Author Archives: Rachel Campbell

Modern Critics’ Assessment of Pip in the Dual Role of the Narrator & Protagonist

Written by Kelsey Teglash and co-written by Rachel Campbell

Group members: Kelsey Teglash, Rachel Campbell, Peter Cala, John Panus, and Nikkel Gohel

David Parossiens essay “’If You Knew all My Story’… The Rhetoric of Pip’s Tale” discusses how Dickens cleverly uses Pip’s first person narration to tell his story with a perspective that is “detached and generally distanced from the matter he tells”. As both the novel’s protagonist and narrator Pip takes on the dual responsibility of moving the plot forward through his actions as well as shaping the perception of the reader through his narration. With this in mind, Pip can be seen as two separate entities; character Pip who the reader can see react to the events surrounding him, and narrator Pip who reflects upon these events with perspective and a greater sense of maturity. Parossiens argues that the skill of Dickens in Great Expectations is in his ability to easily move from one perspective to another and bring the periods of the characters together in order to provide the reader with a more comprehensive outlook. The shadow of the narrating Pip can easily be seen throughout the entire book, but is seen for the first time in Chapter 4 on Christmas day when Pip and Joe are on their way to church. Language like ‘vicariously’, ‘Sunday penitentials’’, and ‘reformatory’, are terms and concepts far beyond that of a six year old, particularly one that cannot properly pronounce his full name. The older, narrating Pip uses this language to infuse the passage with a sense of greater insight.

In her essay “Early Stream-of-Consciousness Writing: Great Expectations” Ann B. Dobie adds support to Parossiens argument by noting the difference between surrealist writing and stream-of-consciousness writing. She asserts that Great Expectations should be viewed as a stream-of-consciousness novel rather than a surrealistic novel. Going on to explain that as a memoir the older Pip is doing all at once, it accurately fits the template of the stream-of-consciousness writer. This is one who attempts to re-create the subconscious mental state of the character whereas the surrealists use automatic writing to obtain the suggestions of the subconscious mental states (Dobie 407). The shadowing narrator reflects on his past with a different viewpoint than his younger self because he was awakened to the reality of the world. Dobie argues that “For a child there is no clean-cut separation between his imagination and his surroundings. Instead, there is a fusion of the two which is comparable to the fusion by the artist of the individual and the world around him, the internal and the external. Thus there is an inevitable blending of the two in an individual consciousness” (Dobie 408). This easily explains the largest contrast between character and narrator Pip in the beginning of the novel. Six year old Pip is a developing character who is constantly being “molded and remolded” by the events and people in his life (Dobie 409). Reading the events of younger Pips life and his “molding” while the older Pip provides insight into the lasting effect of these events invites the reader into his world completely. However, as a narrator we are only seeing Pip’s world from his perspective. Unlike in Bleak House, the narration is only provided by the elderly Pip who is recalling decades of information in one retelling.

A different perspective is taken when our group came across  Rupert Christiansen’s article “What are we Meant to Think of Pip?” While not completely negating Parossiens and Dobie’s argument he mentions that while Pip seems to be a reliable narrator he leaves a lot out. Christiansen notes that the critical information about why he is telling his story his circumstances after with Estella in his mid-30s is absent. In Chapter 14 he refers to his present as ‘occasions in my later life” leaving the reader to constantly question the true effect of the conclusion of his days as young Pip the character.

Christiansen then goes on to examine Pip the narrator from an outside perspective in an attempt to do away with the bias of the first person point-of-view.  He argues that Pip the narrator is being unnecessarily harsh and critical of his former self without any real reason.  When Pip receives his “great expectations” and desires to leave the forge and become part of a higher class of society, this, the critic argues, is the natural reaction “…anyone in his position would have done when offered a golden opportunity to escape the humdrum, and his subsequent embarrassment and discomfort at Joe’s awkward manners is entirely natural”.  Even Pip’s discovery that Magwitch is (Don’t look Peter) the benefactor and his initial disgust and dread of this new discovery that he later beats himself up for is what would be expected of anyone else in the same situation.  Magwitch is a convict–possibly a very dangerous one–who scared the crap out of Pip when he was a little boy in the graveyard.  It is only logical, the critic contends, for Pip to have had the reaction he did.  Thus, the older Pip’s commentary on his younger self is overly self-deprecating, and Christiansen leaves us with a question to contemplate: “Pip seems to think everything is his fault, but what does he actually have to be ashamed about?”

Potential Ideas for an Interpretive Question:

  • What does the adult Pip believe he has reason to be ashamed of and how does that compare to what the young Pip was ashamed of as a child?
    • Is older Pip being too hard on himself as the last critic argues?
    • Is there validity to young Pip’s shame in older Pip’s eyes?

Works Cited

Christiansen, Rupert. “Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.” ‘Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations’ N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.

Dobie, Ann B. “Early Stream-of-Consciousness Writing: Great Expectations.”Nineteenth-Century Fiction 25.4 (1971): 405-16. Web.

Paroissien, David. “‘if You Knew all My Story…’: The Rhetoric of Pip’s Tale.” The Dickensian 106.482 (2010): 227,234,196.ProQuest. Web.

Dickens’ “Bleak House”: The Bleak State of the Victorian Legal System

 Bleak House is a novel that contains a complicated web of subplots, major characters, and minor characters; however, one main theme carried throughout the novel is the Victorian legal system, specifically the corruption of it.  The court that Dickens references in his hefty novel is the Court of Chancery, one of the two main British courts of the time.  The Court of Chancery was a court of “…equity, or property issues, rather than law and used different principles to arrive at judgments” (“Bleak House: Essay Q&A”).  Originally, this judicial court was founded around the medieval period as a branch of the King’s Council.  The other law court of England called the Court of Common Law was, at this time, seen as insufficient at providing adequate justice for the people, so the king, also referred to as the “fountain of justice”, established this new court which was allegedly supposed to be founded on principles of “conscience, morals, fairness and equality”.  Unfortunately, by Charles Dickens’ times, the judiciary system was already knee-deep in corruption and it came under scrutiny “…because of outrageous delays, moribund and inflexible rules, corruption and excessive fees.  Hence, ironically, Chancery had become the perpetrator of the judicial abuses it had been established to remedy” (Fowler).

“Michaelmas Term” is mentioned in the first sentence of chapter one and refers to one of the four times a year that the Court of Chancery is in assembly.  This period lasts from November 2 through the 25th and also referred to the times when the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were in session (“The Victorian World of Bleak House”).  Presiding over the Court of Chancery is the Lord Chancellor who resolves cases without the aid of a jury and bases his decisions solely on written evidence given to him by lawyers (Dickens 990).  The court is also composed of twelve Masters in Chancery who are essentially clerks that aid and advise the Lord Chancellor. The head of the Masters of Chancery is the Master of Rolls, sometimes known as Vice-Chancellor, who records the proceedings of the court and who is aided by six other clerks (“Court of Chancery”). The particular place where the Court of Chancery meets in the novel Bleak House is called Lincoln’s Inn Hall which is one of the four inns of courts and is located in Holborn, a region in central London.

The case taking place throughout Bleak House is titled Jarndyce and Jarndyce and it is known as a “scarecrow of a suit” which “…has, in course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means.  The parties to it understand it the least…” (Dickens 16).  Although this case is fictitious, it is believed that Dickens likely based this lawsuit on real court cases.  One case called Jennens v Jennens lasted 117 years from 1798 to 1915, meaning that this case was in its fiftieth year when Dickens published his novel.  This case dealt with a man named William Jennens who was extremely wealthy, but, when he died, his estate and wealth became a complicated debate of “who gets what” in the Court of Chancery which lasted over a century.  In the end, Jennens estate and wealth were eventually lost and depleted due to the substantial amount of lawyers’ fees it has accumulated (“William Jennens”).

Another possible case that may have inspired Dickens was a writer named Charlotte Smith who was involved in a litigation concerning her father-in-law’s estate.  This case lasted a lengthy 36 years, and, because of Smith’s inability to receive her rightful inheritance in a timely manner, Smith had a difficult time raising her seven children.  The value of the estate also decreased as the years went on for, in 1776, the property was valued to be £36,000, but, in 1792, the value decreased drastically to £20,000 (Turvey).  These two cases, with the severe injustices done in each by the Court of Chancery, would have been perfect inspiration for Dickens’ own made-up litigation of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

Although we had a very hard time finding negative criticisms about Dickens’ potential exaggeration of the Courts of Chancery in Bleak House, we did discover an interesting article regarding a legal historian and his opinion on the courts.  Sir William Seare Holdsworth was a professor of English Law at Oxford University and is often considered one of the greatest historians of English Law, known for his 17 volume history of the English legal system.  In 1928, Holdsworth published a book titled Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian in which he argued that Dickens’ depiction of the courts are incredibly important for two reasons: “In the first place, they give us information which we can get nowhere else. In the second place, these pictures were painted by a man with extraordinary powers of observation, who had first hand information” (Fowler).  Holdsworth and other legal historians have cited Dickens’ experience as a clerk in a legal office, and his actual enrollment in Middle Temple (one of the legal inns that Dickens writes about in Bleak House) as a law student in 1839 as evidence of Dickens’ firsthand information about the legal system (Parker).  Furthermore, Holdsworth argued that Dickens’ illustration of the court system in Bleak House was so incredibly accurate that historians should draw upon Bleak House as a primary source when analyzing English law and legal institutions of Victorian England.

Although the original purpose of the Court of Chancery was to be a court of fairness and equity, the actual proceedings of the court were quite different.  In actuality, the excessively lengthy duration of lawsuits and the substantial amount of money it cost made the British judicial system a near laughing matter which is illustrated by the description of the court case in Bleak House: “Jarndyce and Jarndyce has passed into a joke.  That is the only good that has ever come of it” (Dickens 17).  Dickens is also quite straightforward with his dislike of the British judiciary throughout Bleak House, and, in the first chapter, he gives his readers the ominous warning to “Suffer any wrong that can be done you, rather than come here!” (Dickens 15).

Works Cited:

“Bleak House: Essay Q&A.” Novelguide. Novelguide, n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

Fowler, Russell. “A History of Chancery and Its Equity.” Tennessee Bar Journal. 25 Jan. 2012. n. pag. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

“The Victorian World of Bleak House.” PBS. PBS ONLINE®, n.d. Web 16 Oct. 2014.

“Court of Chancery.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 3 Sep. 2014. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

“William Jennens.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 Apr. 2014. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

Turvey, Jessica. “Slim Chances in the Court of Chancery: Law in Bleak House and “The Oldest Chancery Suit in the World”.” Dickens to Elliot. 10 Nov. 2013. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

David Parker, ‘Dickens, the Inns of Court, and the Inns of Chancery’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 1 (March 2010).

Harper, Fowler V. “Book Review: Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian.” Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository. Yale Law School, n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

“William Seares Holdsworth.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. 1853. England: Penguin Classics, 1996. Print.


Blog post written by Rachel Campbell

Group 6 members: Rachel Campbell, John Panus, Kelsey Teglash, Nikkel Gohel, and Peter Cala

New Interpretive Question:

  • How does Dickens use the literary technique of having two distinct narrators to criticize the judicial branch of 19th century England throughout his novel? How does the criticism offered by Dickens’ third person narrator compare to the views of his other characters and the situations they are placed in?