Great Expectations


Charles Dickens

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Great Expectations: Irony 6 key examples

Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Book 1, Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—Bringing Up By Hand:

Dickens uses satire in the early parts of Great Expectations to lampoon the unpleasant way Victorian guardians disciplined and guided their children. In Chapter 2, Pip explains to the reader how he was "brought up by hand" by his nasty elder sibling: 

My sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, was more than twenty years older than I, and had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbours because she had brought me up “by hand.” Having at that time to find out for myself what the expression meant, and knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand, and to be much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me, I supposed that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand.

The domineering and violent way that Mrs Joe Gargery treats both Pip and her husband is an exaggerated version of the way Victorian children were often disciplined. Corporal punishment was not only common and legal but encouraged in the upbringing of children in the 1800s. Many people put great stock in the Biblical proverb "spare the rod, spoil the child." Rather than bringing Pip up "by hand" in the usual sense of the phrase—to do so oneself, with care and attention—Dickens employs the phrase to imply that Pip and Joe Gargery both get smacked with some regularity.

This satirical commentary also incorporates verbal irony on a second level to do with Pip's psychology. As previously explained, when Mrs. Joe says she is bringing up Pip "by hand" to her friends and neighbors, she is implying that she's putting a lot of hard work into it. Pip, who in his youth takes everything quite literally, thinks she means it's literally being done "by" her "hand," as if parenting were not ever done with any of the rest of the body or the mind. Joe Gargery, a simple and biddable character, is also infantilized here, as he also apparently receives the "benefits" of this discipline. He is also part of the verbal irony of this situation, as he believes literally in the efficiency of his wife's hands-on methods. 

Book 1, Chapter 7
Explanation and Analysis—The Catechism :

In Chapter 7, Dickens makes a verbally ironic allusion to a Biblical source, illustrating Pip's naivety and ignorance with a clever joke. Pip tells the reader that as a boy he had trouble understanding religious language:

Neither were my notions of the theological positions to which my Catechism bound me, at all accurate; I have a lively remembrance that I supposed my declaration that I was to “walk in the same all the days of my life,” laid me under an obligation always to go through the village from our house in one particular direction, and never to vary it by turning down by the wheelwright’s or up by the mill.

The Catechism, which Pip mentions here, says that Christians should "Keep God's holy will and commandments, and walk in the same." This means they should walk "in the commandments," or obey them: the naïve Pip thinks it means he always has to go home "in one particular direction." Dickens is making fun of the Church of England's failure to make clear to Pip what the "declarations" he is steadfastly making actually mean.

British children in this time were often obliged to learn large sections of the Bible and of basic Christian doctrines by heart as part of their schooling. Dickens felt, as he mentions in many of his personal writings, that having children learn things by rote did not necessarily mean they understood them or were actually being educated by this "education." This reference to the Catechism is a funny moment in the novel, and would perhaps have sparked recognition for Dickens' largely Christian English audience about their own misunderstandings of biblical phrases in early schooldays.

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Book 1, Chapter 8
Explanation and Analysis—She Beggared Me:

The dramatically ironic motif of "beggaring," or stripping everything from a person, comes up several times in the context of playing games in Great Expectations. When Pip and Estella are asked to play cards to entertain Miss Havisham, this conversation follows:

Miss Havisham beckoned her to come close. [...] "Let me see you play cards with this boy.” “With this boy! Why, he is a common labouring-boy!” I thought I overheard Miss Havisham answer – only it seemed so unlikely — “Well? You can break his heart.” “What do you play, boy?” asked Estella of myself, with the greatest disdain. “Nothing but beggar my neighbour, miss.” “Beggar him,” said Miss Havisham [...] 

The "game" of beggaring that Havisham actually wants is to see the protagonist emotionally impoverished, as the reader and the younger Pip of the story later learn. Miss Havisham, having been scorned in love, has set herself the lifelong task of ruining men's lives. The most valuable commodity to her is not the money she possesses, but the affection and devotion of men which she can then destroy. Lacking the power to do so directly, she grooms Estella into her instrument for "beggaring" men and boys, stealing all their emotional capital and ruining their lives. 

The idea that she should play with Pip horrifies Estella, as he is a "common laboring boy." As Pip is already "common" and comparatively penniless, the idea of wealthy Estella "beggaring" him is particularly ironic here. This irony is doubled if one considers that Pip—who has a lot of real familial love in his life—is far "richer" in Miss Havisham's terms than Estella or Havisham herself. Pip may be a common "laboring" boy, but the prize Havisham wants to win is not money he could get from labor; it's his heart.

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Explanation and Analysis—Silly and Self-Absorbed:

When a character is as pompous and self-interested as Uncle Pumblechook in a Dickens novel, the author is almost always using them to satirize a "type" of character from everyday Victorian life; in this case, a privileged blowhard. When Pip is told that Pumblechook will take him to meet Miss Havisham to "make his fortune," in chapter 8, a scene of the most laughable stuffiness occurs. Pip tells the reader that he was "trussed up" in his "tightest and fearfullest suit" and

delivered over to Mr. Pumblechook, who formally received me as if he were the Sheriff, and who let off upon me the speech that I knew he had been dying to make all along: “Boy, be for ever grateful to all friends, but especially unto them which brought you up by hand!”

Pumblechook receives Pip (who is often referred to by his family as being incurably criminal) "like the Sheriff": he means to send him off to a correctional facility with a sanctimonious speech about being "for ever grateful to friends." Of course, Pumblechook is not a policeman, but merely a "peppercorny and farinaceous" old merchant, as Dickens goes on to describe him in the next chapter.

Pip, reflecting on this instance from the "future" of the novel's narration, remarks that he knew Uncle Pumblechook had been "dying all along" to preach to him about how grateful he should be for this opportunity. The reader gets the sense here and elsewhere that, in an instance of dramatic irony, Pumblechook thinks he's very important and that everyone takes him seriously. It's clear from the tone Pip strikes here, though, that that isn't his view.

The author describes Pumblechook in terms of ridiculous self-importance, lampooning men of his time who came from "new money" (not inherited wealth) with pretensions to upper-class airs, and with patronizing and undeserved moral superiority. Further, Dickens indicates that Pumblechook is materialistic, selfish, and self-absorbed in all his habits. When Pip joins him for breakfast before heading to Satis House, he says he consides Pumblechook "wretched company," as his

conversation consisted of nothing but arithmetic [...] while he sat at his ease guessing nothing, and eating bacon [...] in a gorging and gormandizing manner.

Uncle Pumblechook here and later is characterized by Pip's dramatically ironic accounts of his excess and lack of self-awareness. He preaches abstinence and thrift in others while "gorging and gormandizing," telling Pip to be grateful for the meager amount he gets while Pumblechook stuffs himself with bacon.

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Book 2, Chapter 39
Explanation and Analysis—Magwitch, the Benefactor:

One of the most important situational ironies in a novel filled with irony is the true identity of Pip's benefactor. Provis, whom Pip originally encounters as Magwitch the terrifying criminal, is actually a generous and broadly upstanding person who devotes his labor to helping the boy succeed. Provis tells Pip at the climactic finale of the second volume that he has been his patron all along, only wishing to make up for his crimes and

“to know in secret that I was making a gentleman[.]"

Pip's "great expectations" rely on him being a gentleman. When he thinks Miss Havisham is supplying him with support, this doesn't seem problematic. Because her money comes from a reputable source that would link Pip to the social class he wishes to join, he's happy to believe she could be his patron.

When it's revealed that it has been Provis's aid in "making" him that has changed things, Pip feels frightened and confused. In his eyes, financial support from a convict with no family, connections, or good name is not a suitable source for advancement. Provis knows he will never be "genteel," but believes he can "own" a "brought-up London" gentleman. His idea of gentility is solely based on having money and security, not the social perceptions of its source. He wants to help Pip and to make up for how he treated him, but also to live vicariously through him.

The foundations of the young Mr. Pirrip's "great" progress, and the promise of his "great expectations," are ironically not at all "great" in the way Dickens's reader might have expected earlier in the book. The rich are not always generous, the criminals are not always bad, and almost no one is ever entirely as they seem.

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Book 3, Chapter 51
Explanation and Analysis—Estella's Parentage:

Estella Havisham's true parentage is an instance of emotionally intense situational irony in Great Expectations. Mr. Jaggers the lawyer explains in Chapter 51 that Provis is her father and her mother was another convict, and that nobody knew but himself. When he says these things to Pip, he couches the secret's gravity and his difficulty in keeping it in hilariously euphemistic and noncommittal lawyerly language:

Put the case that the child grew up, and was married for money. That the mother was still living. That the father was still living. That the mother and father unknown to one another, were dwelling within so many miles, furlongs, yards if you like, of one another. That the secret was still a secret, except that you had got wind of it. Put that last case to yourself very carefully.

Estella has spent her life as an aristocratic adoptee and has despised Pip for his "common" background throughout their acquaintance. This irony is compounded by the coincidence of their already knowing each other, and by the short distance between all the parties involved. Dickens stresses the irony by listing ever-decreasing units of measurement as Jaggers recounts them "dwelling within so many miles, furlongs, yards of each other." 

What's more, Estella's actual parentage belies the fact that she is in fact the daughter of Pip's patron, reversing Pip's narrative of hoping that Miss Havisham had been sponsoring him. The irony is revealed to be even more bitter by virtue of the fact that Estella's mother Molly had been Jaggers's own employee, but the "secret was still a secret." The truth had been right in front of Pip the entire time. This situational irony also speaks to the novel's title: Estella has no "great expectations" to work toward because she already has everything she materially wants. Pip has nothing, and so when he discovers that the haughty and proud young woman's cruelty was really just ignorance, he is thrown into confusion. 

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