An Examination and Summary of the Antagonists in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Title page from the first edition of Great Expectations.
Title page from the first edition of Great Expectations.

Who Exactly is the Antagonist?

Throughout the course of Great Expectations, the reader is left wondering exactly who the antagonist is. In the beginning, readers wonder if it is Magwitch, the criminal who tricks Pip into stealing for him. Some wonder if it is Mrs. Joe or Estella or even Pip himself, sometimes. In Great Expectations there are several antagonists, both major and minor, that Pip struggles with, a few of which are not even people. Pip, our protagonist, struggles with many of the people and ideas he encounters throughout the novel.

Miss Havisham and Estella

The first and most obvious major antagonists are Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter Estella. While these characters could be considered two separate antagonists, the actions of Estella appear to be mostly dictated by Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham uses Pumblechook to arrange her and Estella’s first meeting with Pip. Since Pumblechook is obsessed with money and class (not unlike the way Pip later becomes), he sees no problems with Miss Havisham arranging a meeting with Pip. When Pip first meets Miss Havisham and Estella they both treat him coldly. Pip immediately takes a liking to Estella, who is beautiful, but nasty to Pip. When Estella refuses to obey Miss Havisham’s orders to play with Pip on the grounds that he is a lower class than she, Miss Havisham replies, “Well? You can break his heart” (Dickens 60). Pip seems to hear this, but chooses to ignore that it was what was actually said.

Miss Havisham, Pip, and Estella
Miss Havisham, Pip, and Estella

These two characters start to turn Pip away from his family and into a creature who only seeks Estella, wealth, and the upper class. Estella and Miss Havisham are the source of Pip’s false great expectations. Later in the book, Estella uses Pip as a tool of grief against her suitors. Pip accompanies Estella on her visits with suitors, which creates problems for both Pip and the suitors. Miss Havisham’s intention was to damage as many men as possible, using Estella as her weapon. Estella, at this point in the novel, is accomplishing that extremely well. Not only is she damaging Pip, whom Estella herself even warns he should be wary of, but she is also damaging the many suitors she visits. Estella, even at the end of the book, antagonizes Pip by allowing him to finally get together with her. While the reader isn’t given much of a clue as to how they spend the rest of their lives, “I saw the shadow of no parting from her” (Dickens 484), the ambiguous ending could lead the reader to assume that he lived a somewhat cold and unhappy life with her, similarly to how he lived his life with her when she didn’t take him as a serious suitor. However, because we have no clues other than the ambiguous ending, the reader can draw no concrete conclusions as to how their lives ended together.

Pip, The Protagonist, Becomes an Antagonist

The next major antagonist in the book is Pip himself. Pip seems to be his own worst enemy throughout the novel. Pip has several character flaws that seem to inhibit his well-being; those traits are innocence, immaturity, greed, gullibility, and a sometimes backwards view of the world. In the first few chapters, it is Pip’s innocence and immaturity that get the best of him. While Pip is visiting his parents’ grave and trying to figure out exactly who he is, Pip is accosted by Magwitch, the seemingly terrible escaped convict. In the midst of their conversation Magwitch asks Pip where his mother is. Pip replies that she is near, indicating the grave. Magwitch misinterprets the gesture to mean his mother is near, instead of his mother is in the grave. Magwitch then makes a run for it. At this point Pip corrects Magwitch and repeats his indication. This little scene shows just exactly how innocent Pip is at this point. The man who was just threatening to potentially eat him had started to run away from him. Rather than have him run away because of a misunderstanding, Pip corrects him and reenlists his company, keeping Magwitch in his life for a bit longer and continuing on the plot of the story. Pip then steals for Magwitch believing that a boy will attack him if he doesn’t steal the file and food, another indicator of Pip’s extreme innocence and ignorance in the beginning of the book.

A little further on in the book, Pip falls in love with the tool of Miss Havisham’s jilted rage, Estella. The reader can clearly see that Estella is extremely abrasive towards Pip throughout her time spent with him. The reader can also clearly see that Estella’s behavior is being goaded by Miss Havisham. However, while this all may be clear to the reader, it is completely clouded from Pip’s view by his romantic idealism and innocence. Pip just wants to believe that Miss Havisham is arranging to give him her fortunes and she is setting him up with Estella. The real reason that Miss Havisham wanted anything to do with Pip was to belittle and berate him, to get back at men, using Estella. Pip has trouble, throughout the novel, seeing the obvious. Later in the book, when it is clear to Pip that Estella treats him poorly, he still follows her for he believes that Miss Havisham, who he still thinks is a good person, had wanted them together all along. Even as an adult, Pip possesses some ignorance which put him in terrible situations and circumstances.

Estella and Pip
Estella and Pip

Pip constantly is rejecting the ones he should love (and who love him) and replaces them with his enemies. While Pip is convinced that Miss Havisham is the one funding him to become a gentleman, which is somewhat unclear to the reader at the time, he becomes very cold and distant from his true family and loved ones. If Pip could understand that his family is more important than becoming a gentleman, or having money, he wouldn’t have treated them so poorly. The one who bears the brunt of this greed-fueled pompousness and coldness is also the one who seems to care for him the most: Joe. Other than the very beginning and very end of the novel, Pip becomes increasingly embarrassed of Joe’s “low class” behavior and appearance. While Pip feels this way, he completely ignores the fact that he hails from the lower class. Pip is an orphan. He aspires to become a wealthy gentleman and he feels that he must shun anything that isn’t upper class in order to achieve that goal. This includes Joe. Joe, on the other hand, never really seems to acknowledge the visible class structure that encompasses them all. Biddy is another good example of Pip’s replacements. Pip is constantly chasing Estella while she treats him poorly. Estella comes from wealth, while Biddy is clearly lower class. Biddy is a bit plain; however, she is extremely kind and patient to Pip and never mistreats him, unlike Estella. Pip ignores her even though there seems to be more similarities between them than between he and Estella. She is of the same class, they go to school together, she is moral, and she is from the same area as Pip. Pip appears to be his own worst enemy and antagonist in several ways throughout the reading of the novel.

Wealth and Class

Another important set of major antagonists in the book seem to be money and class. Since these two go hand-in-hand, they are really one in the same for Pip. They both drive him to act foolishly and coldly to his loved ones. However, they do act as separate agents on our protagonist, Pip. Pip first strives for money and upward movement in the class system after he visits Satis House and its dwellers. Pip attempts to start moving up through the class system by getting an education and by – hopefully – receiving Miss Havisham’s fortune, which he assumes will happen. When he begins his upward climb, he also starts becoming ashamed of Joe. He does this both as a way to more easily enter the upper-class and to distance himself from the lower-class. Pip’s logic appears to be that if he appears to be upper-class, then he will become upper class. This never really ends up being the case, however. Pip’s upward movement through the class system only seems to cause him more problems, as it does for the other characters who are upper-class. Even the source of Pip’s monetary wealth is tainted. He originally thinks that the money is coming from Miss Havisham. While most would consider money from Miss Havisham as tainted, Pip does not. He accepts his mysterious gentleman’s bounty as coming from Miss Havisham. When he discovers it is from Magwitch, whom he originally aided and was being rewarded by, he rejects it as tainted. In the grand scheme of the book, this appears completely backwards. The money that should be seen as a reward for a good deed (even though it was fueled by fear) is seen as “tainted” and is rejected; while the money that Pip thinks is coming from the evil Miss Havisham is seen as good and even expects that she is going to give him money. Pip’s striving for class even leads him to mistreat Joe, the only one who cared for him, constantly and to forget about his family for a while. Because his family is in the lower class, he gives up on them for the social upper class. Pip misguidedly sees the upper class as something to strive for, yet all around him the people in the upper class, or those striving for the upper class, are awful people. Good examples of this include Jaggers, Drummle, Miss Havisham, Estella, Pumblechook, and Compeyson. All of these characters are the examples of the upper class, or those striving to be upper class, in the book. And all of them are terrible people. It seems as if the upper class and money not only nearly ruins Pip, but it changes all characters that have anything to do with it for the worse.

Compeyson
Compeyson

Minor Antagonists

Finally, there are several, tangible, minor antagonists. They include Mrs. Joe, Orlick, Drummle, and Compeyson. Mrs. Joe is one of the first antagonists in the book. She treats both Pip and Joe pretty harshly, and rather than being worried when Pip is late, even attempts to attack Pip with “Tickler”. She could be seen as one of the Motivators of Pip’s striving for the upper class and money. Mrs. Joe is the embodiment of the “lower class”, married to a laborer and caring for her orphaned brother. Pip sees how awful she is and strives to become “better”. However, Pip ignores all of the other awful people in the upper class and is blinded by his disdain for the lower class that could be caused by Mrs. Joe. Orlick is the next reason Pip strives for betterment. He is a creepy, cold, and sinister man who murders, tricks, lies, and steals. While Pip doesn’t know about the murder until the end of the novel, he still hates Orlick, who used to antagonize him when he was young, saying the Devil lived in the forge. Orlick also constantly drags Pip back down to the lower class. An example of this is when Orlick attacks Mrs. Joe and Pip has to come back and visit only to be reminded of all the people he left behind at his home. Drummle is the next antagonist. He is haughty and rich. He also acts very poorly, which leads Pip to think that treating Joe poorly is justifiable because that is just how the upper-class, Drummle, acts. He is not only a bad example for Pip, but also marries Pip’s life-long, albeit unrequited, love Estella. One of the final antagonists in the book is Compeyson. Not only is he the source of Miss Havisham’s rage, but he is also the reason Magwitch is in jail. He schemed his way out of much jail time by using his skills from the upper-class, eloquence, education, and gentlemanly charm. This is yet another indicator that the upper-class is more dirty and corrupted than the working-class of the book.

Conclusion

In all, this book is filled with antagonists, both tangible and abstract. Miss Havisham is filled with resentment and wrath and looks to take it out on any man using Estella. While Pip is our protagonist throughout the book, Pip is also a very flawed character who easily falls into this trap of love, greed, and pompousness. He becomes the worst antagonist for himself throughout most of the book. While Pip allows himself to be thrust into the world of the greedy upper-class, he opens the door for other foul people to come into his life and ruin it even more than he ever could have on his own. While Pip begins the novel with both moral and traditional “great expectations” he soon finds out that these expectations are really not anything that he ever should have taken seriously.

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