In Great Expectations (1861) by Charles Dickens, the most noteworthy relationship is the relationship between Pip, the protagonist of the novel, and his father-figure Joe, the humble blacksmith.
Throughout the course of the text, this relationship evolves from a warm, brotherly relationship, forged in the fires of adversity, to a distant and fractured one, caused by the physical and emotional rift between the two.
Finally, it comes back around in a full circle at the end of the novel, where their relationship is mended when Pip realises his ingratitude. This relationship is crucial because it illuminates key messages, such as the importance of friendship, gratitude, and loyalty, and how essential they are to human nature.
In the early parts of the novel, Pip and Joe bond over the tribulations of their upbringings. In the passage we learn about the tragedy of Joe’s childhood, from his abusive father to his lack of education, and we learn about Pip’s suffering on a daily basis.
We also learn that when Joe had courted Pip’s sister, who was bringing the orphaned Pip up “by hand,” Joe had told her to “bring the poor little child,” an act of deep generosity and kindness. On hearing this, Pip bursts into tears and Joe reassures him with the line, “Ever the best of friends; ain’t us, Pip?” From the evidence presented here, Dickens wants us to understand that the bond between Pip and Joe was forged in the fires of adversity.
Both endured hardship as children, and in Joe’s case the hardship he suffered as a child meant that he wanted to give Pip a better upbringing than he had. In this respect, the relationship between Pip and Joe is important because it highlights how friendships are so often built on shared experiences of suffering.
When Pip’s fate dramatically changes and a mysterious benefactor sponsors his transformation into a gentleman, Pip’s new life in London has a devastating effect on his relationship with Joe. In advance of Joe’s visit to London, Pip confesses that he feels “considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity.”
When the visit doesn’t go well, Joe realises he is a fish out of water and that he and Pip are “not two figures to be together in London.” After several years, Pip is unable to reconcile his new position in the upper class with his original lower-class trajectory. Joe also tells Pip that he does not blame him for the strained, awkward exchange, and instead blames it on the natural divisions of life, which, according to Joe, “must come and must be met as they come.”
Joe shows his essential goodness and loyalty by not blaming the discussion on Pip but the unalterable nature of the human condition. Before Pip’s move to London, Pip treats Joe “no more than (his) equal”, from which we can infer they share the same amount of power. This cannot be applied anymore, as both the physical and emotional gap has increased between the two, a by-product of class differences.
Pip’s arrival into the life of a gentleman is tempered by his relentless intolerance of his past, something Joe is a big part of. Pip’s lavish and carefree lifestyle, his clothing, and his condescending manner all pile-up to create a palpable difference in their social class, which is the biggest thing that drives them apart.
When Joe visits Pip at the later end of the novel, Pip repents his patronizing treatment of Joe, and demands him to “tell me of my ingratitude.” Joe, true to his nature, is too sweet to do this and replies with the line, “you and me were ever friends.”
Pip realises he has been in pursuit of gentlemanship when the quintessential example of a true gentleman in the novel has been standing in front of him the whole time. Pip, in all his manhood, reverts to his childhood when he becomes sick, and describes himself as a “small helpless creature” and “falls into the old ways” by becoming dependent on Joe, a strict contrast to his attitude towards him during his time spent in London.
Joe, however, does not change, and remains “just as simply faithful, and as simply right,” the only character in the novel who has remained constant. With this, it is proven to the readers, through the use of Pip, that social class is in no way a criterion of happiness or morality, another important teaching that this relationship sheds light on.
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