Moral Struggle in Great Expectations

Category: Great Expectations
Last Updated: 16 Apr 2020
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Moral Struggles of Great Expectations Pip is the main character of the novel desires to fulfil his expectations and the world he lives in does not gladly provide an easy way to his dream. Joe is his brother-in-law and his angry sister’s husband who treats Pip much better than her, just because he happens to have a bog heart. In the beginning of the novel, prior to Pip being exposed to the world he feels that he can satisfy his expectations, Joe and Pip are equals – the humbleness and loyalty that Joe displays are often similar to that of a child.

Joe is comfortable with who he is and while he desires to learn from Pip once he becomes educated, he does not seek to be anything other than what he is. This, ideally, would have been a priceless lesson for Pip to learn, as it would have spared Pip from losing himself in a complex and corrupt world. Sadly, yet pivotally to the intrigue of the plot, it is only once Pip realises the error in his ways that he can see the true gentleman in Joe. Interestingly, it is something he identifies early on when he comments that “[I] was looking up to Joe in my heart” (49).

This is not simply an affection of love, yet one of admiration and respect. It is once Joe repays Pip’s debts, and leaves to save Pip the ‘embarrassment’ of associating with him, that Pip realises the quality of Joe’s character. Joe embodies the true gentleman; while not of class, his character is class, and he continually displays qualities of loyalty and fidelity that Pip believes can be embodied by outward displays of wealth and education. Pip learns from Joe – albeit in hindsight and through his own personal crises – that wealth and class are not fundamental to being a gentleman.

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Mr Jaggers, the attorney of Pip’s mysterious benefactor and a ruthless and respected man in society, represents what Pip could become in the society he loses himself in. His standing as a gentleman is not based in the quality of his character (as he is a portrayed as a defence lawyer, interacting with dubious suspects on a daily basis with a fierce and powerful manner) but in the fearful respect he commands in society. So complex is Mr Jagger’s character that he is able to command respect from Pip, despite that he “hardly knew what to make of Mr Jagger’s manner. Wemmick suggests that Mr Jaggers would “take it as a compliment” to know that Pip felt that way. (196) It is clear, however, that Pip admires Mr Jaggers, as is evident in Chapter 20 of the novel. Pip is privy to Mr Jaggers' mannerisms when dealing with clients. Pip, despite being introduced to Mr Jaggers’ character in this manner, is clearly infatuated with his power and status and accepts him as a gentleman. Ironically, Mr Jaggers’ was not born into wealth either, but rather worked his way up to his position of power.

Pip ignores this fact, and it is only after he learns the truth about his journey to becoming a gentleman that he realises that Mr Jaggers does not represent a true gentleman either. He is yet another representation of how wealth and power are in fact far removed from being a gentleman. The irony is that Mr Jaggers’ true character is never hidden from Pip, and thus so great are his expectations, that he is blinded to the blatant truth about a true gentleman’s role in society.

The character Abel Magwitch (initially referred to as the convict, and only revealed as Pip’s benefactor as the climax of the novel) is not only the catalyst to a growth into manhood and morality for Pip, but the character from whom Pip learns the most from during their interaction. As the convict, Magwitch is nothing but a source of latent fear for Pip. The intrigue surrounding the identity of the benefactor and the assumptions the reader makes compliments the idea that he is a source of fear, and nothing else.

At the climax of the novel, when it is revealed to Pip that it is Abel Magwitch, a convict and fugitive, who has bestowed his new riches on the boy who tried to help him years previously, Pip’s expectations and belief in the gentleman he thinks he is, is shattered. As Pip believes his benefactor was Miss Havisham, and that she has been grooming him for Estella, and to become a true gentleman, he never questions the validity of his essence as a gentleman.

Upon learning that the source of his education and wealth – and ultimately his status as a gentleman – is in fact a convict, his identity is crushed. It is to his horror that the source of his status as a gentleman is the absolute antithesis of a gentleman in his eyes. Pip thus has to come to terms with the idea that it is not the outward appearance of a man that determines his character. This is also echoed in Chapter 5 of the novel, when Magwitch/the convict confesses to stealing food from Mrs Joe to save Pip from being implicated.

Pip has to accept that the class he was trying to distance himself from embodies something to aspire to. Towards the end of the novel, Pip displays his growth as he reflects that in Magwitch he “only saw a man who had meant to be my benefactor, and who had felt affectionately gratefully and generously towards me with great constancy through a series of years. I only saw in him a much better man than I had been to Joe. (440) Thus Pip identifies himself as less of a gentleman than that of Joe and Magwitch, illustrating that he has come full circle, to acknowledging his faults in his perception of his status as a gentleman due to his wealth and education. Herbert represents who Pip could become. Despite his lack of wealth initially, he is every inch a gentleman and upon receiving money at the request of Pip, he starts his own law firm and builds a successful career for himself, thus fulfilling the desires that Pip believed he strove for.

Pip chooses to misuse the wealth that is bestowed upon him, and it is after Pip learns the valuable lessons from Joe, Jaggers and Magwitch, that he realises that Herbert is the gentleman he aspires to become. While the irony of the source of Herbert’s wealth being indirectly from Pip is not unclear and certainly not unimportant, is it Pip’s realisation that it is not the source of wealth and status that makes one a gentleman, but the manner in which one’s character is displayed in the consequences of one’s actions.

Pip learns to assume responsibility from his destiny from the success of Herbert. It is evident that valuable lessons about the character displayed in actions are prevalent in Great Expectations. Joe, Jaggers, Magwitch and Herbert (albeit not as forcefully) offer insight into the quality of one’s character as an internal embodiment of class. Jaggers fails to impress, whereas Magwitch and Joe display varying yet quintessential attributes of gentlemen.

Herbert is the opposite pole to Jaggers, representing what Pip can become by embodying gentlemanly characteristics, rather than trying to live like one. Pip learns various aspects of the same intrinsic lesson from all these characters: that is it not the quality of the life of the man, but the quality of the man, that speaks of his character. Pip loses this sense during the course of the novel, and it is the interaction with these characters that gradually return him to a path of fulfilling his greatest expectations and dreams.

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Moral Struggle in Great Expectations. (2018, Feb 28). Retrieved from

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