Dickens and Great Expectations: A Moralist at the Threshold of Modern Psychology (3/4/2004)

If, as a rule in Dickens’ Great Expectations, we are presented with characters for whom we either feel a sudden liking or an equally swift aversion, the richly drawn character of Pip serves as a notable exception. Since actual human beings are seldom simply good, like Joe Gargery, or simply villainous, like Orlick—but tend to be more or less stable compounds (and not a Manichaean colloids) of decent and not so decent impulses, passions, and drives—Dickens’s frequent reliance upon unambiguous indicators of his characters’ moral natures sometimes presents difficulties. These difficulties either tend to be invisible or irrelevant to those among his readers who desire little more than to have their own conventional Christian moral prejudices affirmed and artfully endorsed. Those of his readers, on the other hand, who find too many of his characters suspiciously mono-dimensional (or cartoonishly bi-dimensional, like the schizoid Wemmick) may walk away from an otherwise outstanding work of literature with a feeling that they’ve been cunningly swindled. What is missing, it appears upon closer inspection, is the sort of complex psychological depiction that readers of the best modern literature have come to expect. What makes this difficult to see after an over-hasty reading of the novel is the remarkably complex and finely shaded rendering of Pip’s moral character. But, while morality and psychology have been more or less intimately inter-related since the days of Plato and Aristotle, they are not the same. The moral standpoint is inherently evaluative, where it is not blatantly judgmental. It constitutes, in a fundamental sense, a calculus whereby actions, statements, and (“Alas, poor Orlick!”) even persons are judged according to a set of axiomatic principles respecting good and evil, good and bad. Psychology, concerned primarily with efforts to understand, must overcome to some extent the inclination (or determination) of the moral standpoint to pass judgment. Pip rarely seems to step outside the ‘box’ of the moral worldview of his local culture and into the then relatively uncharted regions of psychological enquiry. Does Dickens?

As already suggested, Pip’s character is by no means simple, but conspicuously complex. The novel chronicles a number of life-shaping and transformative episodes that are crucial to his development into the multifaceted adult who narrates his own early history. How, it will be asked, can such a character and such episodes be credibly and movingly depicted without there being at the same time a hefty serving of “psychology” woven into the mix? A closer look at the theoretical and terminological limitations within which Dickens was obliged to work will help to answer this question—and, at the same time, enlarge our respect and admiration for what he was able to accomplish as an artist within these limitations.

Moral and psychological development does not take place in a vacuum. Repression and Victorian England go together like sin and New Orleans or commerce and 16th Century Venice. The repression of feeling is not infrequently carried to caricatural lengths, as with the figures of Jaggers and Wemmick, where a frank and uninhibited expression of any tender sentiments (from the compassionate end of the spectrum—i.e., “Walworth sentiments”) is strictly forbidden as a lapse of cool, professional objectivity, or worse, a contemptible display of effeminacy. For the wannabe gentleman coming, as Pip does, from the rude and provincial backwater, virtually all those features that endear us to Joe Gargery (his rustic, unsophisticated manner; his childlike simplicity of feeling; even his awkward mangling of speech when he’s out of his element) must be trimmed away or hammered straight so that no sign of those origins can detract from the polish he strives to acquire. A “snob’s” refashioning of himself extends beyond the visible and audible parts of his personality, however, for it entails a kind of disowning or “rising above” those coarser and less genteel aspects of his psyche or inner nature. This is commonly enough accomplished by unconsciously projecting these “shadow” contents onto the convenient carriers in one’s midst. Scapegoats for one’s own messier and less presentable traits, impulses, and inclinations are, in a sense, unfairly demonized and called upon, often, to carry a disproportionate share of the wayward inheritance dwelling in the personal and collective psyche. Orlick serves this purpose in Great Expectations, for he is made to carry a heavier onus of the brutal and vicious elements of human nature which figure more or less prominently in the psyches of all of us. In a sense, his blackening is correlative with other characters’ whitening, so that Pip, for example, can heighten his relish of his own elevation and gentlemanly sophistication simply by comparing his own state with that of Orlick, Trabb’s boy, and other “inferiors.”

What Dickens presents us with is a situation wherein everything that is of ultimate concern to Pip’s future and his fortunes (the goal of his gentlemanly aspirations, as well as the would-be annihilator of his happiness) are all outside of him. Estella and Orlick, as far as Pip is concerned, are concretizations, or externalized carriers, of the archetypes of the anima and the shadow. Instead of introspectively withdrawing the magical power and significance which is projected upon Estella, and dealing more or less directly with those contents as components of his psyche, he does what most persons have always done: he works not with and upon his psyche, but struggles instead to make his involvement with the significance-bearing person conform to his (often unrealistic and unrealizable) wishes, hopes, expectations. When it is a negative figure, as with Orlick, a demonization and hostile avoidance of the actual person takes place instead of a courageous confrontation with those unpleasant psychic contents for which Orlick has been providing a convenient receptacle.

It is psychologically significant, therefore, that Orlick is employed by Dickens as the agent who commits actions that Pip might in his private heart secretly wish to commit, but which his “elevated” conceit of himself would never allow him to admit. The “silencing” and (cranial) softening of that insufferable scold and wielder of the “Tickler,” Mrs. Joe, and the humiliating chastisement of the repugnant Pumblechook leap to mind. Here we are certainly given a pregnant clue to Pip’s recurrent attacks of guilt, which must be provoked in part by irruptions into consciousness of those darker drives and wishes which are morally deplorable to, and unbecoming of, an aspiring gentleman. Since so much must be repressed, then, in order always to say and feel the proper and correct thing, the reader of Great Expectations must wonder how much dishonesty with oneself is involved in this studied self-censorship and self-suppression. If Pip is divided, if he is now and then ambushed by guilt feelings and primal doubts, we must look to this systematic repression of certain un-Christian impulses and passions which are relegated to the Orlicks of the world to enact and express. We can only guess at the extent to which the world of Pip’s actual experience is falsified and grossly distorted as a more or less direct consequence of the conventional, moralistic, and dualistic lenses through which he looks upon the world, society and individuals. We see how stubborn, for instance, is his idealization of that botched creature, Estella. We see how blinded he is by snobbish conceits of what a gentleman is—so blind, in fact, that his deep-rooted love for his ‘poor relation,’ Joe, suddenly becomes an awkward attachment, a source of inner conflict and embarrassment. We are induced ultimately by Dickens to suspect that one “becomes a gentleman” only at a terrible cost to his psychic and moral (in the humane, and not merely conventional sense) integrity.

Pip is positioned on a path, at one end of which crouches Orlick, while at the other, floats Estella. If one is the symbolic denizen of a hell which must be shunned at all costs, the other is the queen of a mouldering heaven, entrance into which constitutes the sum and substance of his confused hopes and cravings. Pip is acutely conscious of his hopeless idolization of Estella, of the dangerous consequences likely to ensue from this obsession, and of his utter helplessness to break free from the grip she (unintentionally) binds him in. Instead of being greeted by Estella, the star, as he had hoped would happen (when he returns to Satis House for a special visit in Chapter 18), he is startled to come face to face, instead, with the armed villain, Orlick, who is now serving as a kind of one-headed Cerberus, guarding the gates of Pip’s hellish heaven.

If Pip is, in a sense, living in a dream world—filled with fatuous notions about what “becoming a gentleman” entails, and plagued by an unrelenting desire to possess Estella (as the emblem of his “arrival”)—he will need to be awakened from this intoxicating dream. As the enactor and “carrier” of Pip’s darker impulses and unconscious but unacceptable wishes, Orlick operates within the story as a menacing reminder that neither wealth nor social ascendancy can wholly shield Pip from evils he is at least indirectly responsible for provoking. If his creditors shadow him to collect on his financial debts, Orlick shadows him like a grim reminder of the heads he must step over as he “climbs” up the social ladder.

Where are we to look for the roots of Pip’s guilt? Are they not located in that problematic identification with the man to whom he refers as “my convict”—an identification which commences through his innocent sympathy for the famished Magwitch? Everything in Pip’s everyday experience has prepared him to presume that someone with Magwitch’s record of past offenses is the worst sort of person, one to be feared and avoided at all costs. The multiply ironic course of the novel portrays Pip doing everything in his conscious power to fly away from the very person (and all the associations with him) whom he must eventually accept as his true benefactor and “second father.” If Pip, throughout the bulk of the novel, has been a kind of actor playing out his “gentleman” ideal, the empathetic bond he forges with Magwitch gradually produces a meltdown of this “gentleman complex,” revealing the authentic human being who has been hidden behind the mask. The awakening of his full humanity can truly begin only after Pip summons sufficient honesty within himself to dismantle the false pretensions and snobbish insensitivity which has attended his “rise” to gentleman status. The pursuit of his ambition to become a gentleman has not entailed the exercise of his heart, so much as his idealistic imagination, his pride, vanity, ambition—coupled, of course, with frequent, rash and—ultimately—exhaustive dippings into his purse. Magwitch, from whose coarse and uncouth character Pip initially recoils in disgust, emerges in scenes of great poignancy as the catalyst and inspiration for Pip’s Christological journey of renunciation, sacrifice, and descent into hell—wherefrom he emerges reborn into a soberer and more self-responsible young man. If, despite these regenerative changes, he nonetheless finds himself at the novel’s end in a state of relative alienation, this is the price exacted for the knowledge his experience has left him with. The magic and the delusions of ‘childhood’ have been burnt away in the friction produced by a meteoric descent into the denser earthly atmosphere that sets in after Magwitch’s disclosure.

In the character of Pip we find a “seed” for a novel way of approaching and making sense of the psyche—a seed requiring a soil and a climate that would soon be in a state of perfect preparation in fin-de-siècle Europe. If we do not behold Pip experiencing a revolution of ideas—one which would accompany the healing which he undergoes emotionally—it must be borne in mind that the publication of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams was fifty years away (and the perhaps even more relevant essay in this context—Civilization and its Discontents—was not published until 1930.) In other words, there simply was not yet available to Dickens the theoretical and terminological apparatus for the conceptual articulation of those unconscious processes, structural and dynamic features, pioneered by Freud, Jung, Adler, and their various students and followers. As Jung pointed out on a number of occasions, those thinkers, poets, and alchemists who, in their work, were concerned with unconscious phenomena (which certainly did not first begin with Freud and Co., but have existed, however unformulated in modern psychological terms, since the beginnings of human civilization) were obliged to resort to the language and conceptual tools afforded by myth, poetry, religion, philosophy, metaphysics, and morality. What is noteworthy in Great Expectations is that Dickens succeeded in capturing the phenomena of unconscious repression, projection of the “shadow” and “anima” archetypes, and other psychic processes without having the advantage of a theoretical framework or discipline with which he could organize and express these materials. If it is true that other writers such as Blake, Coleridge, Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, Melville, Hawthorne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche went to perhaps greater depths in their explorations of unconscious drives and determinants, Dickens must be included on the list of artists and thinkers whose work opened up the labyrinth that would be entered and systematically surveyed by Freud and the other depth psychologists.


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