A critical examination of Charles Dickens Great Expectations

The Victorian Age is characterized by rapid change and developments in all arenas. Under the reign of Queen Victoria, Europe experiences advancements in medicine, science and technology. Individuals move from rural villages to the emerging cities, in hope to create a better life for one’s self by moving up in societal classes. Yet, another trend was being explored during this time as well, sexuality was being studied more closely as theories surfaced from Marquis De Sade (1791), and Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch (1870) released the first novels exploring sadism and masochism respectively. It was not until later, in 1924, when looking into the innate sexuality of individuals Sigmund Freud classified masochism, into three classes—erotogenic, feminine, and moral. 

Charles Dickens, regarded as a prominent writer during the Victorian Era, constructed many of his works to act as historical narratives for what life was like in London during the 1800’s; usually critics focus theories regarding his novels on the more popular trends of the Victorian Era, however upon closer inspection one notices that Charles Dickens works reflect much deeper sentiments. Dickensian characters are renowned for their neurotic natures and the intrapsychic effects of their day to day lives. For instance, Pip, the protagonist of Dickens novel entitled Great Expectations, is celebrated for his struggle to find his moral center; readers are instantly immersed in the mind of Pip on his journey to manhood. Charles Dickens Great Expectations, focuses primarily on the mental and spiritual experiences of Pip Pirrip, when compared with Sigmund Freud’s theories outlined in “The Economic Problem of Masochism” one can conclude that Pip exhibits the defining attributes of each of the three forms posited, classified as erotogenic, feminine and moral.

  Frued’s essay, “The Economic Problem of Masochism” provides his fullest account reflecting the desires and attitudes of masochistic individuals. Although, Freud had previously explored the disorder in his metapsychological paper “Instincts and Vicissitudes” and again in “A Child is Being Beaten”- a paper he personally described as exploring masochism in a letter to Ferencizi.It wasn’t until the release of “The Economic Problem of Masochism” in 1924 that Freud distinguished masochism into classes, where before his writings suggested that masochism is derived from a previous sadism and that there was no such thing as primary masochism. In this essay Freud’s analysis asserts that there is an erotogenic’ masochism; which should be viewed as the primary that leads to two derivative forms. This primary form of masochism can either exist independently or in harmony with the derivative forms in a single subject; in severe cases a masochist can exhibit all three. One of these, which he terms ‘feminine’, had already discussed in his paper on ‘beating phantasies’ and a third form, ‘moral masochism’, which is a newly developed idea that allows Freud an opportunity to clarify and define many of his theories that had only been lightly touched on in The Ego and the Id. It also allowed Freud to explore an entirely new hypothesis in connection with feelings of guilt and the operation of the conscience.

 David Savran asserts, in his dissertation titled Taking it Like a Man: White Masculinity. Masochism, and Contemporary Culture, that the disorder “is not the perversion that late-nineteenth century sexologists considered it to be[…] It is, rather, part of the very structure of male subjectivity as it was consolidated in western Europe during the early modem period” (10) For Freud all masochism originates in so called ‘erotogenic’ masochism; for Lapanche masochism is, quite simply, at the core of sexuality; and both of them locate oedipal stage as the moment when masochism s articulated erotically through conflicts with paternal authority. 

Erotogenic Masochism as mentioned is the primary form of masochism; it rests at the base of all masochistic patients and the two other classes, feminine and moral only form as derivatives to the primary. Signifying attributes of this type of masochism are defined by Freud as,  

“The fear of being eaten up by the totem animal (the father) originates from the primitive oral organization; the wish to be beaten by the father comes from the sadistic-anal phase which follows it; castration, although it is later disavowed, enters into the content of masochistic phantasies as a precipitate of the phallic stage or organization; and from the final genital organization there arise, of course, the situations of being copulated with and of giving birth, which are characteristic of femaleness”

Freud maintains that the primary form of masochism is established during the infantile stage, due to issues he calls the oedipal conflict. Freud theorized that the erotogenic masochism arises from the regression to the anal phase of infantile sexuality where both active(sadistic) and passive(masochistic) forms can be exhibited.  Freud believed that the lust pleasure principle compromised in this stage was most likely due to maltreatment in the home. He argued the role of the child in the family as an innocent victim. If a child is introduced to corporal, mental or verbal punishments, at a time when pity is not yet developed, that individual will likely manifest a nature of masochism that will emerge as adults. If the anal phase of infantile sexuality is conflicted, which occurs most in victims of corporal punishment, it can cause a neurosis focused around the bowel region. Untreated, adults may regress and desire to have anal intercourse, in either active or passive form, causing issues of subjugation humiliation, shame, envy, jealousy, rivalry and trauma that are likely to persist into adult and social life.  

Similar to its primary–erotogenic masochism, feminine masochism manifests within the individual as a defect of the oedipal complex and can only function when bonds are formed with a sadistic torturer. In contrast to the primary form, Freud defines feminine masochism as distinct, because 

“the masochist wants to be treated like a small and helpless child, but, particularly, like a naughty child…if one has an opportunity of studying cases in which the masochistic phantasies have been especially richly elaborated, one quickly discovers that they place the subject in a characteristically female situation; they signify, that is, being castrated, or copulated with, or giving birth to a baby. For this reason, I have called this form of masochism, a potiori as it were [i.e. on the basis of its extreme examples], the feminine form, although so many of its features point to infantile life. “

One considers the image then of a man who invites the constant humiliation and embarrassment at the foot of his beloved. This individual may find pleasure in being dominated with verbal, physical or emotional abuse. It is important to remember that this form of masochism can only exist in male subjects and only under the condition of a sadistic torturer.

     Moral masochism, is the most fascinating form of all; it has evolved in such a way that it is not pervasively sexual, nonreliant on physical abuse or a specified torturer. Freud asserts that the moral masochist is one who is focused solely on the act of suffering or self-injury. The suffering is not limited to person, or event; the moral masochist is addicted to any pain. Because of their apparent addiction to suffering the patient is most satisfied in social life, where they are likely to construct an abusive internal monologue. Freud’s theories argue that a diagnosis of this sort is characterized by feelings of guilt and derived from a sadistic superego, one that has “become harsh, cruel, and inexorable against the ego which is in its charge” (Freud)

Great Expectations depicts an entire realm of people whom suffer from either a masochistic disorder or a sadistic one, for the sake of brevity we will focus solely on Pip. Verified by theories posited by Sigmund Frued, Pip suffers from a complication of the oedipal complex. Pip, an orphan, is the victim of a sadistic mother figure, Mrs. Joe Gargery, who ‘raised him by hand’ a proclamation meant to suggest only that Mrs. Joe had bottle fed Pip, yet the term takes on double meaning for the reader, because Pip confuses it as an insinuation of his sister’s preferred form of punishment.

Having at that time to find out for myself what the expression meant, and knowing her to have a hard hand, and to be much in habit of laying upon her husband as well as upon me, I suggested that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand…I had a general impression that she must have made Joe Gargery marry her by hand. (39)

These traumas are most easily explained as the manifestation of Pip’s masochistic nature. Pip replaces Freud’s assertion of being eaten, beaten or abused by the father, with a surrogate parent who embodies the same role. His childhood connection to his entire world takes place through his submission to physical pain and to the painful feelings of guilt. Pip writes, “I was always treated as if I had insisted on being born, in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion, and morality, and against the dissuading arguments of my best friends” (Dickens 41)  It is Mrs. Joe’s desire for power, symbolized in the verbal, emotional and physical abuse applied liberally, that allows Steward to suggest that she represents the ‘femme-bourreau’ or woman executioner, who’s reign extends to her own husband. The ‘tickler’, Mrs. Joe’s wooden paddle used for flagellation, is only an external manifestation of her power; Mrs. Joe herself is the equivalent to the sadist figure who raises a masochistic child.

And Mrs. Joe is truly a sadist of the first order; not only does she abuse Pip with Tickler, employ him as a connubial missle, and torment him psychologically, she also habitually “jammed the loaf [of bread] hard and fast against her bib- where it sometimes got a pin into it, and sometimes a needle, which we afterwards got into our mouths” (Dickens 42; Steward 36)

George Bastille’s findings also help us to understand the nature of Mrs. Joe, who embodies the voice of the torturer, noted in her need to justify acts of abuse with language that establishes herself as the authority, in hopes that she will be viewed as the oppressed party and her family seem like the oppressors. Most noted when Joe and Pip are invited to Satis house:

[Mrs. Joe] asked me and Joe whether we supposed she was a door mat under our feet, and how we dared to use her so, and what company we graciously thought she was fit for?… and then she asked Joe why he hadn’t married a Negress Slave at once? (Dickens 126)

  By viewing Pip’s relationship with his sister, one can identify the various ways that he begins to view himself as less than an individual and more of an object. If Mrs. Joe is a sadist, she is ill-equipped to provide Pip an identity other than one steeped in erotogenic masochism. Through her sadism, Pip’s consciousness is conditioned to that of constant guilt and a subject deserving of both physical and verbal abuse.

Pip’s erotogenic masochism, the primary, is dependent on the cruelty exhibited by Mrs. Joe, but the disorder does develop, and as Freud observes deviates into new forms that may coexist without conflict. Pip’s masochistic fantasy must be filled in even more perverse forms, as demonstrated through his relationship with Estella. Pip takes pleasure in the cruelty of his sister’s nature, and without her he must seek out a torturer, a position he readily gives to Estella. Their relationship is one Pip manifests alone. He is willingly casting himself as the masochist and Estella as his sadistic torturer. Likely being due to Estella’s ability to inflict similar feelings of guilt and objectification onto Pip as his sister does.

If Mrs. Joe is a sadist of the first order, then Estella is the rising star. Estella’s sadism is encouraged by Miss Havisham, her adopted care giver. She trains Estella to be the instrument of elaborate fantasies of vengeance on the male sex. One has only to consider the validity of the name Satis house as evidence of Dicken’s purposeful classification of both Estella and Miss Havisham; however the name also alludes to the emotional climate of Estella’s childhood. Miss Havisham’s goal is to save a child from the pains of heartbreak by creating a dominatrix. Miss Havisham, the sadomasochist, defines love to Pip as being, ” blind devotion, unquestioning self- humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter — as I did!” (Dickens 229)

She creates a setting where she casts Pip as a feminine masochist and Estella as his torturer. Still a boy when they meet, Estella treats him like an inferior being.

“He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!’ said Estella with disdain before our first game was out. ‘And what course hands he has! And what thick boots!’

 I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt for me was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.

She won the game and I dealt. I misdealt as was only natural when I knew she was lying in wait for me to do wrong; and she denounced me for a stupid, clumsy, laboring –boy.” (Dickens 77)

Pip has no reason to internalize Estella’s attitude towards him, “As Pip cannot be anything other than a future blacksmith, Estella’s ridicule is directed against that state of existence which is most natural to him. A blacksmith’s hands are coarse and black from work, the thickness of his boots is proper in the forge, and his language, as Joe demonstrates, is often capable of sustained dignity.” (Hara 17). Unfortunately, Pip’s disillusionment of pain as pleasure creates a sense of infatuation in him that he projects towards Estella; his erotogenic masochistic nature causes him to internalize feelings of guilt due to his social status. While as his feminine masochistic disorder allows him to misinterpret Estella’s painful remarks as deserved and necessary, As Freud predicts, Pip never grows out of his child like state when accompanied by Estella, “never [having] had one hour’s happiness in her society” (281) as he writes, “Everything in our intercourse did give me pain” (253). Yet, he cannot help but to desire more of Estella’s sadistic attitude. Her ability to belittle him like a naughty and helpless child in combination with the encouragement of Miss Havisham, allows Pip to form erotic masochistic fantasies that are energized by feelings of guilt and inferiority. When Pip sees Estella again as an adult, he says as much:

Proud and willful as of old, she had brought those qualities into such subjection to her beauty that it was impossible and out of nature—or I thought so — to separate them from her beauty. Truly it was impossible to dissociate her presence from all those wretched hankerings after money and gentility that had disturbed my boyhood —from all those ill-regulated aspirations that had first made me ashamed of home and Joe. (225)

David Hennessee suggests that “Estella’s attraction issues from her beauty and her pride and willfulness; her sexual desirability is united with qualities that make Pip feel inferior to her, qualities that give him psychic pain” (143). Additionally, Pip associates Estella’s being with the feelings of inadequacy concerning his rank and position; what he refers to as his “wretched hankerings” for status that “disturbed [his] boyhood,” and his shame about Joe. Pip’s desire to be a gentleman is largely to be seen as her equal and worthy of her affection. Pip, the neurotic individual that he is, allows his discontentment of unrequited love to become his only source of hope. His internalized feelings of inadequacy settles and festers within him for many years and becomes a sort of desperation to him, he feels so inadequate that he begins to dream of gentility as a hope to finally attain her. Giles Deleuze, one of the most prolific and influential philosophers of his time, writes that with a feminine masochist like Pip

“We are dealing… with a victim in search of a torturer and who needs to educate, persuade, and conclude an alliance with the torturer […] it is essential to the masochist that he should fashion the woman into a despot, that he should persuade her to cooperate and get her to ‘sign’ [the masochistic contract]. He is an educator and thus runs the risk inherent in all educational undertakings (20). 

This theory is supported with in the text most explicitly when Pip finally confesses his intense desire for gentility to Biddy, who acts as a moral guide to him:

“‘The beautiful lady at Miss Havisham’s, and she’s more beautiful than anybody ever was, and I admire her dreadfully, and I want to be a gentleman on her account. ’Having made this lunatic confession, I began to throw my torn-up grass into the river, as if I had some thoughts of following it. ’Do you want to be gentlemen, to spite her or to gain her over?’ Biddy quietly asked me, after a pause…. “Because, if it is to spite her, ‘Biddy pursued, ‘I should think –but you know best –that might be better and more independently done by caring nothing for her words. And if it is to gain her over, I should think –but you know best –she was not worth gaining over.’

Exactly what I myself had thought, many times, exactly what was perfectly manifest to me at the moment. But how could I, a poor dazed village lad, avoid that wonderful inconsistency into which the best and the wisest of men fall every day?

‘It may be all quite true,’ said I to Biddy, ‘But I admire her dreadfully.’

In short, I turned over on my face when I came to that, and got a good grasp on the hair on each side of my head, and wrenched it well. All the while knowing the madness of my heart to be so very mad and misplaced, that I was quite conscious it would have served my face right, if I had lifted it up by my hair, and knocked it against the pebbles as a punishment for belonging to such an idiot. (Dickens 143)

 Here the reader, as well as Pip, is fully aware of the discomfort and self-hatred that has manifested within his spirit. The love/ hate feelings Pip harbors for Estella take on a greater element of masochism for Pip even when she is not around. He is desperate to form an alliance with Estella acting as a despot, in order to fulfill his fantasies. He is the eternal sufferer whose desire to be dominated has been unfulfilled for so long, that his internal pain is being forced into his outward exsistence; he is now self-abusing, wishing to smash his face against the rocks, as well as pull out his own hair.

Pip’s suffering is only intensified with time, a feeling that unfolds when Estella agrees to marry Drummel; Pip, now cuckold, as Freud’s essays suggest is his desire, is finally able to articulate the feelings of love he holds for Estella, as well as the convoluting feelings of unhappiness, guilt and inadequacy she draws out of him.

“In what ecstasy of unhappiness I got these broken words out of myself, I don’t know. The rhapsody welled up within me, like blood from an inward wound, and gushed out” (335).

Henessee sums these feelings up as Pip’s “unhappiness” is “ecstasy;” he describes his expression of feeling in imagery suggestive of orgasm and pain: “blood… gush[ing] out.” These tropes show what the novel narrates all along: Pip’s love for Estella is a tangled web of pleasure, pain, and eroticism, interwoven with Pip’s guilt over gentlemanliness. (154)

Pip’s disorder is of great severity, even when Estella is not present he continues to long for her, hoping to one day be worthy of her affection. In adulthood, Pip is incapable of seeing Estella as anything but torturer, he calls upon the guilt he equates with her existence as a resource to charge his erotic, masochistic fantasy world. Pip refuses to accept Estella’s independent subjectivity, and acts in ways that show his decision to ignore her individual independence. Estella at one point says to him: 

“It seems […] that there are sentiments, fancies – – 1 don’t know how to call them —which I am not able to comprehend. When you say you love me, I know what you mean, as a form of words; but nothing more. You address nothing in my breast, you touch nothing there. I don’t care for what you say at all. I have tried to warn you of this; now, have I not?” (Dickens 336)

Here, the reader witnesses Estella attempt to escape the role of torturer that Pip prescribes for her and the world of Sadomasochism in general by warning Pip away from her. The confession is rendered unsuccessful as Pip chooses to keep his character of victim intact by embodying yet another element of the masochistic fantasy: 

masochism as a state of waiting. Deleuze writes that for the masochist, pleasure and pain are linked by the experience of suspenseful waiting. The masochist expects pain, but awaits pleasure… Deleuze’s view, what the masochist is really after is not pain, but pleasure. He tolerates and even eroticizes pain because, for him, pain is the necessary precondition for pleasure. In the relationship between Estella and Pip, Pip awaits the pleasure that will come when Estella accepts and marries him. However, in the meantime he gets nothing but indifference from her, causing him suffering. Estella’s treatment of Pip enters into the masochistic circuitry of expected pain/awaited pleasure. She gives Pip the pain that signals the pleasure to come from their ultimate union. Thus her indifference keeps the currents of his masochistic desire flowing. (Hennesse)

The more Estella rejects Pip the more attracted he becomes. Her rejection only further fuels Pip’s desires, but not enough to satisfy his pervasive fantasies. This causes him to tap into his third and final form of masochism.  

Moral masochism, defined by a patient’s desire for constant guilt.. Pip, fittingly, is plagued by internalized guilt.

“a critical crux of Great Expectations is guilt. The plot unfolds, the settings change, the characters develop, but the sense of guilt is constant. Hillis Miller observes that in Great Expectations ‘the Dickensian hero becomes aware of himself as guilty. His very existence is a matter of reproach and a shameful thing.’ (Barzialai 4; Miller 251)

 Pip’s masochistic desires push past the constraints of a sadistic torturer and manifest in the ideals of gentility. This allows Pip to construct a world for himself, either imagined or real, that allows him to satisfy his need for eternal unhappiness independent of a sadist figure. The Victorian era defined a gentleman as a man who embodies the qualities of sympathy, fellow-feeling, and ethical conduct, however within a Dickensian world gentility takes on a very different connation. Dickens decides to depict gentility in the worst light by casting the gentleman in the novel as the worst sort of people, obsessed with clothing, wealth, birth, exclusory, and snobbery. Pip struggles to bridge the expectations set up by the Victorian period with the contrasted reality Dickens creates.  Pip in act, is able to embody the physical and material markers of gentility but fails to ever bridge act with ideal. This failure resonates within Pip as guilt. Pip then, is able to satisfy his masochistic erotic fantasy by establishing a real-world connection with social injustices. 

Without a torturer present, Pip looks to social unacceptance as a way to continue his masochistic fantasy, one of which is independent of a sadistic torturer, coined as moral masochism. The emphasis on social distinction and inescapable elitism of the gentleman ideal entailed that he maintain a certain distance, literal and emotional, from his family and friends at the Forge. From the beginning, it seems that Pip is unable to secure happiness; his story begins with Pip feeling guilty for his low-born birth and dreams of gentility in hopes to remedy this issue.

“Home has never been a very pleasant place to me, because of my sister’s tempter. But, Joe has sanctified it, and I had believed in it. I had believed in the best parlor as a most elegant saloon; I had believed in the front door, as a mysterious portal of the Temple of State whose solemn opening was attended with a sacrifice of roast fowls; I had believed in the kitchen as a chaste through not magnificent apartment; I had believed in the forge as the glowing road to manhood and independence. Within a single year, all this was changed. Now, it was all coarse and common, and I would not have had Miss Havisham and Estella see it on any account. (134)

Yet, even after his great wish of gentility is granted through a mysterious benefactor, Pip continues to berate and belittle himself for his lack of noble family. To appease his masochistic nature Pip cannot assert his right to be considered a gentleman, as Magwitch intended, but instead constructs the persona of the outcast.

His moral sensibility causes him to feel guilty over social distinctions and snobbery. This guilt proves that he possesses the moral sensibility required by the gentlemanly ideal. However, Pip’s guilt also energizes a masochistic fantasy world that threatens to undo the bonds of human relations, belying the social goals of the gentlemanly ideal. (Hennesee23).

This idea of social distinction and separation help to energize Pips guilt, feeding into his erotic fantasy once more. He misses Joe, Biddy and his previous life there, but is terrified of the way society will view him.  Pip chooses society, it is the only way to satisfy his erotic fantasies, fearing every misstep, and harboring guilt for the indiscretions of those around him. In accordance with Freudian theories, as a moral masochist Pip finds satisfaction in his constant guilt and eternal suffering. It is of little importance how he receives it, whether in the death of Magwitch, the marriage of Joe and Biddy, the loss of Estella, or his drop in social status “The suffering itself is what matters; whether it is decreed by someone who is loved or by someone who is indifferent is of no importance. It may even be caused by impersonal powers or circumstances; the true masochist always turns his cheek whenever he has a chance of receiving a blow.”(Freud)

Sigmund Freud and Giles Deleuze likely would have been fascinated by the opportunity to analyze Pip’s personality; his character encompasses all forms of the masochistic disorder as defined in “The Economic Problem of Masochism”. Pip, from birth, is largely influenced by the sadistic nature of his sister which creates an eternal sense of guilt within him. This guilt transforms itself into a morally erotic fantasy, a fantasy in which Pip cannot help but to manifest and seek out in every experience and relationship that he has. This guilt causes him to obsess over Estella’s denial of his love and infatuation, deny his family, deny the ideals and beliefs that came along with it, and to construct a perspective designated as a victim in his social life. 

Work Cited

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Ed. Angus Calder. London: Penguin, 1965

Freud Sigmund. “The Economic Problem in Masochism.” Trans. Joan Riverie. Collected Papers      

  Vol 2. Ed. Ernest Jones. New York: Basic Books, 1959. 255-268.Web.

Barizilai, Shuli. “Dickens’ Great Expectations: The Motive for Moral Masochism.” Charles

Dickens. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 263-279.Deleuze, Gilles. 

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert 

Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

Hara, Eiichi. “Stories Present and Absent in Great Expectations.” ELH, vol. 53, no. 3, 1986, pp. 

593–614. www.jstor.org/stable/2873041.

Hennessee, D. M. (2001). Male masochistic fantasy in carlyle, tennyson, dickens, and Swinburne 

(Order No. 3014079). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (250757171). Retrieved from http://tsuhhelweb.tsu.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/250757171?accountid=7093

Savran, David. Taking it Like a Man: White Masculinity. Masochism, and Contemporary

Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Steward Douglass. Anti-Oedipalizing Great Expectations: Masochism, Subjectivity, Capitalism. 

1999. Web. http://tsuhhelweb.tsu.edu:3067/pageImage.do?ftnum=44768151&fmt=page&area=abell&journalid=00244759&articleid=R00798692&pubdate=1999&queryid=2961599003183


Brianca Jay is a writer, tutor and literary analyst. She has upwards of 100 literary videos on youtube and has presented at several national conferences, with a host of publications across various literary journals. Feel free to connect with Brianca

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