“Mediating on the Low: A Darwinian Reading of Great Expectations” by Goldie Morgentaler

In “Mediating on the Low: A Darwinian Reading of Great Expectations”, Goldie Morgentaler suggests that while writing Great Expectations (1860-61), Charles Dickens was influenced by Charles Darwins’ The Origin of Species (1859). Morgentaler points out that this is the first novel in which Dickens does not use heredity as a determining factor in the formation of oneself. Pip’s formation of his identity is based more off of his environment than heredity which Morgentaler attributes to Darwin’s influence. For example, his experiences at Miss Havisham’s reflect a “survival” to fit-in a new environment that is very different from his own home. After fighting the “pale, young gentleman,” Pip is fearful that he will be punished by Miss Havisham. Instead, Pip continues to humor Miss Havisham in hopes of becoming a gentleman. Faced with Estella’s prejudice against him as a lower class individual, it is difficult for Pip to evolve because of the environment he belongs to. Morgentaler then further suggests that one can read Great Expectations through a Darwinian lens because it has three concepts with broad evolutionary implications. The first being the idea of the primitive or low and its’ relationship with “civilized society”. She says that the gentleman (Pip) and the convict (Magwitch) in the novel are both interdependent upon one another. The criminal represents the least developed aspects of human nature (the primitive) and civilized society evolves from them. Secondly, she then brings up the idea of adaptation. She says both Miss Havisham and Joe are examples of people not being able to adapt to their environment. One of the examples she gives for this is Joe being unable to cope with the rest of civilization and is only comfortable in his natural element at home which we see in his awkward conversation with Miss Havisham where he wouldn’t talk directly to her. Lastly, she refers to the conception of time as it is only moving toward the future. She says that Pip is never able to go back and correct his mistakes as time is always moving forward. For Pip to go back to where he came from and return to his relationship with Joe would be considered regressive. Pip represents the evolution of the human species away from its’ primitive origins. Although he expresses guilt for treating his family as inferior, he must accept his changing identity in society as part of survival. 

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