Analysing a passage

The question

Discuss the effects of the writing in the following passage, showing how far its concerns and methods are characteristic of the novel as a whole.

The passage

Imperceptibly I became conscious of a change in Biddy, however. Her shoes came up at the heel, her hair grew bright and neat, her hands were always clean. She was not beautiful—she was common and could not be like Estella—but she was pleasant and wholesome and sweet-tempered. She had not been with us more than a year (I remember her being newly out of mourning at the time it struck me) when I observed one evening that she had curiously thoughtful and attentive eyes; eyes that were very pretty and very good.
It came of my lifting up my own eyes from a task I was poring at—writing some passages from a book, to improve myself in two ways at once by a sort of stratagem—and seeing Biddy observant of what I was about. I laid down my pen, and Biddy stopped in her needlework without laying it down.
Biddy,' said I, ‘how do you manage it? Either I am very stupid, or you are very clever.'
‘What is it that I manage? I don't know,' returned Biddy, smiling.
She managed our whole domestic life and wonderfully too; but I did not mean that, though that made what I did mean, more surprising.
‘How do you manage, Biddy,' said I, ‘to learn everything that I learn, and always to keep up with me?' I was beginning to be rather vain of my knowledge, for I spent my birthday guineas on it, and set aside the greater part of my pocket-money for similar investment; though I have no doubt, now, that the little I knew was extremely dear at the price.
‘I might as well ask you,' said Biddy, ‘how you manage?'
‘No; because when I come in from the forge of a night, any one can see me turning to at it. But you never turn to at it, Biddy.'
‘I suppose I must catch it—like a cough,' said Biddy, quietly; and went on with her sewing.
Pursuing my idea as I leaned back in my wooden chair and looked at Biddy sewing away with her head on one side, I began to think her rather an extraordinary girl. For, I called to mind now, that she was equally accomplished in the terms of our trade, and the names of our different sorts of work, and our various tools. In short, whatever I knew, Biddy knew. Theoretically, she was already as good a blacksmith as I, or better.
‘You are one of those, Biddy,' said I, ‘who make the most of every chance. You never had a chance before you came here, and see how improved you are!'
Biddy looked at me for an instant and went on with her sewing. ‘I was your first teacher, though; wasn't I?' said she, as she sewed.
‘Biddy!' I exclaimed in amazement. ‘Why, you are crying!'
‘No I am not,' said Biddy, looking up and laughing. ‘What put that in your head?'
What could have put it in my head but the glistening of a tear as it dropped on her work? I sat silent, recalling what a drudge she had been until Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt successfully overcame that bad habit of living, so highly desirable to be got rid of by some people. I recalled the hopeless circumstances by which she had been surrounded in the miserable little shop and the miserable little noisy evening school, with that miserable old bundle of incompetence always to be dragged and shouldered. I reflected that even in those untoward times there must have been latent in Biddy what was now developing, for, in my first uneasiness and discontent I had turned to her for help, as a matter of course. Biddy sat quietly sewing, shedding no more tears, and while I looked at her and thought about it all, it occurred to me that perhaps I had not been sufficiently grateful to Biddy. I might have been too reserved, and should have patronized her more (though I did not use that precise word in my meditations), with my confidence.

Great Expectations, Ch. 17; Vol. 1, Ch. 17

The analysis

Before you begin writing, you should read the passage at least twice:

  • in the first reading, you should try to gain a sense of what is happening in the passage and recall its context in the novel
  • on the second reading, you should begin to underline or otherwise mark significant words and phrases and begin to jot down some of the headings under which you will organize your answer, always referring back to the question
  • by this time you should be ready to plan your answer
  • you may now wish to read the passage once more to make sure that you have not missed anything important.
  1. The passage occurs towards the end of the novel's first volume. Pip is well established in his apprenticeship to Joe, but continues to pursue his ambitions to improve himself socially and become more educated. Mrs. Joe has been attacked and Biddy has moved into the forge cottage to keep house for Joe and Pip and tonurse Mrs. Joe. The first section of the story is moving towards its climax: very shortly after this scene, Pip will hear about his expectations, which seem to represent the realization of all the ambitions mentioned in this passage.

  2. This scene tells us a good deal about the relationship between Pip and Biddy. Their situations are in one sense comparable, in that both have been deprived of their parents and have been brought up by a relative (there is also a parallel with Estella here – although Miss Havisham is not related to her, she is a substitute mother). Pip has grown up in better circumstances than Biddy, who has been virtually enslaved to Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt and he is right to observe that her move to the forge has been a kind of liberation, which has enabled her to ‘improve' herself.

  3. Pip observes various changes in Biddy's appearance and notes her qualities: she is pleasant, wholesome and sweet-tempered, has thoughtful and pretty eyes, and is a model of industry and efficiency. The problem is that, because he compares every young woman with Estella, these estimable qualities are devalued in his eyes. Indeed, his astonishment at her capacity for learning and hard work is partly based on this comparison and partly on his sense of her ability to make the best of her good fortune in moving to the forge. In this respect, he is implicitly comparing her to himself, also ready to seize every chance of self-improvement. The difference is that, whereas Biddy gets on with her life quietly and modestly, Pip is much more determined about his desire to rise socially and educationally. He spends money on his books and devotes his leisure hours to study, though his efforts are rather random and undirected.

  4. Pip initiates all their spoken exchanges and Biddy says very little when she does speak, her replies are very short and appear to be non-committal, usually encouraging Pip to explain himself rather, than initiating any new topics of her own. The reader, however, is likely to pick up unspoken undertones in their exchanges, which say a good deal about Pip's treatment of Biddy and the extent of her understanding and judgment of his behaviour. She often looks at him without speaking, or concentrates on her sewing, as if to avoid a direct answer to his remarks. Her feelings are conveyed by her facial expressions – smiles and tears – and by her bodily movements. These details, unnoticed or wrongly interpreted by Pip, encourage readers to make their own judgments on the situation. Biddy's behaviour may suggest that, at this stage in the story, she is in love with Pip.

  5. The nearest Biddy comes to a sharp response is, when Pip has wondered at her ability to learn without appearing to study, she replies, ‘I suppose I must catch it—like a cough.' This makes it very clear that she is conscious of how Pip is patronizing her, both by his astonishment that good housekeeping and education should be found together, and also by his assumption that although he may achieve his social ambitions, Biddy will remain at the forge, in very much the same state. There are also elements of sexism and snobbery in Pip's attitude – he does not expect a woman, especially a working-class woman, to possess this capacity for learning. Later in the passage, Biddy gently rebukes him when she reminds him that she was his first teacher – and it is the memory of that time that makes her cry. Pip notices her tears but does not explore the reason why she is crying.

  6. In this respect, the passage contains a number of narrative ironies. Pip spends money on his education, which he describes as a kind of ‘investment'. As yet he does not know that, far away in Australia, Magwitch is accumulating wealth for exactly the same purpose. Supported by Magwitch's money, Pip will soon leave the forge and Biddy will remain; but Pip will come to regret his departure and the expectations that enabled him to leave, while Biddy will discover happiness by remaining where she is. By the time Pip has come to appreciate the true value of Biddy's qualities and decided to return to the village and ask her to marry him, it is too late: she is now occupying the idyllic world of the forge, from which Pip is forever excluded.

  7. As well as the dialogue, the passage contains several paragraphs recording Pip's private thoughts, and these are a mixture of his impressions at the time and his later reflections. The young and the old Pip are therefore simultaneously present in the passage, so that while we have the immediate reactions of the young man, the elder man is at hand to offer a kind of muted commentary on his behaviour. In phrases like ‘to improve myself in two ways at once by a sort of stratagem', ‘that made what I did mean, more surprising', ‘I was beginning to be rather vain of my knowledge', ‘though I have no doubt, now', and especially, ‘though I did not use that precise word in my meditations', we can hear the voice of a more mature and wiser narrator. In this respect, the elder Pip uses humour, but it is of a more regretful and less openly hilarious kind than in other episodes containing his younger self.

  8. The passage is important in the novel as a whole because it represents a stage in Pip's development, when he is acquiring more self-confidence about his social ambitions, but is not sensitive enough to understand how the voicing of those ambitions could be hurtful to Biddy. By the end of the novel, Pip has come to understand how badly he has treated her, and it is in relation to his ingratitude, snobbishness and offhandedness towards Biddy and Joe that he feels most guilt. It is his desire to expiate that guilt that brings him back to the forge at the end of the book.

Comments on the analysis

  1. This paragraph places the passage in its context in the novel. Without recounting ‘the story so far', it gives some idea of the events leading up to the scene. Also, given the subject of Pip and Biddy's conversation and Pip's thoughts, it states briefly what is about to happen in the story.

  2. By commenting on the relationship between Biddy and Pip and the similarities in their early lives, this paragraph shows how the passage is important to the novel's themes of abandoned children, absent parents and the changing chances of life. Pip's chance comes in the form of money, Biddy's as aresult of a murderous attack on a neighbour.

  3. This paragraph moves on to comment on the nature of their encounter and the way in which there is a distance between Pip's ability to note and appreciate Biddy's good qualities. It also notes the effect of Pip's obsession with Estella and his bumptiousness about his educational aspirations.

  4. The discussion of Dickens' handling of dialogue in this paragraph points out how the author is able to imply more than he states and to involve the reader in the creation of meaning from the text.

  5. This paragraph offers more detailed analysis of Biddy's behaviour and spoken responses and points outhow, even in a first-person narrative, Dickens is able to represent the feelings of characters other than Pip.

  6. As the plot of the novel unfolds, the narrative ironies multiply and this paragraph shows how such ironies are operating even at this comparatively early stage in the story. The scene will continue toresonate in the narrative as Pip becomes increasingly conscious of his guilt in rejecting those who have loved him best.

  7. This paragraph shows how the passage is characteristic of the narrative technique of Great Expectations, by pointing out the simultaneous presence of the voices of the young and elder Pip.

  8. The final paragraph sums up the significance of the passage in the novel as a whole and how it is important in helping us to understand the moral journey that Pip undertakes.

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