Charles Dickens’ bildungsroman, Great Expectations (..), cannot help but impress upon the reader an overwhelming sense of guilt which permeates the novel at various levels. As the plot unfolds, the characters develop, however the sense of guilt remains unchanging until the primary character completes his transformation. Intertwined as guilt is as a theme with the other themes of crime and punishment and the fallacy of human error, which for the central character Pip, translates into a form of self-imposed guilt, Dickens’ narrator recounts the journey of the youthful Pip from a focus on false values to self-awareness and moral fortitude. Evident from the onset of the novel, the character Pip implicitly finds himself involved in the act of criminal complicity as he steals in order to aid the convict, Magwitch, and this initial act creates in the young boy feelings of immense guilt:
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My state of mind regarding the pilfering from which I had been so unexpectedly exonerated, did not impel me to frank disclosure;… But I loved Joe – perhaps for no better reason in those early days than because the dear fellow let me love him – and, as to him, my inner self was not so easily composed. It was much upon my mind (particularly when I first saw him looking about for his file) that I ought to tell Joe the whole truth. Yet I did not, and for the reason that I mistrusted that if I did, he would think me worse than I was. The fear of losing Joe’s confidence, and of thenceforth sitting in the chimney-corner at night staring drearily at my for ever lost companion and friend, tied up my tongue. (33; ch. 6)
From the onset of the novel therefore, the young Pip becomes embroiled in a world of criminal behavior where his guilt torments him. Instead of dissipating with time, Pip’s sense of guilt appears to overwhelm his consciousness until it appears to become an integral part of his character.
As Dickens develops this theme, he uses a great deal of the novel’s atmosphere and settings to achieve his objective. As a child the youthful Pip’s world is bounded by the “long black marshes”, the black “beacon by which the sailors steered” and “a gibbet with some chains hanging to it, which had once held a pirate” (6; ch1). On the water there are the “hulks”, the prison-ships, and on the shore, there looms the battery with the guns which warn of prisoners’ escapes. Pip’s immediate consciousness is, in effect, ‘bound’ by the literal manifestations of the criminal world. The physical bondage created by Dickens’ use of this dark, foreboding imagery underscores for Dickens the influence of the prospect of criminality which chronicles the life-path of his principal character. Explicit bondage translates for Pip into an implicit bondage: legally, he is bound in trade to Joe, while emotionally he is bound to Joe by gratitude. As a direct result of his meeting with Estella, and the perpetuation of several false values in his mind, he no longer views the honourable blacksmith’s profession as an admirable career. Rather, the forge becomes Pip’s figurative ‘prison’, binding him to a lifestyle which now dissatisfies him. His aspirations have changed, thus he feels held captive and this mental dilemma adds to his cerebral turmoil: He feels guilty because he aspires to a different path, and in effect signing his own ‘death warrant’, dooming himself to the “scaffold” as he binds himself in apprenticeship to Joe:
Here, in a corner, my indentures were duly signed and attested, and I was ‘bound’; Mr. Pumblechook holding me all the while as if we had looked in on our way to the scaffold to have these little preliminaries disposed ofâ€¦ Finally, I remember that when I got into my little bedroom I was truly wretched, and had a strong conviction on me that I should never like Joe’s trade. I had liked it once, but once was not now. (85-86; ch 13)
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In addition to the physical setting with which Dickens surrounds his principal character, many of Dickens’ other characters in the novel who interact with the principal character, serve the purpose of the thematic perpetuation of guilt and criminality. An interpretation of the text by Foucault, as a Panopticon, suggests that Pip’s guilt and criminality may be viewed through the actions of Orlick and Bentley Drummle: Orlick strikes Mrs. Joe with the leg iron (which Pip is ‘guilty’ of providing and thus, to an extent making the crime possible), while Bentley Drummle becomes the tool through which Pip achieves gratification for Estella’s treatment of him. Both characters by extension are physical representations of Pip’s secret desires for revenge upon the people who have wronged him. As they enact these crimes they also foster Pip’s guilt (Tambling, Bloom, â€¦).
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