Why Social Norms Lead to the Imprisonment of Pip and Miss Havisham in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, a coming-of-age Victorian story of satirical imprisonment, follows Pip, a young boy, originally from the lower classes of Kent, England, who grows to admire gentleman from the upper class when he meet Ms. Havisham, a wealthy, old woman who offers to help Pip succeed in his goal. Both characters are met with expectations, but find themselves jailed by denotative and connotative fetters of conforming to social norms and liberating unfortunate past experiences.
Pip has been imprisoned by his own selfishness to become an upperclassmen in the Victorian society by blocking out his past, poorer life. Pip’s emotional journey can be represented by Joe and Pip’s relationship. When Joe is alone with his grown, proper son, Pip, he courteously says, “Us two being alone now, sir” (222) while a shocked Pip replies, “Joe,’ […] ‘how can you call me sir?”” (222) Dickens satirizes and mocks Pip as the stereotypical upperclassmen who prizes his ego and status in society. Since receiving the opportunity to become a gentleman, Pip has become so blinded that he cannot understand why his father is treating him in this manner. The two have been so close from the start, but within a month, Pip and Joe have fractured their once unbreakable bond due to the fetters of the Victorian age social norms. If Pip had been open and welcome to his father, he would have been seen as a lower classmen to the higher society, an image that Pip has been attempting to escape his entire life. In addition to Pip being imprisoned by the social norms, he is also blinded by his selfishness. As Magwitch, Pip’s benefactor, tries to embrace Pip, he reacts with repulse and finally realizes that he was “a sting for the greedy relations, a model with a
mechanical heart to practise on when no other practice was at hand” (321).
Instead of appreciating what Magwitch has transformed him into, the only thought that comes to Pip’s mind is that he was not destined for Estella and has been a toy for Ms. Havisham and Estella. Ever since Pip gained his wealth, he has devoted his life to pleasing Estella, instead of caring for his family who still struggles in Kent. Dickens’s excerpt clearly indicates Pip’s exaggeration of what he was to the Havishams. Pip is trapped in his own world with his selfishness and pressures to conform to the ideals of a Victorian man; he wants to be a gentleman, and still continue to care for his family, however the Victorian society looks down upon such behavior and deems it as unacceptable, especially if one’s family comes from a lower part of society. Dickens shows us through his use of satirical pieces that no one can have all they wish for, eventually, one needs to sacrifice life’s comfort.
Ms. Havisham traps herself within past events that shape her to become the evil, insane women that corrupts other people. Pip is greeted by Ms. Havisham wearing a yellowed wedding dress and a single shoe. As Pip spends more time with Ms. Havisham, he learns of her unfortunate past and how it impacts how she lives her life “within the bridal dress [that] had withered […]” (126). As a result of the jilting, Ms. Havisham has become imprisoned, denotatively, within the Satis house, and connotatively, as she is grounded in the past. Ms. Havisham’s life is defined by one single unfortunate moment she cannot move past. Years past her jilting, she still wears her wedding gown, keeps a lone shoe on, and sets all her clocks set twenty minutes to nine. Dickens suggests symbolization through satire using Ms. Havisham as a target for victims of traumatic occurrences. Due to her unfortunate past, Ms. Havisham’s vendetta
for men grows stronger as she adopts a young girl, Estella, to carry out her life’s goal.
Ms. Havisham’s life is controlled by her seek of revenge towards men. When she comes across Pip, the perfect toy for Ms. Havisham and her daughter, they attempt to break his heart by questioning, “What do you think of her?’ […] ‘I think she is very pretty.” (138). In the satirical sense, Dickens mocks people who are ignorant of the harm they cause. Ms. Havisham attempts to lure Pip in with the assistance of Estella’s beauty and use Estella to destroy Pip’s heart along with the hearts of many other young men. The only way for Ms. Havisham to be freed is to let go of Estella, Ms. Havisham’s “pride and joy”, and burn to death, which is ironic because throughout the entire novel, she tells Pip of her plans for death, but when she finally reaches her goal and breaks Pip’s heart, she finally realizes that she is calamity on the world and she ends her life by burning her soul. Ms. Havisham, ultimately, is imprisoned by herself. She allows her past experiences to make her life choices and when she finally realizes the wrong she’s done, it’s too late to go back because she’s already done harm to so many people around her.
In conclusion, through satirization, Dickens portrays motifs of imprisonment using Pip and Ms. Havisham. The pressure to adapt to Victorian ideals and his prizing of status demonstrates how Pip is trapped within his own society and cannot be truly freed without making sacrifices. Imprisoned by the past experiences that shape her to destroy men, Ms. Havisham turns towards death to finally realize the damage she cannot undo.