fear he faces from the convict leaves the reader feeling protective towards central character Pip. Throughout the novel we grow attached to him because Dickens creates lovable and innocent character. Dickens entraps the reader playing with their emotions.

The reader sees the way in which Pip reacts to others; this shows the reader that Pip is a polite young boy through the use of his dialogue. In the opening Pip is attacked by a convict in the graveyard, Magwitch is portrayed as a frightening and intimidating man. He “seizes” Pip by the “chin,” this violent gesture shows how Pip being a young boy must have felt extremely scared and in a state of shock. He uses words such “young dog” to refer to Pip which portrays that he might not be a much respected man and uses many slang terms in his vocabulary. Dickens compares Magwitch’s character to a beast, he “ravenously” wolfs down the bread, demanding to know where Pip is from and with whom he lives. He uses harsh demands to panic Pip “Hold your noise!” The quote is also emphasised with an exclamation mark. A lot of bestial imagery is used to refer to Magwitch “glared and growled,” Pip, only beings about 7 years old must have felt very intimidated in front of Magwitch.

Pip is an orphan who has been ‘raised by hand’ by his sister, Mrs Joe, who is married to Joe Gargery, a blacksmith. Pip loves Joe and enjoys his company. Dickens uses Mrs Joe presents an emotional and physical threat in Pip’s life. Mrs Joe uses violence throughout the novel and thinks that it is ok because she has brought him up by her own “hand”. Bringing bought up by hand has a dual meaning in the novel it’s ironic because Pip interprets it as if being punished and disciplined with beatings. However, Mrs. Joe means that she alone had to bring him up with no help. They both have totally opposite ideas of what the same thing means. When she is violently hurting pip she loves to refer to how, because of her Pip is alive. This is shown when she says “if it weren’t for me you’d have been in the churchyard and stayed there”.

Pip has no choice but to endure the pain from Mrs Joe because he understands that without her he probably wouldn’t have survived. She persuades Pip to believe that he should be grateful for what she does to him by constantly complaining of the burden Pip is to her. Dickens describes Mrs Joe as a quite scary and ugly lady “tall and bony” and “black hair and eyes”. Dickens ironically uses the word “Tickler” for the stick that Mrs. Joe beats Pip with so unmercifully. The word tickle suggests a tingling or itching sensation, as from light touches or strokes. But, in the novel, “Tickler” suggests extremely harsh and painful beatings. Joe Gargery plays the father-role and tries to save him from the cruelty of Mrs. Joe. Joe grabs Pip and “passes him into the chimney, quietly fencing me up there with his great leg” in comparison to Mrs Joe, Joe Gargery seems like the hero, he protects Pip and is described to be very strong “great leg”. Pip is warned by Joe Gargery when Mrs Joe is approaching him “she’s got the Tickler with her” Pip stands waiting “twisting the only button of his waistcoat round and round” as if the beatings have been taking place all his life and he was very aware of what was about to happen, having no choice but to stand and wait for her beatings.

At the beginning of chapter 8 Pip is sent to visit Satis House. Everything at this house has stopped and then began to slide into decay when Miss Havisham was abandoned on her wedding day. The place is in ruins, full of cobwebs and darkness, by the time Pip makes his first visit to Miss Havisham. It seems to be an awkward position for Pip because he has suddenly stepped into a world he hasn’t experienced at all, where he is only known to “common boy.” Pip is escorted to the house by a young girl about her age, Miss Havisham’s novice. Estella refers to Pip with the word “boy” from this Pip understands that the word is far from “complimentary” and that she must belittling him referring to his class and social stature. Pip is amazed by her despite her scornful nature and describes her as a girl one out of twenty and a “queen.”

Pip gives a lot of respect to Estella despite being turned away on many occasions; he seems astonished by her beauty and knowing her class refers to her as “miss”.

The house is very dark, lit only by a candle held by Estella as she escorts Pip to Miss Havisham’s room. Miss Havisham is stuck in one moment, the moment where she was left at the alter. This explains the “pale decayed objects” and her “withered bridal dress”. Miss Havisham is very misanthropic and is plotting her revenge against men, using her apprentice Estella to “break Pip’s heart”. Miss Havisham expects Pip to be scared of her “You are not afraid of a woman who has never seen the sun since you were born?” she warns Pip, subtly telling him to be afraid of her. The way she says “Broken!” with “strong emphasis” shows how affected she was when she was jilted at the altar, and how much revenge is meaningful to her. The clocks are also all set at the same time she was left showing that she can’t forget that period of time. Estella is being used by her to plot her revenge against Pip, because he is a man. She is her foster daughter and Miss Havisham is supposedly teaching her the way of life, which is in general to be very cold hearted. Miss Havisham is forming her into what she believes is right, hating men.

Estella insults Pip saying he is “common” and has “coarse hands” this hits young Pip particularly hard. He has had no occasion to think about his class before this, and now that he does, he’s disturbed to think he might be “common.” This shows Pip is very impressionable and wants to improve his life by taking into account everything Estella says, this is why he is hurt by it. Pip is left to self evaluate his life through Estella’s eyes. After taking into account all that Estella says he feels particularly sorry for himself and blames Joe Gargery for what he is today. Pip is asked to play cards by Estella in whom he calls the picture cards “jacks” whereas the correct term is “knaves”.

He was determined to ask Joe why “he had ever taught him to call those picture-cards jacks”. This shows that Pip feels that it is Joe’s fault and that he feels that it is bad to be of the lower class and strives to become a “gentlemen” through out the novel. Miss Havisham and Estella makes Pip believe that having money which automatically means you belong to the higher class in society, gives you a title of the gentlemen. In many parts of the novel Pip is known to be wrongly ashamed of Joe, without knowing his true worth. The novel puts through Dickens’ portrayal of a true gentleman, in the character Joe Gargery in contrast to the known Victorian definition of a “gentleman”. Despite Pip moving up in class with the help of Miss Havisham and Estella he turns into a cold hearted, selfish and ungrateful person and doesn’t realise that being a gentleman isn’t related to class and money.

The world was less advanced at the time when the novel was written which was in the 1860’s late Victorian times. In 1859 Samuel Smiles wrote a book called Self-Help this told people that if they wanted to they could move up from lower class and become a person with a higher class, after this the 19th century was the age of the “self made” man. Society was strictly layered, and there was no middle ground everyone expected people to know where they stand. Dickens didn’t like this. In his novel he explains this through Pip and also himself. He warns society about the consequences of adhering to a typical class stereotype. The main moral is to fulfil your life to the highest standard to suite your own ability without blaming your childhood. Its relevant for today because there will always be a social structure, and there will always be less fortunate people in the world, this novel is hope that there can be a change if they wish it.

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