A Gentle, Christian Man: Dickens’ Refutation of the Victorian Gentleman in Great Expectations


Note: The works cited has been removed in an effort to impede plagiarism.

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, as author Graham Law writes, is his “masterpiece” that is at the same time “unrepresentative” (Law 7). Certainly Great Expectations moves away from the uplifting conclusions of novels such as David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol, and the cutting, at times radical societal critique of works such as Oliver Twist  is replaced by a more subtle and pessimistic look on Victorian England (Law). Undeniably, as has been remarked upon by many scholars , Great Expectations is an exploration of the Victorian concept of the gentleman, a title that Dickens felt himself rejected from (Law), and one that is the subject of much of Dickens’ prosaic venom  in the novel. Indeed, Pip’s journey from working class boy to a gentleman of great expectations can be said to mirror Dickens’ own life journey to prosperity, yet Dickens’ autobiographical past is not as critical to Great Expectations as the authorial present moment; one noted by profound disillusionment with the concept of a Victorian Gentleman and the ability of a “poor man with a rich soul” (Smiles) to self-create an identity as one.

Great Expectations  is a novel in which Dickens utterly rejects the idea that a gentleman is defined by high birth and class, an argument perhaps best personified by the works of William Sewell. Yet Great Expectations  is also a novel that rejects the notion presented by Alexis de Tocqueville and Samuel Smiles that anyone, with enough morale character and elbow grease, could become a gentleman. Then what is a gentleman in Great Expectations, if it is neither men of high birth or men of “rich heart?” In Great Expectations the gentleman is a useless title that is destructive and unachievable, demonstrated by the fact that the gentleman of high birth is one that plays the part of the main catalyst in Pip’s dissolution of character from childhood to manhood, and the gentleman of labor and moral character is ultimately unachievable for Pip; denied him by his actions as a gentleman of high birth – illustrating the thread Dickens is tying between the two concepts and ultimately leaving Dickens unwilling to reappropriate the title for characters like Joe . This is demonstrated by Pip’s inability to reconcile completely with characters such as Joe, a relationship strained during Pip’s idealization of the gentleman in Sewellian terms . Dickens entry into the Victorian debate over what a gentleman was one of dynamic character; it is one where he rejects the concept of the gentleman completely, and endeavors to portray the destructive and ultimately unachievable nature of the title; and in this portrayal is a message that quality and not license is at the heart of being a “gentle Christian man.” In order to explore Dickens refutation of the title in general, one must first demonstrate the fraudulency of Sewell’s definition in the way it diminishes Pip’s strong sense of justice and then move to elucidating just why Dickens is ultimately unwilling to reappropriate the title for Joe.

An understanding of the conservative concepts of what the Victorian gentleman was that Dickens was interacting with is critical in discerning where Great Expectations lies in the debate. William Sewell is famous, or perhaps infamous from a modern perspective, for his very conservative view of what a Gentleman was in Victorian society. In a lecture to privileged school boys, Sewell states, “We have, I think, in England, owing to the freedom of our constitution, and the happy providential blessings which god has heaped upon us, followed the division of mankind which god himself has made, and struck the line between those who are gentlemen, that is, of a higher and superior class, and those who are not, to be ruled and governed” (Sewell 563). In a reply to Sewell who had sent him a volume of these speeches, Dickens’ remarked upon how far apart their views were (Broadview) on the subject, illustrating what is perhaps most obviously elucidated in Great Expectations; the rejection of a class and birth caste system deciding whether or not a man is a true gentleman. To Sewell, and undoubtedly to his ambitious and privileged pupils, to be a gentleman was to be in a position of power in society in which one could govern and rule over others, namely, the working classes. Further, not only was this position over others justified by practical necessity, but by God himself. This conception of a gentlemen, one based in class and family background, is one that is directly counteracted in the prosaic structure of Volume I in Great Expectations in the way that Pip’s sense of justice and his relationship with Joe and Biddy degrade significantly to a point of no return once he is made to feel his class by Estella, and when his quest to become “oncommon” begins; and this is a direct consequence of Pip’s definition of the gentlemen in Sewellian terms.

Pip’s relationship with Biddy is at first one of student and teacher, but it quickly becomes more personal and ultimately demonstrative of Pip’s loss of justice subsequent to his ambitions to becoming a Sewellian gentleman. Indeed, the just Pip admits aptly that “Whatever I knew, Biddy knew” and marvels at her for being an “Extraordinary woman” (Dickens 159).  Yet Volume I highlights Pip’s growing unrest with his situation, and ultimately, Biddy and the life she represented. Biddy is the victim of Pip’s bridge burning attack before leaving for his great expectations, as Pip levies accusations of jealousy at the true-hearted Biddy. Pip says, “I am very sorry to see this in you. I did not expect to see this in you. You are envious, Biddy, and grudging. You are dissatisfied on account of my rise in fortune, and you can’t help showing it” (Dickens 181).  It was not 50 pages prior that Pip was wishing an old, haggered convict hidding in a swamp happy eating; and it seems that Pip’s own anxieties over his class and family background, catalyzed by Estella,  have dissolved his so dearly held virtue of justice in favor of a dishonest “superior tone”(181) which narrator Pip regretfully admits. It’s worth stopping upon that narrator Pip, the flawed character that he is at the time of scribing the novel, still recognizes his actions to Biddy as unjust. It is not coincidental then that Biddy calls upon the specter of a gentleman and of justice, replying simply, “Yet a gentleman should not be unjust neither” (Dickens 181).  In this statement, Biddy essentially summarizes what Pip will only learn when it is far too late in Volume III and highlights the dissolution of Pip’s sense of justice which is catalyzed by his conception of the gentleman as one based in class and family. Pip has become a gentleman, but as he the narrator and Biddy point out, he had become unjust. Indeed, Pip laments that he “cannot get (himself) to fall in love with (Biddy),” (Dickens 163) and only after his revelations of Volume III will he realize how the specter of the Sewellian gentleman  made it impossible for him to love those who would “put him right” (Dickens 163), a fact further illustrated by Pip’s growing mistreatment of Joe.

Joe, like Herbert, is a character that is true of heart and indeed harmed by Pip’s conception of the gentleman as one of opulence and like Biddy is a character treated in a progressively unjust way by “Sir” Pip. At the start of Volume I, Joe is the flawed  gravy-disher that is unable to truly help Pip but is the only one to show Pip warmness; and Pip’s interactions with Joe comprise some of the only heartwarming sections of Pip’s young life. Joe however represents something more than a country simpleton with a good heart, he renders Pip valuable advice subsequent to his crises of identity and Satis House, as the narrator reflects, “This was a case of metaphysics, at least as difficult for Joe to deal with, as for me. But Joe took the case altogether out of the region of metaphysics , and by that means vanquished it” (Dickens 105).  Indeed, Joe serves as the materialist to Pip’s metaphysical ambition to become uncommon, offering a few lines later than even the king of England had to begin with the alphabet. Pip’s quest of becoming a gentleman is deeply metaphysical, from his conception of Estella as a princess waiting to be ridding off on horseback to the “gay fiction” of the finches.

Pip’s imaginative, or metaphysical, class affectation is driven home in several scenes in which Pip is ashamed of Joe in the presence of his class superiors, namely the visit to Ms. Havishams and Joe’s visit to London, only to realize later that the entire fault was his. Narrator Pip reflects in the remarkable Chapter XIV, “It is not possible to know how far the influence of any amiable honest-hearted duty-doing man flies out into the world; but it is very possible to know how it has touched one’s self in going by, and I know right well that any good that intermixed itself with my apprenticeship came of plain contented Joe, and not of restlessly aspiring discontented me” (Dickens 141). In a candid moment afforded to Pip through hindsight, Pip can realize how unjust he had been to Joe when he ” was ashamed of him” (Dickens 134) when his abstract notion of the gentleman in Sewellian terms, and his need to create a gentlemanly identity suitable for Estella’s “mischievous eyes,” (Dickens 134) turned him against those closest to him so he could pursue something he admits “I never knew” (Dickens 141).  In short, the gentleman of Sewell, the idea put into Pip’s head by Estella, and the one he will fruitlessly chase to a bitter end is the same gentleman that removed justice from Pip’s relationship with Joe and Biddy. The more Pip desires to be a gentlemen of wealth and taste, the less just he is to his peers and the more blind he is to the injustice he does to others – something he had as a boy been so sensitive to. Thus, the Sewellian gentlemen plays an integral part in the devolution of Pip’s sense of justice in Volumes I and II, physically made real by his geographical removal from Biddy and Joe and emotionally manifested in Pip’s utter emotional desolation at the beginning of Volume III.

Pip is a character of dynamic and fluid nature, however, and indeed much personal progress is made from the beginning of Volume III. In short, the gentleman of class and blood, the gentleman of Sewell, has left Pip spiritually ruined, and it is from this total destruction that Pip begins to make personal progress. Here at the foundation of this progress, after nearly everything has been taken from Pip, he admits, “I thought how miserable I was, but hardly knew why, or how long I had been so, or on what day of the week I made the reflection, or even who I was that made it” (Dickens 353). Here we see a Pip who is utterly devoid of a sense-of-self or any purpose whatsoever. From this point of utter spiritual desolation, Pip does make significant gains as the prose advances. Interestingly, these revelations are coaxed out of him by an assumed death at the hands of a figure from his childhood. Pip’s abduction by Orlick catalyzes a great deal of emergent feelings of justice and empathy within Pip, and the rise in his moral character seems to lead the reader to believe that a happy ending is imminent; all catalyzed by Pip’s belief that he is soon to die. As Pip ponders his imminent doom, he laments, “Joe and Biddy would never know how sorry I had been that night; none would ever know what I had suffered, how true I had meant to be, what an agony I had passed through.. by the thought that I had taken no farewell, and never never now could take farewell, of those who were dear to me, or could explain myself to them, or ask for their compassion on my miserable errors” (Dickens 450). In this near-death moment, Pip almost miraculously is broken from his Volume II stupor and sees the true “great hearts” (Smiles) of Joe and Biddy, and laments deeply that he cannot explain himself to them. Indeed, Pip now reflects that his intentions were “true” but had left him in great “agony” and ponderous with “miserable errors.” In this moment near death, Pip is softened and returns to his sense of justice highlighted above, in this case, to do himself justice; to plead his case to those who cared for him truly and ask for their clemency. In a novel with very little repetition, the repetition of never is also noteworthy in the way it focuses on Pip’s desire to do himself justice in a farewell to Joe and Biddy and deal with them honestly for the first time in many pages. Is this, then, evidence of Dickens support for the progressive notion of a gentleman as one of true intentions and heart? A more finite understanding of what that notion is, is first necessary.

Samuel Smiles’ “The True Gentleman” is paradigmatic of a progressive urge in Victorian society to claim that any man with sufficient intuition, inclination and good moral character was a “true gentleman..” Smiles elaborates, “Riches and rank have no necessary connexion with genuine gentlemanly qualities. The poor man may be a true gentleman” (Smiles 582). Indeed, the “man with the great heart” of Smiles is identical to Joe’s own dubbing of his abusive father as a man with a good heart (Dickens 83) and Biddy’s own terming of Pip as “ever a man with a good heart” (Dickens 248). These two examples seem to lend a keen sense of ambiguity to Dickens’ acceptance of the idea that any man with a good heart is a true gentleman. Indeed, the latter half of Great Expectations is marked by a significant improvement in Pip’s character as elucidated above, one where he sees more feelingly the thoughts of others and one where he appreciates what he had not before. This notion, that Dickens is supporting a depiction of a gentleman as someone of a good heart only is contradicted by the critical scene were Pip emmerges from sickness to see Joe at his bedside subsequent to the gains he makes in a peculiar and violent event.

Pip’s improvements after his abduction by Orlick and then his subsequent almost idyllic period with Joe during his recovery from what can only be considered a broken heart leads the reader to expect an ending similar to that of Oliver Twist or David Copperfield. Certainly Joe emerges as a man of rich heart, caring for the boy who had so rudely treated him in London. Yet in what can only be considered intentional by Dickens in a novel that uses the word “gentleman” ad nauseum, Dickens refuses the title to Joe in the one moment where he can rightly be considered nothing else in Smilesian terms. Pip implores Joe to dislike him for his “ingratitude” (Dickens 483) which Joe ignores and remarks that they were “ever the best of friends.” Pip then proclaims, “god bless this gentle Christian man”(Dickens 483). Why would Dickens use this language, if almost to specifically deny Joe the title, after a sequence where Joe’s good heart has been highlighted so deeply in his self-sacrifice and forgiving heart towards Pip? This is the first appearance of Dickens disinterest in reappropriating the title of gentleman  to his characters that truly resemble one. Indeed, when Joe is truly a good person to Pip, his class status and his title, are truly unimportant which is reflected in Dickens deliberate side-stepping of the term. After Pip’s moral downfall from chasing the title of gentleman elucidated above, Dickens is unwilling to call Joe a gentleman, only a “gentle Christian man,” demonstrating that perhaps, being such a man was all that really mattered; regardless of the license of title associated with “the gentleman.” Indeed, when Joe is forced into an environment of gentlemanliness in Mrs. Havisham’s company, Pip remarks, “that he looked far better in his working-dress… I could hardly have imagined dear old Joe looking so unlike himself” (Dickens 132).  It is no coincidence that Joe, a character who is so very kind to Pip, who is a gentleman in behavior but not in name as per Dickens deliberate use of a similar yet different term, is “unlike himself” in a suit or a mansion. Dickens critique is clear, Joe is a gentle Christian blacksmith, and that is all the license he needs to be dubbed good, wholesome and kind. Pip’s denial of true reconciliation with Joe is then a further elucidation of Dickens’ rejection of the gentleman as a title. Pip’s past quest for gentlemanliness denies Pip reconciliation, with Joe, just as the specter of the Sewellian gentleman denies true Smilesian self-determination.

Dickens’ denial of Pip true reconciliation with Joe is demonstrative of Dickens’ unwillingness to allow Pip’s journey to come to a wholesome end due to the aftershocks of Pip’s quest for uncommoness. Reflecting upon the good times they had spent together, Pip realizes, “I too had fallen into the old ways, only happy and thankful that he let me. But, imperceptibly, though I held by them fast, Joe’s hold on them began to slacken; and whereas I wondered at this, at first, I soon began to understand that the cause of it was in me, and the fault of it was all mine…Had I given Joe’s innocent heart no cause to feel instinctively that as I got stronger, his hold up me would be weaker?”(Dickens 490).  Not only does Dickens deny the title of gentleman to Joe, he denies true reconciliation between Pip and Joe because of Pip’s actions as the Sewellian gentleman. Pip’s past denies him Smilesian self-creation, as the aftershocks of his actions as a gentleman of high class has disallowed him from coming to equal footing with Joe in their relationship. Thus in Dickens’ prosaic construction, the gentleman of Smiles is unachievable and barred by the specter of the traditional gentleman; just as Pip is disallowed present self-creation by past self-destruction. This relationship is best summarized by Joe himself, who says to Pip in apology for not being able to save him from the tickler, “my power were not always fully equal to my inclinations” (Dickens 489). This statement summarizes the ending of the novel with precision, as Pip’s power is not equal to his inclination in reconciling with both Joe and Biddy; and this greater narrative structure, that is, the denial of Pip any sort of happy or reconciled ending, is demonstrative of Dickens’ rejection of the Smilesian gentleman and the title at large.

Great Expectations  is a novel that frustrates the efforts of readers who seek an emotional synthesis for its flawed protagonist, as its deeply ambiguous nature leaves the reader wanting  a finite conclusion to Pip’s personal struggle. As Graham Law points out in his introduction, it is perhaps the ambiguity itself that is driving force of the novel; an ambiguity concerning what a gentlemen is and one’s ability to rehabilitate relationships long strained. By studying Pip’s loss of justice from his acceptance of  a Sewellian vision of a gentleman and Pip’s ultimate prevention from Smilesian reconciliation and self-elevation by the specter of Sewell’s gentleman, a greater understanding of the gentleman in Great Expectations emerges. The gentleman,  in short, is destructive and unreachable for Pip; demonstrative of Dickens own disillusionment with the license the title supposedly represented. Great Expectations is a sometimes uncomfortable reminder of the permanency of “miserable errors” and the inescapable social barriers that surrounded 19th century England. The reader’s duty is that of Estella;  to not be incompatible with the admission of the ambiguity of love and identity in emerging modernity, and give the sad story of Pip’s quest for uncommonness a place in their hearts, and in doing so, witness the folly of chasing license over authentic virtue.

1 Comment

Filed under Academic, Class, Dickens, English, Gentleman, Literature, Politics

One response to “A Gentle, Christian Man: Dickens’ Refutation of the Victorian Gentleman in Great Expectations

  1. nina

    Well written and thoroughly detailed. I enjoyed your blog!

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