Charles Dickens remains one of the most prominent and certainly the most commercially successful literary artist of nineteenth century England. In addition, Dickens enjoyed a large readership in America. The author’s success on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean stems from his entertaining literary style and his deep respect for social values and the human condition he encountered and incorporated into his writing. Dickens was a prolific writer who drew upon his personal experiences and integrated a certain comic pathos in his writing to delight his reading audience.
Dickens can be aptly termed a chronicler of English life as his novels and stories accurately reflect various societal ills and joys of both urban and suburban England. Indeed, his novels and stories continue to amuse and sadden readers of all ages today. This unit will attempt to introduce Charles Dickens and his work to middle school students. The primary focus of this unit is to examine Great Expectations as a novel rich in familial relationships.
The novel will be read and studied as a myriad of interacting families, and hopefully these insights will be suitably translated to my students in such a manner as to heighten their awareness of familial relationships they encounter on a daily basis. Great Expectations will allow my students to experience glimpses of nineteenth century English family life as Dickens most capably perceived it. The questions and concerns evoked by the novel will also cause the students to reflect upon family concerns of twentieth century America.
Although Dickens was one of eight children and fathered ten himself making him somewhat of a viable source concerning family relationships, the reader is cautioned not to expect only a discussion of the nuclear family from this unit but also a wide array of family-like relationships which are characteristic in Dickens’ writing. Great Expectations is a novel of hope and heartbreak, identity and intrigue. The story focuses upon a central character, Pip, who relates his adventures to the reader through Dickens’ stylistic use of the first person point of view. Pip is raised by his sister and her husband, Joe Gargery.
Pip’s parents had already died and were buried in the graveyard by the marshes when we first meet him at the age of seven. The reader learns much from Dickens in the opening scenes of the story by his treatment of the family relationship which had been of primary importance to his central character. Dickens’ genius also relies on Pip’s heritage to advance the plot of the novel since Pip was visiting the graves of his father and mother when he meets the escaped convict, Abel Magwitch, who is later to become his anonymous benefactor and a character of great importance and concern to Pip and the story.
Family life for young Pip was somewhat of a challenge in the Gargery household. Mrs. Joe, Pip’s sister, is considerably older than her brother and treats both him and her husband as the chief chores of her life. Mrs. Joe is dominant and condescending toward her family and very vocal about the effort she has had to expend in order to maintain it. In short, Mrs. Joe rules with an iron hand and is not against using it to discipline her much younger brother. Joe Gargery, however, is a good, honest man who is a blacksmith by trade. Joe has little say in his household and is not a character of any literate accomplishment.
Joe represents the average man of nineteenth century England who toiled in a blue collar trade by day and trotted off to the local tavern by night to socialize with his friends and neighbors and to just maybe get away from his wife for a while. Joe and Pip had a lot in common and, needless to say, were best of friends. Dickens’ effective use of Joe Gargery in his story transcends far beyond the importance of his trade which is important because it presents the file Pip gives Magwitch to break his bonds and, later, the inevitable, albeit short-lived, circumstance of apprenticeship for young Pip.
Joe Gargery, is Pip’s conscience throughout the novel. Joe represents purity and honesty and innocence and reminders of these qualities to Pip as he begins his ascendancy as a gentleman. Joe is Pip’s link with his past, and, as is oftentimes the result, can be a source of embarrassment and guilt for Pip even though he does nothing but live a good life and harms no one. Great Expectations is a myriad of familial situations that not only provide background for the reader but also help develop the plot and circumstances that affect our young hero, Pip.
Dickens uses the thread of family to weave his story into an effective entertainment. Pip’s immediate family of Mrs. Joe and Joe Gargery merely sets the stage for the reader as to the importance that familial ties will have throughout the remainder of the novel. A central character in Great Expectations to whom Pip makes frequent visits and through whom Dickens continues his emphasis upon familial relationships is Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham lives with an adopted daughter, Estella, about whom more will be said later.
Miss Havisham is a matriarchal person whose bitter attitude toward men stems from her ill-fated wedding plans many years earlier. Disappointment reigns in the Havisham household as all the clocks in the house are stopped at the precise moment that the wedding plans disintegrated. A wedding cake remains untouched but crumbling from the passage of time. Miss Havisham, herself, wears the yellowed wedding gown and moves by wheelchair from room to room never venturing to enjoy the light of day. Miss Havisham is a rich woman. Dickens makes use of this fact on several different levels each of which contributes greatly to his story.
First, of course, Pip’s expectations are certainly on the rise when he is invited to play at Miss Havisham’s house. Dickens paints Miss Havisham’s family portrait as a collection of greedy relatives waiting for her demise so they can inherit her fortune. These relatives include Cousin Raymond and Camilla, Georgiana, and Sarah Pocket. Dickens’ use of these characters shows us jealousy and greed in full view as well as providing for some humorous scenes between these fortune hunters and Miss Havisham who is very well aware of their designs. The evening that Mr.
Jaggers informs Pip that he is to become a gentleman thanks to the desire of an anonymous benefactor leads the reader through Pip to believe that Miss Havisham’s money is the cause of his good fortune. Pip firmly believes that his sojourn to London is the sole responsibility of the kindly old matriarch. While in London, Pip learns of Miss Havisham’s ill-fated past from Herbert Pocket. We see that her money played an important role in the episode of her impending wedding and learn that the wedding was only a part of an elaborate swindle by her suitor and her half-brother.
Finally, it is Miss Havisham’s money solicited by Pip which enables Herbert Pocket to become a full partner in Mr. Clarriker’s shipping business. This totally unselfish act by Pip essentially marks his arrival into maturity and his coming of age as a gentleman. For the reader it is difficult not to admire Pip for the remainder of the story after we read of this culminating act of kindness toward his friend, Herbert. In essence, this deed erases earlier visions of Pip’s snobbery toward Joe and his background in the mind of the reader and remains the first instance of Pip performing a function through fruition in the novel.
This scene, in fact, sets the tone for the rest of Dickens’ tale as all unfinished business matters are subsequently completed by the author from this moment to the end of the story. Great Expectations is a novel rich in emotions not the least of which is love. Pip’s major love interest through the story is Estella. When we first meet Estella at Miss Havisham’s she is at once very beautiful and also very cruel to our hero. Pip is smitten by Estella’s loveliness but, until the end of the novel, his love for her is largely unrequited.
Pip suffers much anguish throughout the story because of this love interest since his persistence toward Estella never really gets rewarded until the last pages of the novel. Estella is a major character in Great Expectations whose importance in the novel far outweighs her appearances to the reader. Dickens effectively weaves Estella into the story through a series of cameo experiences which, for the most part, play on Pip’s mind and evoke sympathy toward him by the reader.
Each time we meet Estella she will say something to Pip or perform some act of discourtesy that will send shivers up our spine and cause us to caution Pip mentally to leave her alone and to try to forget her. When we learn that Estella’s attitude is really the result of her tutelage by Miss Havisham, we may, at best, have mixed feelings about the girl. Dickens does such a superb job at painting Estella’s portrait early on in the novel that it becomes difficult for us to really have strong feelings of affection toward her.
Any sympathy or sense of attraction we may feel for Estella is primarily out of respect for Pip. Estella as a love interest in Great Expectations certainly is a matter of importance throughout the story, but Dickens uses her character in other ways to effectively spin his tale. First, Estella in the Havisham household and her attitude toward men nurtured by the jilted matriarch who is so central to the novel completes Dickens’ characterization of the elderly would-be bride as a symbol of antifamily.
It is credit to the genius of Dickens that in a novel where plot depends on bloodlines and familial relationships, a central character like Miss Havisham would have a familial relationship with an adopted daughter, Estella, on one level and would represent, through her guidance of Estella and her memory of her wedding that never took place, a figure that holds love in no prominence. This, coupled with Miss Havisham’s understandable disdain for her greedy relatives mentioned above, allows Dickens to create a character that remains a symbol of opposition to much of what we consider sacred at the center of his novel.
Estella’s bloodline is another instance of how Dickens is able to intertwine family relationships with plot in Great Expectations. Estella is the daughter of Abel Magwitch, Pip’s convict in the opening scene and his subsequent benefactor, and Molly, Mr. Jaggers’ housekeeper. Here we see how Dickens is able to illustrate a familial relationship between three people who will never meet in the context of the story and yet our young protagonist, Pip, not only learns about this ill-fated family but ultimately knows more about them than they do themselves.
Magwitch’s importance as Pip’s benefactor and Estella’s father points once again to Dickens’ use of multi-dimensional characters in the novel. Likewise, Molly’s role as a servant to Jaggers, who once defended her for murder, and her maternal link to Estella shows that even a very minor character can be made multidimensional by Dickens. One solitary character in Great Expectations who really experiences no familial relationship himself is the lawyer, Jaggers.
Although Jaggers is without family, he certainly should be mentioned here as he is also one of Dickens’ keys to the novel whose actions affect many of its major characters. One can easily understand Jaggers’ importance in Great Expectations through his roles as lawyer to Miss Havisham, confidante of Abel Magwitch as Pip’s beneficiary, defender of Molly as well as her employer, and employer of Mr. Wemmick who represents probably the most serene and settled familial relationship in the entire novel. John Wemmick, a clerk in Jaggers’ London law office, essentially is Joe Gargery’s professional counterpart in Great Expectations.
Whereas Joe is a blacksmith, uneducated, and Pip’s conscience in the novel, Wemmick is a man of letters who is able to guide Pip as well as separate his occupation from his home life totally. While Joe works at his forge all day which is at his residence and then trots off to the Jolly Bargemen for his relaxation, Wemmick commutes from his home to Jaggers’ office and then returns to his Castle where he cares for his Aged Parent and occasionally entertains his love interest, Miss Skiffins. Wemmick is a homebody at heart who enjoys refuge at his residence and takes great pains to never bring the office home with him.
When Wemmick finally does marry Miss Skiffins, he is careful to let his best man, Pip, be warned not to let Jaggers know for fear that his employer might think marriage be too unprofessional an occurrence in which to partake. A sharp contrast to the Wemmick home but a family that looms as the novel’s best example of a nuclear family is the household of Matthew and Belinda Pocket. This grouping may have all the characteristics of a complete family with both parents and a slew of children, but it remains a comical farce when compared to some of the other familial relationships in Great Expectations.
Matthew Pocket is another of Miss Havisham’s relatives although he does not fit into the mold of greed as the others whom we met earlier. Matthew wants nothing to do with the matriarch’s money and takes great pains to stay away from her household although she is saving a prime spot for him to stand around her coffin when her date with death is to come. Matthew is Pip’s tutor and besides his immediate family the household thus includes Bentley Drummle and Startop, two other educational clients, who later figure quite prominently in Pip’s life. What really makes the Matthew Pocket household a travesty is Belinda Pocket, his wife.
Belinda has her head in the clouds and is more concerned with “family” rather than her family. To this end the Matthew Pockets need two nursemaids to care for their home and children. There is no serenity or sense of familial love here—only mass confusion at its best. There are a number of other various familial relationships which permeate the pages of Great Expectations. Some of these are merely alluded to, and others play significant albeit brief roles in the novel. Such familial relationships include the Herbert Pocket—Clara Barley—Mr. Barley grouping where Clara cares for her father while Herbert cares for her.
Another relationship which can be described as fraternal exists between Pip and Herbert Pocket who is the closest example of a brother that Pip has in the story. The ill-fated matchup between Estella and Bentley Drummle puts Pip’s designs on hold for a while. Mr. Wopsle and his great aunt and her granddaughter, Biddy, is a family that plays an integral part in Pip’s upbringing as well as giving the reader an example in the character of Mr. Wopsle of Dickens, himself, who had a passion for the stage but who would have fared much better than Wopsle. Also, there are villagers such as Joe’s Uncle Pumblechook and Mr. nd Mrs. Hubble who can compound whatever guilt Pip feels upon embarking on his expectations. A listing of all familial relationships apparent in the novel will follow. One final family which needs to be mentioned here is the Joe Gargery second marriage to Biddy and its product, young Pip. Throughout the novel Joe and Biddy represent all that is good and natural and honest. Both are reminders to Pip of his roots, and both remain his conscience in the novel. When Pip visits at the end of the story what he actually meets is himself had he not had the opportunity to become a gentleman.
Dickens seems quite clear here to be applauding old values and to be making a statement that people should never be ashamed to stay who they are as that is the easiest way to contentment. In effect, the novel comes full circle when our hero takes his namesake down to the graveyard in the marshes. Clearly, Great Expectations is a novel of family and familial relationships which encompasses all the feelings and emotions that can influence family life in Dickens’ nineteenth century England or in our students’ twentieth century America.
It is a novel of identity and the havoc that these emotions, both joyous and painful, can rain upon someone who is trying to find his niche in society. Our students face the question of identity daily, and, not unlike Pip, this experience is heightened by the familial relationships they encounter throughout the years. Starting with the eighth grade academic year our students are asked to make decisions concerning their future. Oftentimes the way is not that clear and can become quite encumbered by familial pressures and experiences.
A novel such as Great Expectations read with respect to familial relationships can help students understand these pressures and experiences more fully and, as a consequence, help them find their identity and their own great expectations. This unit is purposely designed to allow for maximum flexibility by any of its users. The following suggested activities for discussion and writing are merely my own preference as to the focus the unit should assume. These suggestions, however, are not exclusive, and future users of this unit are encouraged to adapt the unit to their own teaching style and level of students.
My focus group of students that I will use the unit with are eighth graders of average to above average ability. The eighth grade is traditionally a challenging and, at times, perplexing dilemma for our students as they are preparing to make the transition from grade school to high school. There are decisions to be made concerning the choice of a high school which bears heavily on the decision as to what future career might be suitable for the individual student. All too often my students have no frame of reference for these decisions and, in effect, are searching for their own identity.
This set of circumstances makes Great Expectations a perfect novel for use in the eighth grade. Students should readily be able to identify with Pip as he makes the transition from a youngster to an apprentice to a gentleman. Our eighth grade students experience familial pressures daily as did Pip in the Gargery household. Our eighth grade students are subject to peer pressure not entirely unlike the pressure Pip felt as he embarks upon his program of cultural refinement. Indeed, eighth grade is often the awakening in our students of love interests with the opposite sex similar to Pip’s being smitten by the beautiful Estella.
I plan to use this unit within the confines of a single marking period ranging from eight to ten weeks. A schedule of independent reading will be devised depending upon the ability of the particular class experiencing the unit. This reading will be supplemented by reading in class and by my reading to the class. At least one day each week will be devoted to discussion of prior reading and will be the impetus for writing assignments that will be scheduled. Once again the time period for teaching this unit need not be strictly followed as more able classes may proceed more quickly and less able groups slower.
The user of this unit should monitor the progress of it by spot checking the assigned reading through a series of questions related to the story line. Such a strategy will allow the teacher to gauge which students are doing the reading while assuring that those who are not at least have an idea of how the story is progressing. A study of Great Expectations as a novel of familial relationships provides a variety of topics for extended classroom discussions since the book raises a number of key questions as Pip seeks to find his niche in life.
One such question deals with the role of Miss Havisham who is so very central to the plot of Dickens’ tale. Although the novel is rich in familial relationships, Miss Havisham is unmarried as a result of her ill-fated affair mentioned earlier. This fact, in itself, does not make her an anti-family figure. Rather, it is her tutelage of the young and beautiful Estella whom she raises as an extension of her own bitter attitude toward men. Estella is openly encouraged to break men’s hearts as Miss Havisham’s own heart was broken when her wedding plans diminished so abruptly. Why would Dickens use such a character at the core of his novel?
One could argue that Miss Havisham is a tool of Dickens’ then developing literary art and merely a vehicle to add a certain mystique and intrigue to the life of the novel’s hero. It also could be said, however, that the matriarchal figure of Miss Havisham as an anti-family figure merely asserts Dickens’ view of the importance of the family in life. Time has stopped for Miss Havisham both literally and figuratively. Without the hope and promise of a familial relationship, Miss Havisham remains a character of tragic consequence who can not achieve the fulfillment of her once cherished dream.
Students should be encouraged to discuss the role of Miss Havisham in the novel. Such a discussion should lead students to a realization of the importance of familial love and caring and how these familial qualities can contribute to their own growth and maturation. Closely aligned but probably easier to understand than the spectre of Miss Havisham at the core of Great Expectations is the absence, for the most part, of the nuclear family in the novel. The only glimpses Dickens affords us are the highly comical Matthew Pockets and the Joe and Biddy relationship at the end of the novel.
This revelation should be particularly realistic for our students since one parent families are very often the norm in an urban setting such as New Haven. A discussion of the term nuclear family should be introduced during the study of the novel. Students should be encouraged to discuss any advantages or disadvantages a member of a nuclear family might experience. Is a nuclear family really that important to its individual members? A writing assignment where each student remarks about the strengths of his own family will be suggested following this discussion.
We can assume if we read the story of Dickens’ life that he had much respect for the family unit. Dickens was one of eight children and fathered ten himself. Dickens realized, however, through personal experience that the family unit may oftentimes become fragmented. Certainly, there are no clearer indications of this than in Great Expectations where Pip’s immediate family is the result of the death of his parents and the Magwitch-Molly union along with Estella is separated by tragic circumstances. These two families should be discussed in light of their importance in the novel.
Any study which deals with eighth grade students reading literature that focuses upon the search for identity must necessarily concern itself with the students’ own future and careers. Several diverse professions are highlighted in Great Expectations that range from blue collar trades to white collar professionals. No clearer example of a blue collar occupation exists than in Joe Gargery’s station in life as a blacksmith. Joe labors at his forge daily creating and repairing implements which he has no cause to use himself.
The more fortunate citizens who own horses come to Joe so that he may shoe their symbols of success. The landed property owners use Joe to repair farming implements. Even the soldiers from the prison ship need Joe to repair the manacles before they resume their search. Joe’s occupation is certainly important and useful in his society although he enjoys no special significance or lofty stature in the community. Joe labors daily in a tedious manner right at his home thus making his jaunts to the Jolly Bargemen all the more pleasurable.
In contrast to Joe Gargery’s trade is the position of John Wemmick who serves as Jaggers’ clerk in the law office. Wemmick commutes to work each day, handles all the clerical duties in the office such as record keeping and screening Jaggers’ clients, and then returns home each evening to a charming abode which he lovingly calls his castle. Wemmick is able to make work and home life two very distinct experiences unlike Joe who toils in the same place he lives. Wemmick also enjoys a certain notoriety since clients and potential clients of Jaggers view him as a direct link to the prominent lawyer.
While Joe works with his hands, Wemmick works with his mind. Each has his pleasures in life, and each is a major influence on Pip in the novel. Dickens takes the world of work one step further with his inclusion of Jaggers in Great Expectations. Jaggers is certainly the most successful character in the novel in terms of an occupation. He is a lawyer, a paid confidante and advisor, and a manipulator who can successfully defend seemingly guilty clients through cunning and guile.
Dickens makes it quite clear that Jaggers performs no task without just compensation. Jaggers is a professional who can pick and choose his clients unlike Joe and Wemmick who are both subservient either to the public or to an employer. Jaggers’ only allegiance is to his clients or rather the fees his clients pay for the benefit of his judicial brilliance. In stark contrast to Joe and Wemmick, however, Jaggers has no family. His housekeeper, Molly, is a former client whom he saved from the gallows.
Everything Jaggers does is job related. He is the consummate professional although he seemingly attains his stature at the expense of not having a private life—a tavern or a castle as a means of escape. Students will be asked to discuss their views on these three levels of work in relation to their somewhat yet unformed ideas of what careers they might explore. The advantages and disadvantages of each job will be weighed. We will examine the responsibilities each of the characters have to the public.
Since the major thrust of the unit deals with questions of family, the impact each character’s occupation has upon his family or private life will be explored. Students will be encouraged to compare other occupations to the ones read about in the novel and to develop a working list of different job categories. In essence, this portion of the unit might exist as a launching pad for my students to experience career exploration and better equip them to make a more conscious choice of a high school to attend the following year.
Charles Dickens’ great popularity on both sides of the Atlantic can be attributed in part to the form in which his work was generally presented to the reading public. Dickens released his novels and stories through serialization using English periodicals such as Bentley’s Miscellany, Household Words, and All the Year Round as vehicles. Since Dickens was a master storyteller, he knew how to intrigue his readers by ending each serialized segment at such a moment so as to leave them virtually breathless until the following publication of the periodical reached the sellers.
Monetary profit was always a concern of Dickens, and he was thus able to gauge the popularity of his work in progress on a weekly basis. Another factor which contributed to Dickens’ popularity and wide readership was his periodic condescension to giving public readings of his published works in his later years. Once again Dickens’ goal of being commercially successful played an important role here as his financial solvency was a factor in every literary enterprise he undertook. Dickens would pack the theaters and halls to the rafters for these public presentations which would last some several hours.
During these readings Dickens would read excerpted material from his writing and deliver it in such a way as to highlight his own dramatic personality as an accomplished thespian—a career he certainly could have made illustrious. The serialization of his novels and the subsequent public readings of them by Dickens prompt this unit to attempt an additional task. I intend to draw upon other notable masterpieces by Dickens to further highlight family relationships of nineteenth century England and the brilliance of his writing.
These additional works from which I hope to take excerpts and read aloud to my students include the highly autobiographical David Copperfield, the endearing Oliver Twist, the socially conscious Bleak House, and the time-honored classic, A Christmas Carol, which will not only be read in its entirety but will be explored in comparison and contrast to Great Expectations. In addition to this complete reading of A Christmas Carol and various excerpts from the other novels, I plan to show various visual representations of Dickens’ work including the 1946 movie of Great Expectations.
I firmly believe that this method of concentrating on one theme, familial relationships, provided by one author, Charles Dickens, through a reading of Great Expectations and excerpts from his other stories will provide a worthwhile experience for my students. The use of this unit will afford teachers the opportunity to introduce one of the world’s great literary artists to their students in a relevant way that should pique students’ interest and cause them to consider not only their family unit complete with benefits and problems but also their future as they prepare to take that very first step toward focusing upon their own identity.