Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectation is recognized as one of the most important examples of bildungsroman, that is, a “novel of personal development or education” of its main character (Rau). In this novel, using a first-person narrative, Dickens tells the story of Pip and how he evolves from being an almost illiterate child who lives a life of struggles to a gentleman who is well-educated and economically comfortable. The scholar Nicholas Shrimpton, however, suggests that Pip’s self-discovery is also a fundamental characteristic of the Muscular Novel (140). Although Great expectation is commonly defined as a bildungsroman, due to Pip’s transformation, it can also be considered as a “muscular novel” (Shrimpton 125).
A muscular novel, according to Shrimpton, is a text in which the protagonist is not only a man who is well-educated and physically strong, but also extremely polite (125). Shrimpton claims that the protagonist of a muscular novel needs to be “manly,” “gentle,” and “genteel” (135). To fully understand this concept, it is important to analyze the three terms to determine the specific features that the character needs to have. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a manly man has or denote “those good qualities traditionally associated with men, such as courage, strength, and spirit;” a gentle man has or show “a mild, kind, or tender temperament or character,” while a genteel man is “characterized by exaggerated or affected politeness, refinement, or respectability.” As maintained by Shrimpton, Pip should be at the same time a man with a good heart, who is also brave and well mannered.
In the first part of Great Expectations, Pip is often presented as a boy with a tender heart. At the very beginning of the story, for instance, Pip feels sympathy for Joe’s condition of being illiterate, and even if he knows that he could get in trouble with his sister, he wants to help him improve his condition. Throughout the whole book, Pip tends to sacrifice himself or get into trouble just to help the people he loves; he does not care about what could happen to him, he just wants the people who surround him to improve themselves. Moreover, Pip does not feel embarrassed of being a sensitive boy who cries and he even admits, “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlaying our hearts. I was better after I cried, than before – more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle” (Dickens 191). Stereotypically, men are not allowed to cry because otherwise they will lose their masculinity; however, Dickens refuses this cliché and gives the characters a significant psychological complexity. Even before proving Pip’s masculinity, Dickens gives to Pip’s character gentle features. The fact that Pip himself admits being “more gentle” is fundamental for the evolution of the character. Another proof of Pip’s gentleness is given when he meets Trabb’s boy in London and, for instance, he restrains his mainly instinct and does not yield to the Trabb’s boy’s provocation. Instead, he says “To have struggled with him in the street, or to have exacted any lower recompense from him than his heart’s best blood, would have been futile and degrading” (Dickens 275). Avoiding a physical confrontation with the Trabb’s boy, Pip shows again that he does not have a harsh temperament.
At the same time, this scene introduces Pip as a “genteel” character. In fact, the use of the world “degrading” is not coincidental. Once in London, Pip acts as a gentleman should, so to physically fight against a person whose social condition is inferior would be humiliating. Instead, Pip writes a letter to Mr. Trabb in which he advises him that they would not do business together if he still hires people who act so brutally, and that he is showing an inadequate interest in his one company by hiring the wrong person (Dickens 275). Writing the letter to Mr. Trabb, Pip has the opportunity to show his superior condition of being a literate man. Pip’s way of solving the situation is, in fact, appropriate for a man who is training to be polite, refined and genteel. Similarly, the fact that Pip joins The Fiches of the Grove, a club whose members are all respected gentlemen, is a further attempt by Pip to elevates is status and become a genteel man. However, while being a genteel man, Pip’s still shows some gentle characteristic too. He admits that that he would pay Herbert’s expenses if only Herbert lets him, and he is worried that Herbert financial situation will worsen due to the high costs of the club (Dickens 301). Another scene in which Pip’s gentleness is evident is when he asks Miss Havisham to help Herbert found a company (Dickens 419). Pip is more concerned about his friend’s economic problem than about his own. He has just experienced bankruptcy because he spent too much money to live as a gentleman, but he does not seem worried about that. His goodness is so pure that it comes out again in different situations. It may be argued, in fact, that Pip’s main characteristic is gentleness. He tries to act as a genteel man, but he does not have the innate quality that can make him be a genteel person; on the contrary, it is evident that his kindness is a characteristic that truly belongs to him. Dickens, however, tries to give to Pip also some features typical of a manly character making him have a physical confrontation with other men. For instance, one morning, while Pip is having breakfast, he is taken by an angry attack as that “[he] went so far as the seize of the Avenger by his blue collar and shake him off his feet – so that he was actually in the air, like a booted Cupid” (Dickens 303). There is not an understandable reason for which Pip should have reacted in a so harsh way; he explains that the only fault the Avenger had was “to suppose that [Herbert and Pip] wanted a roll” (Dickens 303). It is evident that Pip does his best to act in a manly way to consolidate his status of gentleman. He could not be defined as a gentleman, in fact, if he did not show some characteristics that are peculiarity of men. His desire to be a gentleman seems to be his primary impulse that makes him act in a bizarre way that contradict his unquestionable nature of gentle man. Another significant time in which Pip is represented as a manly character is when he sells everything he has and goes to the Middle East. Pip undertakes an unpredictable and long voyage to Egypt without really knowing if he could arrive to destination safe and sound. He reveals that within a month, [he] had quitted England, and within two months [he] was clerk to Clarriker and Co., and within four months [he] assumed [his] first undivided responsibility. For, the beam across the parlour ceiling and Mill Pond Bank, had then ceased to tremble under old Bill’s Barley’s grows and was at peace, and Herbert had gone away to marry Clara, and [he] was left in sole charge of the Eastern Branch until he brought her back. (Dickens 499) This is the scene in which Pip is mostly represents as a manly character. He is presented as a courageous man who is not afraid of leaving behind him everything he knew and discover a new and unknown world. Pip’s voyage is particularly relevant because it introduces a slightly different sense to the terms manly.
Throughout the whole story, the characters that Dickens presents as manly are all physically strong, and their valor and masculinity strictly depend on how much they are able to react and fight when in need. On the contrary, now Dickens represents Pip manliness as the sum of his feelings such as his courage and his adventurous spirit. Being a masculine character, therefore, does not only have a negative meaning. The features that Dickens conveys to Pip makes him a model character, a character that Dickens’ readers would even like to imitate. Dickens challenges the gender stereotypes typical of his age, and redefines the concept of masculinity. Pip is presented both as a brave man who does not fear the unknown, and as a man who accepts his feelings and does not feel ashamed of expressing them. Once Pip stops caring about his masculinity, he is free to take full advantage of his potential. Pip is, in fact, able to combine all his qualities to be at the same time gentle, genteel, and manly. During his sojourn in Egypt, Pip shows his gentleness by keeping constantly in touch with Joe and Biddy; he demonstrates his gentility in the way he acts towards Herbert; and he expresses his masculinity simply by living in the East. As Shrimpton claims in his article “Great Expectation: Dickens’s Muscular Novel,” “[Pip] is ultimately the moral hero the book because he is able to correspond to a tripartite definition of the gentlemen” (140). In fact, when Pip’s comes back to England, he is a new man. He has understood the mistake he has made while he was trying to be a gentleman, and he is finally a man who has accomplished his great expectation.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectation. Edited by Graham Law and Adrian J. Pinnington, Broadview Literary Texts, 1998.
Shrimpton, Nicholas. “Great Expectations: Dickens’s Muscular Novel.” Dickens Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 2, June 2012, pp. 125-141. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=77415173&site=ehost-live. Accessed 12 October 2017.
Rau, Petra. “Bildungsroman”. The Literary Encyclopedia. 13 November 2002 https://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=119. Accessed 10 October 2017.