“Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Feb 2nd, 2021


The extract of this paper’s focus was taken from Charles Dickens’ work, the ‘Great Expectations’, specifically Chapter 27 (Landow). In this extract we see Joe talking to Pip, it is a one-directional talk in which Joe does all the talking while Pip does the listening. Even without knowing the immediate context of this one-dimensional conversation, as portrayed in this extract, one can already sense that something is wrong. It is not every day that two people having a conversation allows someone to go on for so long talking without any interruption. But more than that, a possible underlying tension is reflected in Joe’s words. These words reveal an internal conflict within him, and as such the conflict between him and the listener, Pip. The talk also exposes a kind of awkwardness and strain between the two, and the way that Joe leaves at the end of his speech promises a no-end to that said conflict. It is of utmost importance to understand the context of this extract. That is, the story and accompanying circumstances that led to this point; this will be our focus in this paper.

The Context

The first half of ‘Great Expectations’ is the story of Pip living with his bad-spirited sister, his friendship with Joe (his sister’s husband), and his growing dissatisfaction with his place and plight in that household. Although, as a child, he looked up to Joe, whom he presents as a protector and a friend to him, the relationship as defined by the life around him gradually turns sour, from one of love to that of intolerance.

This context is years down the line; Pip having become wealthy moved to London. Unfortunately, he can’t reconcile his present affluence with the struggles of the working class, his origin. And so when Joe visits him, Pip comes face-to-face with these two sides of him. He fears Joe does not approve of the affluence of his present lifestyle, at the same time he fears Drummle thinks less of him for associating with Joe. Throughout the visit, the meeting between the two is awkward and strained. The way Pip acts and talks makes Joe very uncomfortable. Joe becomes conscious of Pip’s behavior and reads from it that they belong to two different social classes. He understands the discomfort as the conflict involved in attempting to reconcile two different social classes. He accepts his world and the fact that it has no place in Pip’s world, so he leaves prematurely.

This particular context reveals how the relationship between Joe and Pip is growing further apart. Joe admits the reality of their two social classes and accepts the fact that it is the reason for their division which cannot be reconciled.

Critical Analysis

In this context, there are several themes that Dickens explores, but before looking at these themes, it is important to assess and evaluate the characters involved and the vessels through which Dickens speaks of the aspects of the world he creates in ‘Great expectations’.

Pip is the narrator in this context; he is telling the story of his encounter with Joe, an old friend, at a particular point in time (Landow). Pip narrates this story in two different tenses. There’s the present tense of Joe’s words, in other words, he is quoting Joe. Then there’s the past tense of Pip’s narration placing this encounter in the past; in other words, we are interacting with two ‘Pips’. The first Pip is the one being addressed by Joe. He is the one who, after Joe leaves, goes after him only to find Joe gone. The second Pip is telling us about the first Pip, and how he ran after Joe. In other words, Pips is telling us about his past since he acts both roles as the narrator and the character in his own story.

These two ‘Pips’ reveal two sides of him; the first one gets Joe into saying the things he says. The other is the remorseful one who runs after Joe, as in the rest of the story, Pip is two people in one. He is cruel, on one hand, and remorseful and kind, on the other. He is divided between how one in his position (wealthy) ‘should’ act and how he wishes to act; in other words, he is fake, unreal.

Joe, on the other hand, is unpretentious; his words are clear and straight to the point. All along during the visit, he has felt out of place, thanks to Pip’s reception of him and his behavior. Joe has realized how irreconcilable their worlds are and accepts their natural divisions in life. He uses the simple metaphor of metal smiting to explain his understanding and acceptance of such divisions. While some men, he says, are blacksmiths (such as himself), others such as Pip are goldsmiths (Landow). By doing this, Joe is absolving Pip of any blame for the divisions that exist between them now. He is only admitting the fact that such divisions are unalterable.

He does not mince his words to please Pip, but neither is he out to hurt Pip. Instead, Joe feels he must speak of what he has witnessed; he must set Pip free from his conflict by leaving so that Pip only has his wealth and affluent lifestyle to worry about.

Now back to the themes. Through these two characters presented in this context, Dickens addresses certain social issues that this story was based on. Although the story is set in a period much earlier than 1890, when its serialization began, there are traces of it that seem to be influenced by the England of the 1890s. For instance, the story was created against a backdrop of Victorian England, and as such, it contains traces of social realism. Some of this is reflected within the small context of this analysis. These include:

Social Class; the awkwardness and underlying conflict and strain between Pip and Joe, as revealed in the story represent the uncertain or troubled relations between different social classes. Pip is wealthy, Joe is not, but Joe is part of Pip’s past. Unfortunately, Pip cannot reconcile that humble past with his present affluence. Still, he is not willing to admit it; to himself or Joe. Instead, he keeps struggling to make that shaky relation work.

Joe comes to his rescue and likens their social distinction to the different levels of metal smiting. In this likening, Joe is trying to say that these divisions do exist and cannot be escaped. But more importantly, he feels no one is to blame for them as it is just the natural way of things.

Dickens is arguing that different social classes cannot live in peace at the same place and time. But this social barrier, he seems to say, is not real; it is only a creation of the mind. Pip is only uncomfortable with Joe because of Drummer and the fact that he runs after Joe shows that he isn’t against relating with Joe. The different ways in which Pip and Joe respond to the situation reveals yet another theme, freedom.

Freedom; Pip is not free with himself, with who he is, which includes his past and present. Joe on the other hand is free from the social constraints from which Pip suffers. Joe possesses within himself great freedom and self-esteem. He is not even afraid to speak his mind to Pip.

Isolation; Pip’s lack of freedom is his Isolation. He is a child of two worlds: poverty and wealth. Unfortunately, he struggles to reconcile both by attempting to please all of them; in the end, he fails, and in that failure lays his isolation. He still has a connection with his past, but the social barrier erected by his present stops him from it. He is guilty for it as much as he feels obliged to act according to his class. Ultimately, deep down he belongs in neither world and therefore remains isolated and lonely in the ground in between. But it’s not only through the characters that Dickens manages to push his story forward and explore his themes. He also does this through other literary devices such as motifs and symbols.

By comparing characters with inanimate objects, Joe likens the social classes to the different types of metals that various metalsmiths use in their businesses: “one man’s a blacksmith, and one’s a whitesmith, and one’s a goldsmith, and one’s a coppersmith; divisions among such must come, and have to be met as they come” (Landow). This is a reflection of Joe’s understanding of the relations of different social classes.

Also, Joe tells Pip “you shall never see me in these clothes” (Landow). ‘Clothes’ here has been used as a symbol of social class. While Pip’s clothes may be grand, reflecting his social class, Joe’s clothes, which also reflect his blacksmithing life, have no place in Pip’s environment. Having differentiated his world against Pip’s, and accepting that those worlds cannot relate, Joe now offers never to be seen in the ‘clothes’ again (Landow). This, as already discussed above, does not mean that he is going to change his dressing; it only means that he is going to stick with his world and leave Pip alone in his other world.


At this point, one is almost bound to feel sorry for Joe. Joe speaks without fear or favor for Pip; he says it as he sees it. He exudes the feeling that he knows what he is talking about, he is decided and does not feel sorry for himself; he has simply made a choice. Between him and Pip, it is the latter that one is likely to feel sorry for because despite all his wealth and high social class he seems confused. He is undecided and seems to be caught in a place he doesn’t want to be. By running after Joe, Pip exposes his sorry position.

In the end, Joe is a proud, smart poor man who knows himself well and doesn’t need anybody’s sympathy. But Pip is a confused rich man who doesn’t understand himself and his relation to others. He keeps slipping from one character to the other and begs for sympathy from whoever can offer it.

Works Cited

Landow, George. “Charles Dickens: Great Expectations.” 2010. Web.

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