The Meaning of Dreams in Great Expectations

February 11, 2019 by Essay Writer

“Tell me your dreams for a while and I will tell you what you are really like.” Written by E.R. Pfaff in 1868, this proverb posits dreams as authentic manifestations of an individual’s identity and character. It makes two conclusions: 1) dreams are a very accurate measure of character 2) an outsider can know more about an individual’s character through the interpretation of his or her dreams than he or she can know about himself or herself. The proverb goes so far as to suggest that an individual’s dreams are the most revealing measure of personality, more revealing than actual life occurrences, than voluntary daydreams, than conversations with others, or than any other conventional means of judging character. “What you are really like,” is more accurately discerned by the contents, issues, longings, recurring themes, and other aspects of an individual’s dreams than by any other attempt to judge his or her character. This proverb also implicitly supposes that an individual’s personal opinion of his or her own character is biased and flawed, and that a more accurate depiction of character is constructed from outside interpretation of dreams. Written eight years prior to E.R. Pfaff’s proverb, Great Expectations is filled with character’s meaningful dreams that underscore the social work Charles Dickens aimed to achieve. With the goal of breaking down the “great expectations” of wealth and class in the Victorian era, Dickens constructs a fallible protagonist in Pip whose actions and aspirations are expected for a man in a society, but whose dreams reveal his guilt and the social problems underlying these expectations. Motivation Dickens’s motivation for examining young, masculine expectations is due in large part to the differences in lifestyle between the “lower orders”, the middle class, and the aristocracy. Of the disparate conditions between classes, author of Victorian People and Ideas Richard Altick writes: “There was plenty of reason for discontent. At a time when millions of their fellow-countrymen were barely keeping alive, the great families sank fortunes into building stately sham-Gothic mansions or adding wings.” (21) Thus the physical construction prevalent among the upper class coincided with the prevalent social destruction of the lower class. Owners exploited their workers, taking advantage of political policies that enabled very cheap labor to amass fortunes. Workers were certainly taken advantage of as farm hands, but literary attempts to question the exploitation of the lower class really began with the dawn of factory work. Says Atlick: “Wretched as they were [agrarian labor conditions], it was not their condition but that of the workers caught in the toils of industrialism which aroused early Victorian social conscious.” Great Expectations was written in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a time when the agrarian or farm-based economy had shifted toward an industrial economy, resulting in prominent exploitation and abuse of factory workers. However, potentially even more significant than these tangible lifestyle differences were the emotional grief and feelings of failure felt by those born into the lower classes. Pip, born into the lower-middle class, serves as a social guinea pig for Dickens. He is the character that lives the experience that illustrates Dickens purpose in writing the novel. He wants to become a gentleman, he thinks that in order to do so he must be wealthy, and his quest to attain riches ultimately teaches him Dickens’s lesson. Bestowed upon Pip are the “great expectations” that he can uproot the barriers preventing social mobility, marry Estella, amass a fortune, move up in class, and ultimately become a gentleman. However this fairy-tale, happy-ever-after trajectory is not achieved. Shifting Expectations Dickens’s dynamic characterization of Pip serves as a vehicle to promote a change in societal expectations. Dickens’s initial characterization of Pip is very consistent with the prevailing aspirations of nobility in the Victorian Era. Again, he wants to be rich and he wants to be considered a gentleman, two conceivably inseparable notions. Yet although Pip decides to pursue gentility, Dickens’s use of Pip’s highly-critical, very confused first-person narrative suggests that there is something wrong with Pip’s and ultimately society’s notions of gentility. Upon returning home and meeting Joe and Biddy, says: I never could have believed it without experience, but as Joe and Biddy became more at their cheerful ease again, I became quite gloomy. Dissatisfied with my fortune, of course I could not be; but it is possible, that I may have been, without quite knowing it, dissatisfied with myself. Dickens’s uncertainty regarding society’s notions of gentility run parallel to Pip’s uncertainty about his position in society. One point Dickens makes clear in this passage is that there is not a direct correlation between wealth and happiness. Pip, seemingly well on his way to amassing a fortune, is in fact “gloomy”. Also Joe and Biddy, members of lower middle class society appear at a “cheerful ease”. What, then, is the ultimate end, wealth or happiness? For Dickens, wealth is merely a means toward the end of happiness, but as is evident through the example of Joe and Biddy, wealth is certainly not a prerequisite for happiness. Dickens also suggests through this passage that societal assumptions are often proven wrong through experience. Pip’s societal assumption is that wealth and class are the conditions for gentility. Dickens use of the hindsight perspective illustrates that Pip’s and ultimately society’s assumption is off base. Pip admits that “it is possible, that I may have been, without quite knowing it, dissatisfied with myself.” Through the more experienced, mature lens of Pip in his older years, Dickens portrays regret in Pip as a means to suggest that society’s “great expectations” are not so great after all. Thus there is a common thread between Pip’s inexperienced, immature aspirations and society’s equally skewed view of gentility. Pip in his younger years can be said to represent the Victorian model of gentility, directly connected to wealth and class, of which Dickens did not approve. However, Pip in his older years makes the realization that gentility can be achieved without wealth, a realization which Dickens ultimately endeavors to impart upon society. Dreams that Foreshadow Pip’s Failure Having established Dickens’s goal as that of moving the conditions for gentility from riches and high-class society to that of nobleness of character and respect for fellow beings, one can then argue that Dickens uses Pip’s dreams as a tool to foreshadow the demise of his pursuit of wealth and a tool to suggest a problem in Pip’s and ultimately society’s expectations. As will soon be established, Pip’s life choices and dreams often conflict with one another insofar as his life choices often adhere to the societal ideal of gentility, but his dreams seem to promote Dickens new expectations for gentlemen. Dickens gives us the sense of Pip’s highly critical nature and also the sense of looming ominous circumstances in one of Pip’s first dreams: If I slept at all that night, it was only to imagine myself drifting down the river on a strong spring tide, to the Hulks; a ghostly pirate calling out to me through a speaking-trumpet, as I passed the gibbet-station, that I had better come ashore and be hanged there at once, and not put it off. (15) This passage occurs as Pip plans to steal from Mrs. Joe’s cabinet the next day. Pip’s trouble falling asleep indicates that his conscience is bothering him. Throughout the novel and particularly in this passage, Dickens uses Pip’s highly-critical conscience as a means to suggest the sense of wrong-doing. Of this passage, Claire Slagter, author of the article “Pip’s Dreams in Great Expectations,” writes: “Fear, guilt, and certainty of retribution are already revealed in this dream as the distinctive characteristics of Pip’s personality, marked, as the mature Pip notes when considering his childhood, by a kind of ‘cowardice’ and ‘moral timidity’.” (180) For Dickens, the wrong-doing Pip feels is symbolic of a social conscience regarding gentility. Just as Pip has an inner sense that there is something wrong with his “great expectations”, society should also realize the impropriety and injustice regarding their “great expectations” of gentlemen. This nightmare of Pip’s is extremely morose; even at such an early age, Pip unconsciously has a dream that he will be hanged. Thus Pip, Dickens’s social guinea pig, feels the guilt that Dickens expects to be felt by society for its prevailing belief that only wealthy men can be gentlemen. Pip’s dreams throughout the novel conflict with his “great expectations”. Dickens uses Pip’s conscious actions and aspirations as a representation of the “great expectations” of gentility, and on the other hand he constructs Pip’s unconscious thoughts or his dreams to project guilt, fear, and wrong-doing upon Pip and ultimately upon society for misconstruing the concept of the gentleman. In Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, a famous psychologist named Radestock is credited with saying “Often the dream reveals to us what we do not want to admit to ourselves, and that we are wrong to call it a liar and a deceiver.” (60) This reinforces dreams’ deep psychological meaning and the power of the unconscious, and it is very consistent with Pip’s circumstances. Pip is determined to become rich and to become a gentleman; he has “great expectations” of himself. However, Dickens infuses Pip’s dreams with what Pip “does not want to admit” to himself: that he could have more easily and more effectively been a true gentleman had he maintained his relationship with Joe and Biddy, acted kindly and developed a noble character like Joe, and given up on his misguided pursuit of wealth. To foreshadow the error in Pip’s judgment, Dickens bestows upon Pip a bizarre dream that seems very out of touch with reality, as out of touch with reality as Pip will be in London. Pip says of his dream: “All night there were coaches in my broken sleep, going to wrong places instead of to London, and having in the traces, now dogs, now cats, now pigs, now men, − never horses. Fantastic failures of journeys occupied me until the day dawned and the birds were singing.”(159) As Pip’s last night at home, this dream foreshadows the plight of his upcoming trip. First, the fact that his sleep is broken signifies that he is not at ease with his upcoming journey, that he has some trepidation about leaving Joe and Biddy in pursuit of gentility. Next, Dickens foreshadows the complexity and uncertainty of Pip’s trip: “coaches…going to wrong places instead of to London” suggests that Pip has no control over the destination of his trip. Although he intends to go to London, the coach, a mere object without a rational mind or purposeful direction has the power to dictate the journey. Dickens purpose in denying Pip control over his mission is to suggest that Pip’s quest, to become a wealthy gentleman after being born into lower-middle class society, is not probable and ultimately as uncontrollable as the journey by coach in his dream. Dickens further suggests that Pip has no control over his journey by having many different animals, but “never horses” driving the coach. The imagery Dickens illustrates with these animals emphasizes struggle. One cannot imagine a dog, cat, pig or even a man fluidly driving a coach like a horse. By illustrating struggle, perhaps Dickens is foreshadowing the struggle that Pip will soon encounter in his quest. Additionally, the “fantastic failures of journeys” that Pip dreamed about is a warning from Dickens that Pip’s journey will also be a fantastic failure. Freud’s theory of dreams as wish-fulfillment resonates well with this bizarre dream of Pip’s. According to Freud, “The dream cannot be compared to the random resonation of a musical instrument struck not by the hand of a player but by the impact of an external force; it is not meaningless, not absurd…it is a fully valid psychical phenomenon, in fact a wish-fulfillment.” (98) Freud goes on to describe that every time he eats something salty before bed, he dreams of quenching his thirst with a beverage until he wakes up. In a very similar fashion, one could make the argument that Dickens intended Pip’s dream to be interpreted as wish-fulfillment. In the dream, the coach does not make it to London. Although Pip seems to aspire to fulfill society’s great expectations of gentility, he is also very reluctant to leave the comforts of home, especially the comfort of his well-established relationships with Joe and Biddy. Therefore one could argue that Dickens’s intention is to construct in Pip a character that subconsciously feels compelled to remain with Joe and Biddy in the lower middle class but consciously desires wealth, high-class society, and gentility because of the extreme social pressure, or “great expectations” characteristic of the Victorian Era. Thus, Pip’s dream manifests his inner wish-fulfillment, but ultimately his conscious state, one highly influenced by societal expectations, overrules his dream and he pursues society’s wish− wealth, high-class society, social approval, and ultimately gentility. Dreams that Reinforce Pip’s Misery and Fear Once Pip becomes acquainted with London, his dreams no longer foreshadow the future, but rather dwell upon the misery of his situation and the anxiety he feels. After returning from the theater with Herbert Pocket, Pip says: “Miserably I went to bed after all, and miserably thought of Estella, and miserably dreamed that my expectations were all cancelled.” (258) Before Pip arrived in London, Dickens used his dreams to foreshadow the series of unfortunate events he would face. Once immersed in London, Dickens reinforces the idea of misery through Pip’s dreams, but no longer as a mere threat, but rather as a reality. The repetition of misery that Dickens casts upon Pip, both in his conscious thoughts right before sleep and in his unconscious dreams during sleep, speaks to the pervasiveness of Pip’s despair. In both conscious waking moments and unconscious sleeping moments, Pip cannot help but dwell upon the misery of his condition. Yet in portraying Pip so, Dickens carefully avoids comingling Pip’s conscious ideas of gentility and the subconscious misgivings about genteel expectations that Pip experiences in his dreams. Before Pip falls asleep, he realizes he is miserable and he realizes that the prospect of marrying Estella is dwindling. However, it is not until Pip falls asleep that he dreams that his “expectations were all cancelled.” This has social significance. Keeping in mind that Pip serves as Dickens’s cultural guinea pig, insofar as he learns through experience that gentility is not directly linked with wealth, Pip’s realization that his “expectations were all cancelled” can only occur subconsciously in a dream. In doing so, Dickens suggests that, subconsciously, society may know that a gentleman does not have to be wealthy. Consciously, however, it is very difficult at this point for Pip and ultimately for society to come to terms with this new concept. Subconsciously there is no hope for Pip and ultimately for society; his dream suggests no signs of hope, the “expectations” he hoped so desperately to live up to “being cancelled”. Pip’s conscious state also seems hopeless and filled with misery, but Dickens interrupts his depressed condition with a letter from Estella that provides a false sense of hope. Of the letter Pip comments: “It had no set beginning, as Dear Mr. Pip, or Dear Pip, or Dear Sir, or Dear Anything.” (258) This conveys the sense of haste and the lack of care on Estella’s part. Dickens wants to be clear that there is little if any affection intended from Estella, as becomes even more evident in the tone of the letter: I am come to London the day after tomorrow by the mid-day coach. I believe it was settled you should meet me? At all events Miss Havisham has that impression, and I write in obedience to it. She sends you her regard. Yours, Estella. (259)The letter is short, impersonal, and callously direct. Estella makes it clear that she had nothing to do with arranging a meeting with Pip, saying she “believed it was settled” by someone else and saying that she is merely meeting with Pip “in obedience” to Miss Havisham’s will, denying any personal interest in the meeting. However Pip is so happy to hear from her that he ignores the fact that she does not have the intention of marrying him. Thus, Dickens creates a situation in which Pip’s dreams more accurately depict his emotional condition− that of misery and regret− than a life event that merely provides a false, extremely temporary sense of hope. Once again, there seems to be hope for Pip in his conscious waking hours, but there is little if any suggestion of hope in his involuntary, subconscious dreams. The dreams Pip has in London, then, are tools Dickens uses to accurately depict the plight of both Pip and society. Whereas Pip’s life events sometimes appear to be headed in the right direction, for example London, the misery, fear, anguish, guilt, and other negative sentiments pervading his dreams serve as a reminder that he is indeed headed in the wrong direction, that his quest for gentility is misguided. Dickens allows for glimpses of hope in Pip’s conscious life, but the prevailing doom manifested in his dreams suggests his that his aspirations will not be achieved and that his approach is problematic. Recalling that Pip is a social guinea pig for Dickens evolving expectations of gentility, it becomes clear that Dickens uses Pip’s life as an example of a common example of a young, aspiring lower-middle class boy trying to move up in society and fulfill “great expectations”. However, considering the aforementioned overwhelmingly pessimistic sentiments in Pip’s dreams, it is clear that Dickens uses dreams to suggest something problematic in Pip’s approach, something misguided in his concept of gentility. Further evidence of Pip’s guilt-ridden conscious manifested through dreams occurs when Pip tries to conceal Magwitch from the servants in chapter 40 and when he and Herbert Pocket devise a plot to take Magwitch out of the country in chapter 41. In chapter 40 Pip recounts: Expecting Herbert all the time, I dared not go out, except when I took Provis for an airing after dark. At length, one evening when dinner was over and I had dropped into a slumber quite worn out, for my nights had been agitated and my rest was broken by fearful dreams, I was roused by the welcome footsteps on the staircase. (339)In chapter 41, Pip’s dream is equally upsetting: “With this project formed, we went to bed. I had the wildest dreams concerning him, and woke un-refreshed. I woke, too, to recover the fear which I had lost in the night, of his being found out as a returned transport. Waking, I never lost that fear.” (344) Fear and anxiety are clearly the prevailing sentiments in Pip’s dreams at this point. These dreams have the effect of bringing the reader full-circle. As much as Pip has learned about himself, about Joe and Biddy, about Estella and Miss Havisham, and about the problems associated with society’s “great expectations”, his dreams are still riddled with the same fear that he experienced as a boy, dreaming about being hanged. This emphasizes Dickens’s point that Pip’s realization may have come too late; he cannot go back, ignore the “great expectations” he had for himself, and realize that a gentleman is not merely a wealthy man. But for Dickens’s readers, there is still time. The expectations of gentility can still evolve. Final Thoughts “Tell me your dreams for a while and I will tell you what you are really like,” resonates very well with Charles Dickens’s characterization of Pip, which in turn helps Dickens achieve his intended social work. At times it seems as if Pip is completely immersed in the pursuit of society’s “great expectations”. However, if one accepts the notions of Freud’s concept of wish-fulfillment and the prevailing psychological notion that dreams have real weight and significance in determining character, one can also accept that Dickens uses Pip’s dreams to create in Pip a fallible protagonist that works as a social guinea pig, learning through experience that a gentle man is not merely a wealthy man. Works CitedAltick, Richard D. Victorian People and Ideas. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1973. Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. London: Penguin Books. 1996. Domhoff, William G. The Scientific Study of Dreams. Washington, DC. American Psychological Association. 2003. Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. Joyce Crick. New York: Oxford University Press. 1999. Slagter, Claire. “Pip’s Dreams in Great Expectations.” The Dickensian. Vol. 83. p. 180-3. Autumn, 1987. States, Bert O. The Rhetoric of Dreams. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1988.

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