“I am ignorant and backward.”: The Possibility of Progress in Great Expectations

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Carolyn S. Gonzalez


Dickens’s call for improvement pervades Great Expectations, a novel that uses Pip’s journey into
adulthood to create a story equal parts bildungsroman and examination of class stagnation.
Dickens highlights deficits in London’s human condition, questioning what, if anything, can be
done to improve it. A frequent critic of Victorian educational systems, Dickens returns to this theme
by creating and shattering Pip’s ‘expectations’ to highlight what he deems false forms of improvement.
Pip laments that it is “a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home,” yet his transformation into
a scholar reshapes him as mechanical and unsympathetic; he distances himself from Joe and his
lowly family (Dickens 1999, 89). Hence, Dickens reveals his non-example of progress while veiling
his definition of personal and societal improvement. By focusing on Pip’s transition from “a common
laboring-boy” into an “oncommon scholar,” Dickens’s call for the improvement of London’s human
condition through his demand for educational reform appears. However, he pushes beyond this
in Great Expectations. The changes Dickens defines are physical, visceral interactions in moments
of hardship, suffering, and most notably, at the time of one’s death. London’s ‘improvement’ relies on
a return to imaginative and sympathetic educators and students alike.

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How to Cite
Gonzalez, C. S. (2021). “I am ignorant and backward.”: The Possibility of Progress in Great Expectations. Humanities Bulletin, 4(1), 292–301. Retrieved from http://www.journals.lapub.co.uk/index.php/HB/article/view/1992