The Essence of Pip

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The Essence of Pip

The forms that stand in closest competition with those undergoing modification and improvement will naturally suffer most.

--Darwin, The Origin of the Species (1859)

Christopher Ricks poses the question, in his essay on Dickens' Great Expectations, "How does Pip [the novel's fictional narrator] keep our sympathy?" (Ricks 202). The first of his answers to this central inquiry are: the fact that Pip is "ill-treated by his sister Joe and by all the visitors to the house" and that Pip "catches" his unrequited lover, Estella's, "infectious contempt for his commonness" (Ricks 202). In answering like this, Ricks immediately assumes a dichotomous contrast between the natural human and the taught (acted-upon) human. Ricks is saying that the natural Pip is good and therefore holds the reader's sympathy while the manipulated Pip is bad and behaves in ways with which the reader cannot sympathize, and wants to condemn. The reader sides with the basic Pip and blames not him, but his circumstances and others, for his problematic conduct.

The abbreviated childhood narratives that many of the novel's characters provide support this loaded nature / nurture division, in which nature is the base and nurture is the skewed corruption of that base. The reader sympathizes with and is intrigued by the stories the characters tell of their childhoods because the stories easily explain why these people act as they do, and render excuses for them when they act maliciously. Children act according to the way they are raised so as to remedy and balance out the past, and their basic good nature only re-emerges after that task has been completed. Miss Havisham, the novel's schadenfreud terrorist, "was a spoilt child. Her mother ...

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...gled with their circumstances as to incorporate their selves into them, the novel becomes simply a series of events. Miss Havisham asks Estella "Are you tired of me?" and Estella replies, "Only a little tired of myself" (Dickens 279). Estella has no self and so all the intrigue of personal dilemma and development disappears. Even Miss Havisham is not a self, but is only the blunt response to rejection. This extreme example is representative of all the characters in Great Expectations. They are not subjects; they are objects in a world of pure, artless evolution.


Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. London: Penguin, 1994.

Ricks, Christopher, "Great Expectations," from Dickens and the Twentieth Century. Ed. John Gross and G. Pearson, 1966. pp. 199-211.

Schad, John. The Reader in the Dickensian Mirrors. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

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