Charles Dickens description in Great Expectations is a telling example of why people consider him one of the greatest and most successful novelists ever. Dickens uses his talent for descriptive writing throughout Great Expectations to develop his characters and themes. Many of these themes emerge from Dickens personal experiences, specifically his emphasis on the importance of education and his ideas that wealth and position are corrupting. While the themes of education and position were common during the Victorian era, Dickens had an uncommon insight into these themes.
Peter Ackroyd notes that Dickens was born the son of an Admiralty clerk, the second of eight children. At the time of Dickens birth, his family was relatively well to-do. However, this comfortable lifestyle was short-lived due to his fathers inability to manage the familys financial affairs. In a sense, his fathers incompetence removed Charles from a genteel life and forced him into life as a factory worker. Dickens always felt betrayed by his parents, particularly his mother, because she suggested that Charles should work in a factory.
It seems that these series of events are what first focused Dickens on the importance of education, especially considering that he wrote of his father,  in the ease of his temper, and the straightness of his means, he appeared to have utterly lost at this time the idea of educating me at all, and to have utterly put from him the notion that I had any claim upon him, in that regard, whatever. (Ackroyd 58) Dickens resented his own misfortune and lack of opportunity to receive an education. He always held his parents accountable for this misfortune.
According to Ackroyd, Dickens mentioned this episode to his first biographer on many occasions. Dickens knew how important an education of any kind would have been to his future aspirations when he said,  what would I have given, if I had had anything to give, to have been sent back to any other school, to have been taught something anywhere (59). This statement signifies the importance of education to Dickens and emphasizes the role of wealth in obtaining an education. At a young age, Dickens sadly understood that the quality of his education would not be based on his desire to learn, but upon his parents income and position.
These feelings of helplessness and desperation never left Dickens, and out of this experience came the roots of Dickens strong sympathies for the underprivileged. Despite the difficulties he endured during his childhood, he diligently worked his way into the writing business with very little formal education or financial assistance from his parents. He held his parents accountable in a positive way when he noted in an autobiographical fragment, I do not write resentfully or angrily: for I know how all these things have worked together to make me what I am (553).
Dickens acknowledged that the reality of his success as a writer was directly related to what he had previously viewed as his parents failures. Dickens hand had become his livelihood. With every story and series written with his quill pen, Dickens revisited his childhood memories and sufferings. He recreated them to carve out a place for himself financially and historically as one of the greatest writers of his time. Dickens was able to transcend the social position of his birth to become a member of the genteel society.
This transcendence gave him an insight into both the needs of the poor and uneducated as well as the wealthy and corrupt. Utilizing his life experiences, Dickens quickly became a master at using imagery to develop his characters and themes. He consciously chose simple, easy to understand words and used them didactically. As a boy, Dickens saw literal meanings in things (53), but as he developed into a professional writer, he learned to take common things like a persons hands and turn them into a metaphor that would instruct the reader about themes that were important to him.
The most common definition of the word hand in the American Heritage Dictionary is: the terminal part of the human arm below the wrist, consisting of the palm, four fingers, and an opposable thumb, used for grasping and holding. There are eighteen other literal meanings for the word hand as well as innumerable metaphorical meanings. In Great Expectations Dickens uses literal meanings, symbolism, and repetition of the word hand in order to develop his characters; in particular, the repetition of the word hand assists Dickens illustrate two of his major themes: the importance of education and the idea that wealth and position are corrupting.
Dickens uses hand imagery to develop several of his major and minor characters. The characters range from Drummle (Pips adversary) all the way to the main character, Pip himself. Drummle is depicted as a man of shady character. During a conversation at the Jaggers estate, Drummle hides his hands in his pockets. Drummle attempts to use physical violence to settle an argument rather than communicating like a true gentleman (G. E. 201). Though Drummle is a minor character, his actions play a major role in the lives of Estella and Pip. Estella is the possession/person that creates bad blood between Pip and Drummle.
She is one of the major characters that Dickens develops through the use of hand imagery. Dickens describes Estella as having keys in her hand (50) and leading Pip through Satis house with a candle in her hand (73). The keys are for opening the gate to Satis House, and the candle is for leading him through the dark hallways to Miss Havisham. However, these images also symbolize the fact that Estella holds the key to Pips heart and that she is the light in his life. Estella is the light at the end of the tunnel to Pip. The goal to have an intimate relationship with Estella is what gives him the drive to become a gentleman.
Despite the troubles Pip endures, Dickens seems to let him achieve the great expectation of Estella at the end of the novel when Pip says, I took her hand in mine, andI saw no shadow of another parting from her (451). The fact that Pip is holding Estellas hand at the end of the novel indicates to the reader that Estella and Pip have joined in a lasting relationship. Dickens uses hand imagery to describe other important relationships in Pips life. Joe Gargery and Pip use a type of sign language in order to communicate in the presence of Mrs. Joe.
Joedrew the back of his hand across his nose with a conciliatory air, when Mrs. Joe darted a look at him, and, when her eyes were withdrawn, secretly crossed his two forefingers, and exhibited them to me, as our token that Mrs. Joe was in a cross temper (19). Joe is constantly providing a safe haven for Pip using his hands. He gives Pip the ability to communicate without being physically punished, and he also protects and comforts Pip by holding his hand. Dickens uses hand imagery to show that Joe is a hard worker and a proud man. Joe tries to share his pride with Pip by telling him, You wont find half so much fault in me if you think of me in my forge dress, with my hammer in my hand, or even my pipe (209).
The fact that Joe is comfortable with making a living using his hands illustrates that Joe is comfortable with his position in life. Biddy is frustrated with Pips inability to recognize Joe as a proud and successful person, and she tries to explain this to Pip before he leaves for London, having rubbed the leaf to pieces between her hands[she] said, Have you never considered that he may be proud? (139). Dickens uses Biddys hands to show that she is an active and emotionally charged character.
The fact that she is unknowingly destroying the leaf proves that she is a passionate person and also genuinely concerned about Pip and Joes relationship. Biddy wants Pip to realize that if Joe can be satisfied with who he is then Pip can be satisfied with him too. As a minor character, Biddy serves as an educator and informer to Pip. Dickens describes Biddys hands as, always want[ing] washing (40), and comfortablethough roughened by work (121). It is important that Pip notices the roughness of Biddys hands because he also notices the coarseness of his own hands.
Dickens wants the reader and Pip to come to the realization that the type of roughness that comes from hard work is something to be proud of rather than being ashamed. Pip must endure pain and suffering before he is able to realize that simple lesson. Dickens describes Pips hands and uses hand imagery to prove that his main character has changed and learned. As a child Pip is afraid of the handcuffs, which he imagines are for him, and ashamed of his coarse hands (56). Pip is afraid because he hasnt been taught self esteem and he has no self awareness.
He is afraid of the handcuffs because he thinks what he has done for Magwitch is a terrible crime rather than a frightened childs attempt to stay alive. Pip thinks of his life as something to be ashamed of because a snobby young Estella laughs at him and makes him cry. The reader knows that Pip is still running from himself when he willingly allows Herbert Pocket to rename him Handel. Once again, Dickens is playing off the word hand in order to characterize Pip. Dickens has Pip choose this name because of a musician named Handel who wrote The harmonious Blacksmith (165).
The fact that Pip chooses this name illustrates that he is still conflicted about who he wants to be. Pip longs to be associated with the society that idly chats about art and music, but he is still drawn to the simple life that Joe provided him as a blacksmith. It isnt until Magwitch is dying that Pip learns that friends are more important than wealth or position. Pip was with Joe, holding his hand (431) when he finally learns to appreciate Joe for the all that he is. Pip shows his appreciation to Joe when he kissed his hand (432) and helped him write a letter to Biddy.
Dickens wants the reader to see Pips actions as an act of reverence and of change. Pip has come full circle in his life and is able to accept Joe and himself. Dickens thought it was important to receive a good education so it comes as no surprise to the reader that his main character Pip also shares this belief. Pips education as a child comes from an unlikely source. He is raised and educated by his sister and brother-in-law. Dickens never gives Pips sister a name other than Mrs. Joe Gargery.
Instead, he uses the imagery of the word hand when he repeats over and over again the fact that she has brought Pip up by hand (G. E. 6). This fact makes the reader believe that her identity is unimportant, whereas her actions are what defines who she is. In an article called Charles Dickenss Great Expectations and the Probable Source of the Expression Brought Up By Hand, C. J. P. Beatty finds that the expression brought up by hand comes from a study on children who were bottle fed rather than breast fed. According to Beatty, this information could likely have been, used in the Dickens family for one generation of infants, or possibly two, since it was apparently available and much read, well into Charles Dickenss own lifetime (315).
We know that Pip wasnt breast fed because his parents died when he was merely an infant. However, the reader can find more significance in Dickens descriptions of Mrs. Joe having a hard and heavy hand (6) and beating her hands upon her bosom (106). Dickens uses Mrs. Joes hands to show that she is a physical character and not an emotional character. William Cohen states that, Mrs. Joes hand trains Pips through violence and terror (41). Dickens emphasis is not on how Mrs. Joe nurtured Pip, but on how everything Pip learned from his sister is either supported or negated through physical violence.
It doesnt take long for Pip to realize the injustice he is dealt by his sister. He knows innately that he isnt receiving the proper tools to pursue a happy life. Instead of being shipped to school, Pip is being tossed around like a connubial missile (7). Pip measures this injustice by comparing the physical and emotional abuse to things he could relate to. Like his rocking-horse that stands as many hands high,” he measures his enormous pain in proportion to his small world. From the time that he was an infant he cherished a profound conviction that [his sister] bringing [him] up by hand gave her no right to bring [him] up by jerks (57).
Dickens shared Pips feelings towards the abusive and emotionless upbringing of children. He illustrates this empathy by creating an environment for Pip which forces the reader to view Pip sympathetically: all the adults in Pips life, with the exception of the childlike Joe [believe] that children are naturally depraved and need to be corrected, kept in line with the Tickler, brought up by hand lest their natural willfulness assert itself in plots that are deviant, transgressive. (Brooks 128-9)
A young child only has the adults in their life to learn from. If the adults havent been educated in the proper way to teach a child self worth, the child will suffer from poor self esteem and constantly struggle for approval from his peers. Pip looks at his coarse hands and prays to be someone else and somewhere else. Dickens uses the imagery of Pips coarse hands (56) to show that the only thing Pip has learned from most of the adults in his life is to despise himself as they despise him.
Peter Brooks suggests that Dickens used the imagery of Mrs. Joes bringing up by hand and Jaggerss sinister hand-washings to provide a constant association of education, repression, criminality, [and] the fear of deviance (130). Mrs. Joes inability to communicate orally and Jaggers constantly feeling the need to cleanse himself suggests that these people arent happy with themselves. Dickens may be acknowledging the fact that society also failed Mrs. Joe and Jaggers when it comes to being educated about self worth. However, Pip has recognized the things that he doesnt like about himself, and though his actions may be misdirected, he tries to change himself.
Mrs. Joe and Jaggers simply let their past dictate the present and the future. They didnt try to change themselves, and they didnt try to learn self worth. Pip acknowledges his past and takes ownership for his future before he ever reaches adulthood. Dickens illustrates how important education is, using Pips quest to become a gentleman as his vehicle of communication. Pip is attempting to improve his life when he makes a commitment to education. He wants to stay focused in Mrs. Wopsles aunts schoolroom because, like Dickens, Pip knows that education is the key to his success.
Pip also demonstrates his dedication to education when he commits to teaching Joe how to read. Dickens uses the obvious association that writing is a task completed through the use of ones hands. He also refocuses on hands when he has Pip write a letter to Joe, [Pip] delivered this written communication (slate and all) with [his] own hand (G. E. 41). Joe has come to terms with the abusive childhood he endured and made a conscious choice to change himself. In this way he serves as positive example for Pip. However, he doesnt have the same feelings of urgency about learning that Pip feels.
Joe has made a conscious choice to use his hands for blacksmithing and comforting Pip. Joes hands serve to fortify, not to destabilize, the edifice of [Pips] virility (Cohen 41). Hes proud of Pips letter and humorously views it as a miracle of erudition (G. E. 41). Joe wants to see Pip succeed but he doesnt understand the importance of education because he has been able to provide a livelihood using his hands as a blacksmith. Joe wants to give Pip a different kind of education. He wants to teach Pip to be a blacksmith.
Pip sees Joe struggle to read this letter and he is more determined to better himself by learning to read and write. Pip thinks if he can teach his coarse hands (56) to write, he will someday be Estellas cultural equal. Dickens returns to the imagery of the hand as Pip finally began, in a purblind groping way, to read, write, and cipher on the very smallest scale (40). Now that Pip has seen Estella and Satis House, he has great expectations of being educated so he can leave the common life of a blacksmith and join the exciting lifestyle of the wealthy.
Pip is so blinded by his infatuation with Estella and his desire to become a gentleman in her eyes, that he fails to see that Estellas world is corrupt. Dickens knows that any world that revolves around wealth and position has the potential to be corrupted, and he uses hand imagery to illustrate this sinister lifestyle to Pip and the reader. Pip receives his first warning subliminally.
He is standing over the graves of his parents and five little brothers when he imagines that his brothers had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence (G. E. 1). Joseph A. Hynes notes that the brothers imagined position is Dickens way of stating that Pips brothers felt the world owed them a living (259). Dickens wanted Pip and the reader to know that its better to work honestly for your money than it is to take handouts. Considering the fact that none of his brothers survived, this should have served as a warning to Pip. Unfortunately for Pip, he is distracted by the appearance of Magwitch and is unable to complete his thought process or his visit to the grave site. Dickens uses Pips youth and inexperience as a way of enabling Pips inability to find venality in what he sees.
Pip enters Satis House he finds Miss Havisham sitting at a fine ladys dressing-table with her head leaning on that hand covered with bright jewels that sparkled. Pip senses something is wrong, and he notices Miss Havisham has but one shoe on–[while] the other was on the table near her hand (52). Pip continues to be mesmerized by Miss Havisham and her possessions, including Estella. When Pip receives the details surrounding Miss Havishams awkward appearance, he fails to recognize that it is her wealth and position that caused her to be corrupted. Compeyson uses Miss Havisham for her money.
Instead of accepting her mistake and moving on with her life, she literally stops the hands of time and starts to seek revenge. Miss Havisham has Pip kiss [her] hand as if [she] were a queen (219). She becomes the ruler of Pips heart and makes Pip her unknowing martyr when she deliberately toys with his emotions towards Estella and dupes him into believing that he might be able to have her. He doesnt realize until he meets up with Magwitch in London that Miss Havisham has been using him. Dickens also uses hand imagery with other characters to show that wealth and position are corrupting.
Belinda Pocket is so perverted by a nonsensical consciousness of her rightful social rank (Hynes 260) that she is unable to care for her children. Dickens shows Mrs. Pocket as being highly ornamental, but perfectly helpless and useless when she continually drops her handkerchief and has her servant pick it up for her. Pip sees the uselessness of both Mr. and Mrs. Pocket when he says, they had such a noticeable air of being in somebody elses hands that I wondered who really was in possession of the house and let them live there, until I found this unknown power to be the servants (G. E. 6).
Dickens uses this first person narrative to show how people with money and position can become so complacent that they dont know how to control their personal lives. Mr. Jaggers is another example of how Dickens uses hand imagery to show that position can corrupt a person. Peter Brooks notes that, Bringing up by hand in turn suggests Jaggerss hands, representation of accusation and the Law, which in turn suggest all the instances of censorship in the name of high authorities evoked from the first scene of the novel onward: censorship is repression in the name of the Law (130).
Jaggers uses his position as a lawyer to make financial gains for himself. Through Jaggers, Dickens shows how people can buy their way out of legal trouble. Jaggers is outwardly happy to take money in order to help people regardless of their innocence or guilt. Yet Dickens shows how these actions corrupt Jaggerss soul using hand imagery, [Jaggers] would wash his hands, and wipe them and dry them all over this towel, whenever he came in from a police court or dismissed a client from his room (G. E. 196). Jaggers is constantly washing his hands because he knows that his practices are morally wrong.
Although Jaggers is helpful to his clients, Dickens wants the reader to recognize that the price Jaggers pays for his moral indiscretions is a spiritual one. Dickens uses Pip as the final example of how money will corrupt the human soul. Pip has been given a fortune, yet he falls into debt. It isnt until Pip learns that the money has come from Magwitch that he recognizes the error of his ways. Elizabeth Mac Andrews states that, Pip shudders at the thought that Magwitchs hands might be stained with blood (69-70).
The knowledge that the money has come from a known criminal instead of Miss Havisham forces Pip to admit that he should have never taken the money at all. Pip learns from his mistakes. He goes to Miss Havisham and unselfishly asks her to provide for his long-time friend and confidant, Herbert Pocket. The fact that he shows compassion for his friends is the evidence that proves Pip has learned from his mistakes. Dickens felt very strongly about the idea that wealth and position could corrupt a persons life. He also knew that a proper education was the key to success.
Dickens wasnt only concerned with a formal education, he was also concerned with being educated about the self. Dickens life experiences helped him see many different aspects of people and society. He used these points of view to create a novel that would provide the reader with answers to the same moral lessons he was trying to learn in his lifetime. Dickens used his hand and quill pen to show the reader that great expectations can be achieved if you are willing to change and to continually seek out self knowledge.