Charles Dickens' Great Expectations is a novel about the formation of the self in relation to childhood. In this tale, we are met by Pip, first a young boy taken under the wing of a felon who places him with a delusional old maid, then a snobbish young man with expectations of being a member of the aristocracy, and finally as a humbled man who has learned the lesson of humility. Childhood is a time in which what we are and do then determines in great part who we will become. Dickens, clearly, employs a significant amount of his own past and dreams for this novel. The themes of good and evil, of right and wrong, of sadness and happiness are all played right along side of each other in a demonstration that life rarely follows a straight and narrow path, that it is important to experience a fall from grace, or to lose one's great expectations, in order to fully own one's life. We are able to watch as Pip's infantile dreams of greatness, riches, and power turn him into a monster, for no one actually gets what they want simply because they want it. Only the fact that he is a child redeems him. Only that fact makes what he becomes acceptable. Childhood, then, comes with nearly immediate redemption and forgiveness, which is, of course, the theme of Dickens' work. While the story culminates in an ambiguous future for Pip and Estella, it is the end which is most like life and which best reinforces the central theme of Great Expectations, that childhood ends when we realize that our dreams are different from reality. Such a discussion requires the establishment of an understanding about the theme of childhood in the book and the impact, in particular, of the last chapter in the novel. It is the purpose, then, of this paper to examine the theme of childhood and the meaning of the last chapter in relation to the future of Pip and Estella
It is no secret that Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, is a semi-autobiographical examination of the "what could have been" of his own childhood. The irony of the title is quite significant as the story revolves around the concept that our expectations, particularly those of childhood, can turn out to be quite different and often let us down. Childhood itself is about dreams and exploration, not only of the world, but of the self. It is in these explorations that we begin to discover who and what we are, what we may become, and what the world thinks we should be. In a dark and often terrible story about the building up and breaking down of childhood dreams, happiness and darkness live side by side. Childhood, then, plays a dominant theme in the book as it is in childhood that our expectations can become our friends, or our enemies. From the instance that Pip develops the ability to cull the names from tombstones, his is a tale of the pursuit of knowledge. This pursuit, however, is often marred by the difficulties of his young life, making him an easy victim instead of a captain of his own fate. The childhood theme crosses the three stages of Pip's development that we see as readers. In the first, Pip begins the creation process of what he supposes to be the ideal life, that of a Gentleman. In the second, we observe as the childhood dreams begin to be acted upon, creating a monster in a boy who has not earned his station. In the third, we find that the boy has become a man who has discovered that it is only through personal effort and work that the dreams of his childhood could actually be earned and owned. It is this cycle, that of creation, destruction, and redemption that marks so strongly the theme of childhood in this book. We are never truly free of our past, which is reiterated by Pip in the final chapter, "
Pip's life begins with abandonment. He is an orphan who finds no real shortage of surrogate parents to step in and provide bits of care and support here and there. Magwitch, Mrs. Haversham, Matthew and Herbert Pocket, and others, all contribute to the care of this small boy. It is through these people that Pip must learn how to become a happy, successful person. "Through them Dickens shows how from infancy the individual is oppressed, molded, and channeled into his adult identity (Allingham, n pag)." Here, in this stage, childhood is at its ignorant best. Pip's encounter with Magwitch begins his journey toward becoming a gentleman. Falsely believing Mrs. Havisham to be his benefactor, Pip begins to consider himself a budding aristocrat. It is in this stage that the dreams are at their strongest. Pip's expectations for himself are not only grand, but they are built upon sand. It is his ignorance as a child, however, that makes possible the dreams that will one day dictate the type of man he is to become.
Childhood dreams are often carried out in very awkward ways. As this book is, in every element, about childhood's effect on the whole of life, it is important to remember that the initial action that takes place towards fulfilling a dream is based, most often, on supposition rather than solid fact. Pip's pursuit of aristocratic ways falls quickly into a realm of tried-on snobbishness, the abandonment of his childhood friends, and the types of behaviors that he thinks a gentleman worthy of the beautiful Estella would have. He is able to rise from the lower to the middle class because of his unknown benefactor, not by his own effort. Here, everything is a mask. In reality, Pip is playing at being an adult. Like children are won't to do, Pip began to assume that all of the events around him were simply machinations designed to give him the good life. His younger expectations begin to take on more detailed and fanciful form. "When Pip thinks he is taking steps towards being a gentleman, raising himself in the eyes of Victorian society and gaining daily in respectability, he is in fact moving towards disgrace and the risk of breaking all the ties of loyalty and affection which might really have made him respectable ("Great Expectations: Pip's Childhood at the Forge," n pag). He believes that he is being groomed to marry Estella, that he is destined to become a great aristocrat, and that his life will continue to be handed to him without effort on his own part. "Pip's desire for Estella is as selfish as his desire to be a gentleman, not at all the desire to give, only the desire to receive (Johnson, p992)." Pip's wide-eyed and hopeful childhood turns into a rather unlikable nasty young man.
However, as with most things in life, Pip learns from his mistakes. "I thought how miserable I was, but hardly knew why, or how long I had been so, (Dickens, p314)." Pip's revelations at the reappearance of Magwitch, the discovery that his childhood had not been at the hands of Mrs. Havershim, but of the old convict, and that he was no more destined for Estella's hand than any man (due to her training at the hands of her adopted mother). Here, in his final stage, Pip discovers that childhood dreams are but dreams. He also discovers that happiness is not granted on the basis of the fulfillment of great expectations, but on how one fits within and accepts the fate that is handed to them. "By the end of his saga, Pip has, for the most part, shed his illusions (his 'expectations') and is able to live a simple but fulfilling life as a clerk in the company of his great friend, Herbert Pocket (Russel, n pag)." His final success, and acceptance of his life, come from the strength of his childhood dreams and the lesson of humility he learned along the way.
Dickens' own childhood effected the whole of his life. Pip's life follows the all too real path that having too great of expectations can build. In his youth, Pip's dreams are the fancies of a child, the expectations of greatness that no good childhood would be without. Yet, in his early maturity, those dreams which go uncontrolled help him develop into a shadow of his youthful self. But, the trials of his youth, his failures, and the realization that he cannot expect anything in life, particularly success and the fulfillment of dreams, to be simply handed to him. Upon this realization, Pip discovers that childhood expectations can be realized, but only through the work it takes to earn them and own them.
The earliest years of childhood receive the greatest amount of pity and empathetic attention from others. Because Pip was abandoned by his parents and subsequently bandied about from pseudo-parent to pseudo-parent, we can feel very badly for him. This empathy is because he…