Moral structure: Great Expectations as pilgrimage

The idea of pilgrimage

If you have also been studying Chaucer as part of your course you will be familiar with the idea of pilgrimage:

  • pilgrimage – a journey undertaken for religious reasons, usually to visit a shrine or other holy place – was popular in the Middle Ages
  • in The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387), Chaucer depicts a varied group of people assembling to journey to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury
  • the pilgrims can be seen as a representative group of people from the society with which Chaucer was familiar, exhibiting all humanity's virtues and vices
  • in social terms pilgrimages offered a rare opportunity to travel
  • in spiritual terms they symbolized the stumbling life-long journey of imperfect people towards death; sinning and failing but also praying and journeying in faith.

Dickens was certainly familiar with Chaucer's uncompleted body of tales, but his immediate model for Pip's pilgrimage was a book published almost three hundred years later.

John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress, 1678

Pilgrim's ProgressBunyan, who was a dissenter from the structure and practices of the Church of England, wrote this book while imprisoned for his religious beliefs:

  • it tells the story of Christian, who sets out from his home in search of the City of God and the promise of salvation
  • on the way he encounters a number of characters who either help him or try to hinder him or divert him from his journey
  • it is written in very clear and direct language, which draws heavily on the Bible (most editions give biblical references in the margin)
  • it became one of the most popular books in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and was regarded by many Christians – especially those in the nonconformist sects - as one of the few books other than the Bible that it was acceptable for the faithful to read
  • it was thought suitable for children, because it tells an exciting story and contains many vividly drawn characters with memorable names like Greatheart, Giant Despair and Mr. Worldly-Wise
  • although it is a religious allegory its action takes place in a social world that Bunyan's readers would have been able to identify with their own
  • in this respect, it was a great influence on the development of the realist novel
  • Bunyan's book describes one of the most common narrative structures, that of the journey
  • it became one of the most important models for nineteenth-century fiction: Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), for instance, follows Bunyan's structure.

Pip's pilgrimage

It is not difficult to identify the main stages of Pip's pilgrimage:

  • although his childhood is hard, Pip is safe and secure at the forge
  • his visits to Satis House make him dissatisfied and ashamed of his home
  • his acquisition of wealth fulfils his social aspirations
  • he goes to London, where he encounters human weakness and vice
  • he also meets people, such as Herbert and Matthew Pocket, who try to help him and point him in the right direction
  • he goes through a period of materialism, snobbery and selfishness
  • nonetheless, he retains some good qualities: he is faithful in his love for Estella (even if his motives in wishing to marry her are not entirely noble) and he helps Herbert
  • his moral regeneration continues when Magwitch reappears: this is a real test of his compassion and gratitude
  • by the end of the novel, impoverished and humbled, he has learned to love Magwitch and Miss Havisham and to regret his bad treatment of Joe and Biddy
  • he now realizes that the forge is a kind of Eden which he cannot now re-enter.

Pip's pilgrimage is a secularized version of Bunyan's:

  • although The Pilgrim's Progress contains many realistic setting and details, it takes place in a world that is sometimes parallel to,rather than identical to, the ‘real' world;
    • BUT in Dickens the setting (whatever symbolic significance there may be in certain locations, see also: Imagery and symbolism) is uncompromisingly realistic and the action always takes place in a recognisable social world
  • in Bunyan, the names and frequent biblical references leave the reader in no doubt that this is a religious allegory
    • BUT in Dickens, although the comic names may say something about the characters – Hubble, Pumblechook, Pocket, they are not specifically religious or spiritual in their associations
  • the end of Pilgrim's Progress is emphatically taking Christian to the next world and his heavenly reward:
    • BUT Pip's reward is not heavenly glory: rather he learns the importance of human love and accepts a reduced station in life earning a humble but honest living; some readings of the novel also assume that he finally wins Estella's affection.
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