Great Expectations: A Synopsis
“The worst prisons are those we create for ourselves. ” To what extent do you agree? Set in the l9th Century Victorian England, many of the main characters in Great Expectations’ are imprisoned either virtually or metaphorically. Magwich is an actual prisoner of the English penal system, and is also a prisoner of his own desire to revenge Compeyson and the class system.
Miss Havisham ad Pip create prisons for themselves out of their own fixations and obsessions. It could also be argued that Pip and Estella are both metaphorically imprisoned by Miss Havisham and Magwitch’s need to revenge.
Although the description of Newgate is ghastly, and the effects of the prisons imposed upon Pip and Estella are difficult to overcome- the detrimental lite and psychological effects on Pip, Miss Havisham and Magwitch resultant of their self imposed prisons are the worst prisons of all, because they are so illusive and deceptive, that the characters often don’t know of their existence until the damage is done. Through his exposure to Satis House and Estella’s taunting malice, Pip becomes aware of his social inferiority, and thus sprouts the first seeds of discontent with his class.
Like a distant yet alluring star, Pip is tantalised by Estella’s wealth and beauty, and out of his exposure to her his all consuming obsession with becoming a gentelman emerges. Ironically, when this idea first emerged, Pip really had very little understanding of what a gentleman was. Although he cannot articulate whether he has this desire “to spite her or to gain her over,” this fervent urge dictates the direction of his life. He becomes imprisoned into a superficial and narrow be. cf that a gentleman is someone with wealth, status and learning, and will go to any lengths to achieve this aim, albeit rejecting Joe and Biddy. Pip gains his great expectations frorn Magwitch, and although he was metaphorically imprisoned by Magwitch’s exploitation of him to revenge the class system- Pip had already begun to laud the false values of gentilify. Pip could have used Magwitch’s money to become a member of the upper class, but still retain qualities of kindness and compassion (like Herbert. Instead, Pip becomes locked into the world of lavish expenditure, greed and corruption. Despite his unhappiness, shown clearly the Finch Club “there was a gay fiction that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton of truth that we never did”, it takes him many years and trials to free himself from this elusive self imposed prison. Despite the guilt that he feels, he still manages to justify his treatment of Joe because the prison he has created for himself is so difficult to break out of.
Miss Havisham is the epitome of the devastating consequences of creating ones own prison. After being swindled and left at the alter, Miss Havisham is so emotionally ruined that she creates her own virtual and rnetaphorical prison. She confines herself to her mansion, which “had a great many iron confines bars to it’,, and tells Pip that she had “never seen the sun since you were born. ” But she also confines her mind to the idea of revenge for her broken heart by adopting the olphaned Estella and raising her purely as an instrument to “wreak havoc” in the hearts of men.
Miss Havisham creates her own prison to revenge all males, and this prison envelops her existence. So consumed by hatred, Miss Havisham’s heart begins to decay, as is symbolic in her surroundings “covered in dust and mould and dropping to peices”, as well as her spider infested rotten wedding cake. Like Pip, it takes Miss Havisham many yearsand much suffering to understand that she was actually imprisoned. The turning point for her came when she realised that Estella could not lover her because “I stole her heart away and put ice in its place. Pip acknowledges that Miss Havisham’s imprisonment of Estella was a “greivous thing” but recognised that her own seclusion from the world and from the healing influcences to her mind and broken heart were infinitely worse. Conversly, Magwitch is a prisoner of the penal system. Although he committed a crime that saw him placed in a jail, Magwitch did not create this prison because he was forced into imprisonment by the authorities, and was basically forced to commit crime in order to survive.
His imprisonment was not a conscious choice, as was Pip and Miss Havisham’s, and unlike the others, Magwitch was well aware of this imprisonment. Despite his loss of freedom and years immersed in sub-human conditions, his mental imprisonment in the need to revenge Compeyson and class system, which he creates for himself, has the most damaging effect on his life. After escaping from the prison ship, Magwitch could have been free had it not been for his revenge upon Compeyson. Because of these acitons, Magwitch finds himself again imprisoned and sent for life to Australia.
Again, it was his self-imposed imprisonment that caused the most damage. Magwitch spends most of his time in Australia working to convert Pip into a gentleman to revenge the class system, instead of just forgetting his past and moving on with his life. He even goes so far as to come back to Englas to see “my gentleman”, and is consequently sentenced to death for returning. Through the stories of Pip, Miss Havisham and Magwitch, Dickens is clearly expressing that the worst prisons are those we create for ourselves, as their damage is subtle to the victim who may be unaware of their existence.
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