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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - Barron's Booknotes
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Pip is the narrator and the main character of Great
Expectations-and possibly also the voice of the author. If
Dickens intended Pip as an autobiographical figure, it's
interesting-as a sidelight on Dickens' personality-that he tried
to make Pip so full of flawed qualities. And yet, despite those
flaws, Pip emerges as a character we care about very much.

In a way, we feel close to Pip because he isn't trying to impress
us or build up his own image; instead he confesses all his
shames and fears to us. It's as though, through Pip, Dickens is
working out all his worst feelings about himself. Look back
over Dickens' life story and compare it to Pip's. When Dickens
was working in the blacking warehouse he felt "above it," just
as Pip feels above his job, as an apprentice to a blacksmith.
When the other boys resented Dickens, he learned to keep to
himself-just as little Pip seems to do in Mrs. Wopsle's school.
Dickens had one friend, Bob Fagin, whom he ungratefully
looked down on, in much the same way that Pip takes for
granted his village friends Biddy and Joe. Pip is also a hopeless
romantic, beneath all his shyness; he remains obsessed for
years with an idealized image of his beloved Estella-who's
really proud and cold. In writing this, Dickens may have been
chastising himself for his own infatuations with Maria Beadnell
or Ellen Ternan. When Pip first receives his mysterious
"expectations" and becomes a gentleman, his shyness and
ambition combine to make him a snob; Dickens may be
critically reliving his own reaction when he was suddenly hit
with fame and fortune at a young age.

Dickens sometimes seems so close to Pip, it's hard for him to
give Pip his own identity. Pip is highly impressionable and
sensitive to criticism, and so he changes easily-more than
other characters in the book. (Some other characters seem to
change, but read them carefully-it could just be Pip's attitude
to them that's changing.) Throughout the book, Pip struggles to
form his identity; he doesn't even seem to have a real name.
The first thing we learn about him is that he himself shortened
his name, Philip Pirrip, to the insignificant nickname Pip.
Philip Pirrip was also his father's name, but the name feels
alien to Pip because he never knew his father (some readers
have seen the whole book as being Pip's search for a father-
which is, after all, another way of searching for identity). When
Pip receives his mysterious fortune, one of the terms is that he
will always be called "Mr. Pip"- a title that seems vain and
ridiculous, as though mocking the idea that a "pip" should ever
become important. Even Pip's best friend Herbert Pocket
immediately changes Pip's name to "Handel," as though by
giving Pip a new name he'll help him change into the
gentleman he wants to be.

While we're trying to figure out who Pip really is, we have to
remember that he's the narrator-so we can't always trust what
he says about himself. (If you wrote a description of yourself,
do you really think it would show the whole picture?) Pip is
intelligent, intuitive, and, even as a child, unusually observant
of the adult world around him. But he has certain blind spots
when it comes to himself. He's always telling us how bad he
was, how guilty he felt, how everything was his fault, and how
sure he was that he was going to be caught and punished. As
you read the book, try from time to time to look at Pip as
another character might. Set up a moral scale of all the
characters, and see how Pip fits in. Look especially at his good
qualities-tact, sensitivity, imagination, modesty. You'll have to
keep reminding yourself of them, because Pip never mentions

Why is Pip so hard on himself? Some readers say it stems from
his early upbringing, surrounded by unloving adults like his
sister Mrs. Joe, whose philosophy is "spare the rod and spoil
the child." Others point out that Pip is telling us all this years
later-long after the events in the book-from the perspective of
a middle-aged man, who is being critical of his own past

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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - Barron's Booknotes

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