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Approaching literature: reading Great Expectations
Approaching literature: reading Great Expectations

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3.4 Fantasies and desires

Whether or not you agree with this complex account, these ideas are worth thinking about. Following van Ghent, we could go on to read the novel in terms of Pip's fantasies of desire and revenge. For example, when his sister has been smashed down with a convict's leg-iron, he is ‘at first disposed to believe that I must have had some hand in the attack’. Although we know he has not (p.117), this can easily be read as a reflection of Pip's real, but unconscious because aggressive, feelings towards the one who brought him up ‘by hand’, and regularly applied ‘the Tickler’ to his frame. There is so much suppressed (and indeed actual) violence in the novel, hovering on the edge of everything that happens, that this kind of reading is surely persuasive? If at first it seems improbable, consider the point at which, many pages later, when Orlick tries to murder Pip in revenge for what he (rightly) gathers have been all Pip's attempts to have him sent away, the gloating brute tells him ‘It was you as did for your shrew sister … You done it; now you pays for it’ (p.421). The rational explanation offered is that it was Orlick's resentment and jealousy at Pip's preferment, and his beating by Joe, itself provoked at least in part by Mrs Joe (chapter XV), that led Orlick into trying to murder her. However, the non-rational, deep association of Pip with Orlick (and Orlick with the primeval ooze, see p.129) remains. This is confirmed by many little details, such as the suggestion that Orlick also desires Biddy, expressed by his ‘dancing’ (ibid.) at her which so annoys Pip, surely because it is also an expression of his feelings on a level he can only convey indirectly, if at all.

When it came to describing feelings of desire, Dickens was, of course, inhibited by contemporary prudery. This was especially strong in the case of cheap and accessible serial fiction, which could enter every home. He was obliged to be indirect, but this has its advantages. Estella is far from being one of Dickens's notoriously ‘legless’ angels, like Agnes in David Copperfield, although to begin with Estella's body is absent, or substituted by a star, confirming the cold distance implied by her name. When Pip first sees her at the ironically named Satis House, ‘her light came along the long dark passage like a star’ (p.58). Her disdain is reflected in remarks about Pip's commonness, and his ‘coarse’ hands – remarks that linger in his mind, since he keeps repeating them, and which to us evidently provoke in him both class and sexual yearning at once. That his deeper desires are not confined to himself is clarified by another of his visits to Satis House, when, after he has beaten the ‘pale young gentleman’ in the hidden garden, he finds Estella

waiting with the keys. But, she neither asked where I had been, nor why I had kept her waiting; and there was a bright flush upon her face, as though something had happened to delight her. Instead of going straight to the gate, too, she stepped back into the passage, and beckoned me.

‘Come here! You may kiss me, if you like.’

I kissed her cheek as she turned it to me. I think I would have gone through a great deal to kiss her cheek. But, I felt that the kiss was given to the coarse common boy as a piece of money might have been, and that it was worth nothing.


This is skilfully done, and it is developed as an undercurrent of implication by another fight, that between Joe and Orlick. This was provoked, as I have suggested, by Mrs Joe's interfering. ‘You'd be everybody's master, if you durst’ (p.112), says the journeyman, which leads to a ‘Ram-page’ on her part, and Mrs Joe dropping ‘insensible at the window’, but not without having ‘seen the fight first, I think’ (p.113). On one level, Mrs Joe is depicted as a virago whose bullying of her young brother and husband in some sense is supposed to make her ‘deserve’ being flattened by Orlick. On another level her behaviour is presented as the implied product of frustrated desire: her ‘square impregnable bib’ (p.8) may well have something to do with Joe's inability to come ‘to a stand’ (p.48). In other words, both of them are subject to barely understood inhibitions and maltreatment in the past (which in Joe's case is given in detail, see pp.45–6).

Perhaps too we eventually understand the frigidly self-consuming Miss Havisham as the product of her past, and Pip as deeply connected with both Joe and Miss Havisham in his secret sado-masochistic urges – secret in the sense that they are never openly acknowledged, while being present through implication. Miss Havisham and Orlick are both linked with Estella, the main object of Pip's desire, and also with his class guilt. It is fitting that he should be nearly killed by both of them towards the end, duly expressing the satisfaction of his need for self-punishment through the twin ordeals. All this may produce a feeling of inevitability, rather than surprise, when we learn that Estella marries the brutal Bentley Drummle, and that this leads to violence against her, too, before she can – in an analogous progression to Pip's – return to the main narrative, humbled and contrite.

Such hidden patternings begin to show what can be teased out of the richly ambiguous surface so well described by van Ghent, taking us beyond what appears at first sight to be merely another reflection of conventional mid-Victorian attitudes towards its restlessly aspiring heroes and its wayward women. Freudian readings like Wilson's and van Ghent's have multiplied, although today they are less common than they used to be. Their main message is that desire is interwoven with guilt along classic psychoanalytic lines, which propose that since desire is repressed it can only appear indirectly.

Let us take an example to illustrate this theory and its implications more fully. Until reading critics of this persuasion, I had been puzzled to know how to explain the fantasy Pip experiences at Satis House of Miss Havisham hanging by the neck from a great wooden beam, which he thought ‘a strange thing then, and I thought it a stranger thing long afterwards’ (p.63), and which recurs very much later (p.397). No explanation is offered. The only obvious connecting link seems to be the presence of Estella, whose appearance also comes to call up ‘strange’, hallucinatory feelings in Pip (p.235). It all feels too specific to be merely part of the deathly atmosphere surrounding Miss Havisham. An explanation is finally offered for the uncanny associations surrounding Estella when it is revealed that she has been reminding Pip of her mother, Molly, Jaggers's strong-wristed (and murderously violent) servant woman. This provides one last link of association, ‘wanting before’, and ‘riveted for me now, when I had passed by a chance, swift from Estella's name to the fingers with their knitting action, and the attentive eyes’ (p.386).

Does this help to explain the image of Miss Havisham hanging? Might there be a connection with Pip's early memory of Magwitch resembling a hanged man come to life and then going to hook himself up again? After all, it turns out that all these people are related, in one way or another, in the complicated unravelling of the plot. There are various possibilities here and I do not want to tie things down too much, since we are talking about hints and suggestions rather than anything very clear. However, if we think in terms of van Ghent's view that everything in Dickens's ‘nervous’ universe has in some way to do with child-parent relations, it seems possible to read things as follows. Pip's fancy of Miss Havisham hanging from the beam recalls his similar fancy of the escaped convict, because it thereby suggests the boy's unconscious wish to kill both his imagined parent–benefactors. This is a repressed desire that produces excessive feelings of guilt, fear and anger towards them, feelings that retrospectively become justified to the degree that both Magwitch and Miss Havisham are revealed as manipulators of their ‘adopted children’. These children inadvertently, that is unconsciously, contrive to punish them, and could even be said to bring about their deaths. When Pip imagines Miss Havisham hanging the second time – ‘A childish association revived with wonderful force’ (p.397) – he has just learned that Estella has married, and that Miss Havisham regrets what she has done. She asks for his forgiveness and, although according to the Christian moral scheme he must comply, there is a repressed desire to punish her, which is realised the next moment when she bursts into flames in his presence. Whether this is accidental or not is left unclear. Similarly, when the returned convict reveals his identity and his relationship as ‘second father’ (p.315) to Pip, the first impulse of revulsion becomes a much more extended attempt to rescue and forgive, but in vain, leaving Pip in the end safely alone.

I say ‘safely’ because Pip now refuses any kind of patronage, financial or familial, despite the advice of both Wemmick and Jaggers. Although at first this leaves him ill and alone, Joe comes to look after him ‘in the old unassertive protecting way’. ‘I fancied I was little Pip again’, he says, becoming ‘like a child in his hands’ (p.461). The new, patrilineal bonding enables Joe, the father who never was, to become father to another little Pip: ‘– I again!’ as Pip expresses it (p.475). All Pip's guilty fears and visions of murder can disappear at last in this recreation of himself, through his final acceptance of Joe and Biddy.