Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861) charts the growth of its protagonist Pip from childhood to adulthood. The narrative mode Dickens has adopted aligns his novel with the Bildungsroman genre of literature. The term Bildungsroman is a German word meaning ‘novel of formation’ or ‘education novel’. The following analysis explores some of the episodes within Great Expectations which illustrate the conventions of the Bildungsroman form. The excerpts are from the Oxford World’s Classics 1998 edition of the text.
A Bildungsroman novel frequently puts an emphasis on the moral and psychological development of its protagonist. Morality is an important theme in Great Expectations, particularly in relation to Pip’s attitude towards other characters. The story’s opening immediately establishes the protagonist’s orphaned status with the young Pip contemplating the graves of his dead parents. The figure of the ‘orphan’ illustrates Dickens’s innovative engagement with the Bildungsroman genre, as Pip could be viewed as a blank slate, or ‘tabula rasa’, in that his mind isn’t informed by any external psychological influence from his parents. Instead he is being raised by his shrewish older sister and her husband, the kindly and unassuming blacksmith Joe Gargery.
Initially Pip is content with his humble surroundings, although his class consciousness receives a rude awakening on his first visit to Satis House. Here he encounters Miss Havisham and her ward Estella, the latter of whom takes delight in continually reminding the protagonist of his lowly status. When Estella remarks on Pip’s ‘coarse hands’ and ‘thick boots’, and his habit of calling knaves ‘Jacks’ when they are playing cards together, she is expressing her contempt of his background. Even though Pip is hurt by her taunts, he still becomes infatuated with Estella, and it is this attraction which triggers his own animosity towards his origins.
Sometime after Pip has come of age and has been working in the forge with Joe, the lawyer Jaggers informs him of an anonymous benefactor who wishes to make the protagonist a gentleman. Incorrectly Pip assumes this benefactor to be Miss Havisham, and starts to entertain the belief that the old spinster intends him for Estella. This episode heralds a great advance in the protagonist’s own snobbery and delusion, as he sets off for London, putting his origins in the Kent marshlands behind him.
While Pip is enjoying the leisurely life of a gentleman in the capital, he receives a letter from his old acquaintance Biddy, stating that Joe has come up to London and would like to visit him. Pip’s disdain for the blacksmith is revealed in his reservations concerning such a prospect: “If I could have kept him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money” (pp.215-216). When the protagonist returns to his hometown for his sister’s funeral, his snobbery is further evinced on his insistence at staying in the Blue Boar inn in town, as opposed to the forge with Joe.
A pivotal episode in the novel is when Abel Magwitch, the escaped convict of whom Pip had assisted when a boy, pays a sudden visit. The protagonist is utterly horrified and his shallow world comes crashing down around him when Magwitch reveals that he is his benefactor. Pip learns that the former convict has since successfully established himself in a profitable business after being transported to Australia and never forgot Pip’s kindness to him on the Kent marshes. Pip meanwhile admits that his “blood ran cold within me” (p.316), when the convict discloses that it was he who made the protagonist a gentleman.
After this shocking revelation Pip’s snobbery slowly subsides and he sets about redeeming himself, first by attempting to assist the imperiled Magwitch in escaping the country, second by making his peace with Joe. His actions are evidence of the Bildungsroman narrative’s preoccupation with moral and psychological development. Pip’s final exchange of wealth and status for friendship and humility indicate how he has matured as a protagonist.