The Sacred Domesticity on the Background of Pip’s Life
Great Expectations is a novel which, in its first part, focuses largely on the education and upbringing of a young boy, Pip. Orphaned at a young age, he is raised “by hand” by his older sister and her husband, a blacksmith. Written from the adult Pip’s point of view, the novel describes his limited education at the hands of Wopsle’s aunt, as well as his apprenticeship in Joe’s forge. His moral education is left to his sister, whose main teaching is that Pip should have never been born to plague her life with worry, and a few lines of the Catechism, whose message of “walk the same in all the days of your life” Pip follows religiously by taking the same route home every day. In all his education one aspect is noticeably absent: the indoctrination of a spiritual code or set of beliefs. Indeed throughout the novel, Pip seems unaware of any higher purpose to his actions and circumstances, and most of the philosophical thought in the narrative comes from Pip the Narrator, writing from a later time. Because of this distinct absence, the first mention of something having a spiritual significance is important. To Pip this is not a teaching of the Church, but rather his own domestic space. To embrace this space would perhaps be Pip’s best chance for happiness, but instead he rejects it. Pip’s rejection of the “sacred domesticity” occurs three times in his early life, and leaves him vulnerable to outside forces that threaten to take away his control of his own destiny.
Before Pip is even consciously aware of the sanctity of his home, he violates that sanctity be stealing food for the convict. This is one of Pip’s first actions as narrated by his older self, and the first instance the reader sees of his losing control of his own actions. However, although in his mind he is forced without recourse to commit this theft, the degree to which he carries out his orders shows a deliberate violation of the sacred space of the kitchen. As he explains, “I was nearly going away without the pie, but I was tempted to mount upon a shelf, to look what it was that was put away so carefully in a covered earthenware dish in a corner, and found it was the pie, and I took it, in the hope that…it would not be missed for some time” (52). First, the convict did not specify an amount to be taken, and Pip had already removed bread, cheese, mincemeat, brandy, and a meat bone. To take the pie is Pip’s own choice; he says he is “tempted” to turn around and climb up the shelf. The pie has a greater significance than all the other food; it is to be the crowning grand finale at the upcoming Christmas dinner. Supposing that the young Pip had no choice but to take some amount of food (as he believes and leads the reader to believe), taking a bare minimum of perhaps some bread and cheese and a scrap of meat would have made him a victim of the convict, rather than a criminal, as he feels in his heart he is. When he does take the pie, it is perhaps unconsciously out of spite for his sister, but whatever his motive, the choice serves in a small way for him to regain control: he is able to choose what it is he will steal.
Pip’s second rejection of the sacred domesticity occurs when he begins to feel ashamed of his home and wish for a different life. He says, “Home had never been a very pleasant place for me…but Joe had sanctified it…I had believed in the front door, as a mysterious portal of the Temple of State…I had believed in the kitchen as a chaste though not magnificent apartment; I had believed in the forge as the glowing road to manhood and independence” (140). Ironically, it is not until he realizes this that he feels he must turn away from it. The final sentence of this passage is significant in that if the forge represents manhood and independence, then rejecting that physical structure means rejecting those ideals as well. Pip does not do this consciously; he never states that he does not want to be a man or independent, but in the years following his realization these things are not a priority, and his actions reveal this. He enjoys the independence of his newfound fortune, but only so far as they remove him from home and place him closer to the vague situation of being a “gentleman”. He lives extravagantly off this “independence” but does not work to secure it for the future. And by doing no work, he is actually more dependant than the lowliest blacksmith. When Pip moves to London, and during his residence with Herbert Pocket, Pip becomes a man in terms of years, but age does not bring maturity. He never mentions having any pride in being a man, and lives well beyond his mean, not having the wisdom to curb his extravagance. Pip rejects the domestic, but would have been financially stable and more independent had he not.
After having rejected the sacred domesticity in thought, he finally rejects it in action when he moves to London to obtain his education as a gentleman. Pip trades his potential for domestic happiness for his expectations. Even though he thinks this is a positive change in his life, he is actually more uncertain than ever. He says of his expectations: “And at best, how indefinite and unsatisfactory, only to know so vaguely what they are” (277). The very word “expectation” implies an indefinite end, because that end is dependant on outside forces. Pip merely expects events to occur, rather than working toward a final goal. His outlook is reflected in his roommate Herbert, who is always “looking about him” for his fortune. He is expecting his fortune to be made through opportunity, rather than making the fortune for himself. Pip is even less active; while Herbert has the dream of realizing capital for investment, Pip simply lives life day by day, only doing what he is told. He tells Herbert, “I cannot tell you how dependent and uncertain I feel, and exposed to hundreds of chances” (277). By putting his future entirely in the hands of others, Pip allows others to take control of his life’s story.
When Pip learns of his great expectations, the higher purpose of his life changes from the glory of manhood and independence to a dependence on Fortune. He looks increasingly to this changeable deity for meaning and support. Pip tells Herbert, “I know I have done nothing to raise myself in life, and that Fortune alone has raised me; that is very lucky” (277). Until he realizes his expectations, Pip seems to have no notion of Fate or Fortune, and mention of these are noticeably absent in the early part of the novel. To Fortune, however, Pip assigns the most significant thing that has every happened to him. In this sentence he also rejects his upbringing by Mrs. Joe: he claims to have been “raised by fortune”, echoing the phrase “raised by hand” he has heard many times throughout his childhood. For Pip, being raised by fortune is much more agreeable than being raised by hand, which he took to mean being constantly subjected to punishment.
Nevertheless, Pip’s rejection of the sacred domesticity in favor of his expectations is problematic because it does nothing to help him control his own destiny, and does not bring him happiness. He even thinks, at one point that “I should have been happier…if I had never seen Miss Havisham’s face, and had risen to manhood content to be partners with Joe in the honest old forge”(300). Here again he equates life in the forge to manhood, and in this thought, with honesty, which is in contrast to his reoccurring sense of criminality. Pip’s dilemma also reflects a problem with the concept of “being a gentleman” in the Victorian era. Dickens raises the question on whether it would be better to have made one’s own situation in life, rather than have it made by someone else. In Pip’s case, if he had become at blacksmith, he would have lost the potential to become a gentleman and marry Estella, but would have gained control over his own fate.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Eds. Graham Law and Adrian J Pinnington. Ontario: Broadview Press, 1998.
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