Dickens and Moral Judgment

In Great Expectations, Dickens illustrates human nature as he chronicles the development of a young boy, Pip, from a commoner into a gentleman. The story begins with the boy at a very young age, living in the care of his older sister and her down-to-earth husband Joe. This memory includes his meeting with an escaped convict in a graveyard, which provides the foundation for the novel. Following this experience, Pip becomes employed by Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter Estella, using his money on education. Suddenly, he is lifted into the upper class through the intervention of a nameless benefactor. As he gains the knowledge suited for a gentleman, Pip’s attitude toward his family changes drastically. However, as he becomes aware of the true nature of his fortune, Pip is forced to reconsider these attitudes and ends the book on a much humbler note. Through plot developments and narrative elements, Dickens continues to invite his reader to make moral judgments about his characters even as they are permitted sympathetic involvement in the characters’ experiences.Dickens provides his first nudge in this direction with the first scene as Pip visits the family graveyard. Pip reflects on his “first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things” (Dickens, 2000: 3). As the convict Magwitch seizes the boy, turns him upside down to shake out his pockets and then significantly places the terrified boy on a tombstone in order to threaten him, Dickens provides the reader with a hint of the deeper psychological import of Pip’s journey through life and the essential need for readers to understand this progression and adjust their lives accordingly. Pip’s true nature is then revealed through his life with Joe and his work with Miss Havisham and Estella before Magwitch again reaches into Pip’s life to turn it upside down. As he becomes ‘shaken’ by Magwitch’s invisible hand, Pip gains a ‘gentleman’s’ education, learning the customs and manners expected of a fine gentleman.