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Characters in Great Expectations


We must remember that character creation is a construct; an artefact and central ones do not necessarily represent the author.  Characters are either portrayed sympathetically or unsympathetically.  The former are called protagonists, heroes or good guys while the latter are antagonists, villains or bad guys.  Sometimes main characters are picaresque – likeable but harmless rogues, larrikins or scoundrels –“loveable rogues”.

Martin Amis points out that over two millennia humans first told stories of Gods, then Kings, then Epic Heroes, then ordinary people , then anti-heroes, then villains, then demons and finally themselves.

Characters:   Dicken's art lies in his ability to put us into the minds and hearts of the wide range of his main characters giving us a wide range of perspectives to identify with.

As a novelist, Dickens' concern was with characters, not principles. Most critics agree that it is his portrayal of distinct salient characters that distinguishes Dickens as a great novelist.  Many of his creations are caricatures but were they overly exaggerated?  The comic ones are accepted, while the daemonic villains were considered over the top. 

Main Characters:

Pip:   The main character who has misguided aspirations of becoming a gentleman for all the wrong reasons, mainly to impress Estella. The ambitions he had concerning elevating his social status to match Estella's own turn out to be false, and Pip realises what false dreams and how awful and selfish his actions have been as he grew older and gained a fortune from an unknown benefactor.  

"I never had one hour's happiness in her society, and yet my mind all round the four-and-twenty hours was harping on the happiness of having her with me unto death."

Pip is one of the few characters to grow and develop in the novel and at the end, though not what he aspired to be, he develops into a worthwhile individual.

Joe Gargery- Pip’s stepfather who is, happy to maintain his working class bearing while being the moral lodestone of the novel and one of the few real natural gentlemen.  He is much more of a companion (" Ever the best of friends; ain't us Pip?” (Chapter 7) to Pip than a father with good humoured fun – “such larks”.  Pip comes to be ashamed of Joe but towards the end of the book recognises him as a rare, true and natural gentleman.


Mrs Joe Gargery – Joe’s wife and Pip’s sister who “raised him by hand” A bully to both Joe and Pip she bows and scrapes to her superiors.


Biddy:  Perhaps the most genuine and respected of all the characters. Pip recognises too late what a gem he has missed out on.


Orlick – Journey man to Joe, tries to kill Mrs Joe and later attempts to burn Pip.


Magwitch – Convict Pip meets in the marshes, sent to Australia for life, returns illegally and turns out to be Pip’s secret benefactor.  He turns out to be noble and generous. An outcast of society due to his desperate circumstances.


Compeyson – Accomplice of Magwitch, a fallen Gentleman who turns to crime, jilts Miss Havisham and later tries to drown Magwitch but drowns himself. 


Mr Pumblechook – A hypocritical pillar of society, a seed and corn merchant, who treats inferiors with condescension and fawns those with money or position such as Miss Havisham and later Pip.


Mr Wopsle – A church deacons who has lofty ideas of being an actor.


Trabb’s boy - Symbol of exploited child labour and also the object of Pip’s snobbery.  Trabb’s boy’s anonymity signifies his low status but his role in Pip’s rescue indicates his true worth.


Miss Havisham - One of the literary world’s most eccentric and well known creation.  She represents the noveau-riche, the indulged daughter of a successful brewer, who when jilted, cannot handle the humiliation and becomes a self – imposed recluse.  She commands Pip “To Play”.


Estella – A star – cold, remote and pitiless.  She has been conditioned to use her beauty to destroy men’s hopes and break their hearts.  She does so successfully even destroying Miss Havisham.  Eventually she too suffers, is broken and becomes sensitive giving us hope that she and Pip come together even though she makes him miserable.

Estella says to Pip,

 "I have no heart...I have no softness there, no sympathy sentiment nonsense" (259).

Mr Matthew Pocket - Pip’s tutor – related to Miss Havisham, He copes by the chaos in his household by pulling himself up by the hair.


Mrs Sarah Pocket - Mother of seven children who spend their time ‘tumbling up’.  She is a snob and spends her time engrossed in a book while her servants attempt to keep order.


Herbert Pocket- Their son – Pip’s age, whom had fought at Estella’s in an early visit. Pip secretly assists him to become established in business and he becomes a close lifelong friend of Pip.


Bentley Drummle – A rude boorish idle and dissipated young man in line to become a baron.  Eventually marries Estella making each other miserable.

Bentley Drummle represents the quintessential gentleman of the English class system; a man not expected to do anything but live an indulged dissipate life, purposeless, non-productive, haughty, imperious, destructive and unaccountable.   His lifestyle is ridiculed as irresponsible, wanton and decadent.  Pip acknowledges its hollowness:

"We spent as much money as we could, and got as little for it as people could make up their minds to give us. We were always more or less miserable, and most of our acquaintance were in the same condition. There was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did. To the best of my belief, our case was in the last aspect a rather common one."

Poetic justice rules when in a fit of impetuous rage he kicks his horse which kicks him back, killing him and releasing Estella from her bondage.

Jaggers – A criminal lawyer with the power of life and death over his clients, noted for washing his hands, his watch chain and his unlocked doors – no one would dare invade him.  He rules ‘Little Britain’ his office with imperious authority and through bullying, deception and perverting justice manages to acquit many clients.  Also is the mediator between Pip and his mysterious benefactor. Jaggers is aloof and solitary.


Molly, Jaggers’ housekeeper – Acquitted of murder by Jaggers, Mr Jaggers defended her on a murder charge - she was accused of having throttled a stronger woman in a fit of jealousy. Molly had been married to a tramp. Mr Jaggers had been careful to hide the strength of Molly's arms and wrists. The prosecution had accused her of killing her child, but Mr Jaggers pointed out that they hadn't committed her on that charge. They won, and the case made his reputation. The child was supposed to have been a girl.  Molly has to pay off her debt to Mr Jaggers by her services as his housekeeper.

Molly and Magwitch are Estella’s natural  or birth parents.


Wemmeck – Clerk to Jaggers – supplements his income with `portable property` acquired from Jaggers’ clients, both dead and alive (some are bribes, others are unclaimed goods).  Wemmeck lives a dual, compartmentalised life; at home, a replica of a medieval castle, taking care of his deaf aged parent, he is warm, kind and emotional, while in Little Britain, he is cold, distant, pragmatic and totally calculating.  Schizophrenic?

Lionel Trilling claims, “We who have seen Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels put on the stage of history…are in no position to suppose that Dickens exaggerated in the least the extravagance of madness, absurdity and malevolence in the world or conversely, when we consider the resistance to those qualities, the goodness.”


On the other hand, Beth Worth in The Dickens Hero, asserts that his heroes lack outstanding virtues or noble traits.    


E.M. Forster sees Dickens as “the creator of lovable but merely `two-dimensional’ characters – that is, characters drawn in detail, but with no convincing relationship to the real world and with no inner life.

The Ending:

Novels are notoriously difficult to end; to bed down or to exit in a satisfying manner for everyone.   Do we want a neat tidy ending with all the loose knots tied, or an ambiguous one where we have to imagine our own solutions.  Happy endings can be unrealistic, while tragic ones can leave an audience utterly dissatisfied. 


Dickens had two endings, one happy, the other more realistic but ambiguous:

The last sentence can read either: 

"... I saw no shadow of another parting from her," or

 "... I saw the shadow of no parting from her," 

the former being the revised ending, implying that they do part and never meet again.

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