Joe Gargery’s Alienation as the Impersonation of the High Society’s Values
In Dickens’s Great Expectations, the alienation of the amiable Joe Gargery speaks volumes about the values of high society at that time. Joe represents the epitome of friendship and love, but he is constantly out of his element when around noblemen or -women such as Miss Havisham. Through Joe’s alienation, Dickens reveals the negative aspects of 19th century British society and helps Pip to realize that he was wrong to move away from the forge.
Throughout Pip’s parentless childhood, Joe was a hero. He was always there to comfort Pip after a thrashing from the ill-tempered Mrs. Joe, and the two were “ever the best of friends”. Joe stays with the wicked Mrs. Joe and treats her well because he loves Pip and wants to stay friends with him. Once the first few chapters have passed, the reader sees Joe as the personification of loyalty and kindness. These qualities are further magnified when Mrs. Joe is paralyzed by a blow to the head while Joe and Pip are away. Even though Mrs. Joe is not able to speak or move, Joe stays by her side and cares for her until she passes away. Despite Joe’s ignorance in reading and writing, his life as a gentle blacksmith with Pip by his side leaves him wanting nothing more out of life. Pip, however, soon finds out that he himself does want more than life at the forge.
After Pip meets Miss Havisham and becomes enthralled with the idea of being a gentleman, life changes for both him and Joe. Dickens comments on the elitism of the upper class through Pip’s actions after he becomes acquainted with Miss Havisham. Pip starts to have second thoughts about becoming a blacksmith, even though he always wanted to follow in Joe’s footsteps. While at Miss Havisham’s mansion, her adopted daughter Estella tells Pip he has “coarse hands” and “thick boots” (Dickens, 62), which destroys Pip’s self-esteem. Until this point, he had never even thought about his appearance. This brief taste of the life of a gentleman, however, corrupted his value system and made him strive to win the heart of the beautiful Estella. Exposure to high class society ultimately causes Pip to abandon his apprenticeship with Joe and live in London with the help of a mysterious benefactor.
The first scene where Joe’s social awkwardness is revealed comes when Miss Havisham asks Pip to bring Joe along to their next meeting. The meeting is very strange, and Joe cannot even speak to Miss Havisham. Rather, he directs all of his words to Pip, who in this scene serves as the bridge between Joe’s low class and Miss Havisham’s high class. Dickens uses this scene to comment on the upper class society. Up until this point Joe has been a warm and friendly person to everyone that he has met, including two escaped convicts. When a noble person like Miss Havisham enters the picture, however, he freezes up. Dickens uses this awkward reaction to imply that the highest people in society are so corrupt that not even Joe, a good and amiable person, can speak with them. Unfortunately, this is the society to which Pip aspires.
The second scene that reveals Joe’s alienation from upper class society comes when Joe arrives in London with Wopsle and wishes to see Pip. The changed Pip remarks: “If I could have kept him away by paying money, I would have paid money” (Dickens, 229). Pip’s hesitation to see Joe in London is confirmation that he has greatly changed. The man that he once loved and aspired to be like is now a burden and an embarrassment. Even though Joe is the epitome of everything that is good, the upper class cannot accept him because his manners are not honed and he is unable to read. Pip is slowly transforming into a gentleman who will soon be unable to tolerate Joe. For example, whenever Pip is in the area of the forge to visit Miss Havisham, he always makes an excuse to avoid visiting Joe.
Pip eventually invites Joe to visit, but only to see Herbert. He knows that Herbert will accept Joe, but avoids inviting any of his other friends in fear that they will not. Pip made elaborate preparations to avoid presenting Joe to Drummle, his rival, because “our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise” (Dickens, 230). Pip ignores all of the things that Joe has done for him in order to avoid embarrassment in front of a man that he despises, which speaks volumes about the man that Pip has become.
Joe is very uncomfortable during the dinner, evident through his ramblings and calling Pip “sir”. Pip and Joe are now on completely different levels of the social pyramid, and Pip does not understand why Joe is calling him “sir”. Before Joe departs, he tells Pip that he will stop calling him “sir” if he comes back to visit at the forge – the only place where Joe can be himself. He implies here that Pip, too, is in an unnatural environment outside the forge. Pip belongs in the forge with Joe, and this scene shows that he is too jaded to realize this.
The final uncomfortable scene between Joe and Pip occurs when Pip falls ill. Commentary on the high society is immediately thrown at the reader when no one from Pip’s new life comes to his aid. Pip’s good friend Herbert is gone on a business venture, and there is no one left in the “great world” in which Pip now lives to care for him. The only person that comes to Pip’s aid is good old Joe, his one true friend. When Pip is helpless during his illness, he undergoes a second childhood (so to speak) with Joe. During this time, he leans on Joe and the two become closer, and Pip was like “a child in [Joe’s] hands” (497). As soon as Pip is nursed back to health, however, things change and Joe once again becomes uncomfortable around Pip. He departs one night, and leaves behind a receipt of all of the debts that he had helped Pip to pay off. The latter series of events had a large effect on Pip. Joe’s tender actions reveal to Pip that he should have never left the forge, and that living the high life was not all that he had hoped for. With his dreams smashed from finding out that he was never meant to be with Estella and the thought of Joe fresh in his mind, Pip sets out to the marshes to make amends.
Dickens uses the character of Joe Gargery to produce the biting social commentary for which he is well known. Through the alienation of Joe Gargery, Charles Dickens successfully points out one negative aspect of 19th century British society and helps Pip to realize that he was wrong to move away from the forge.
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