From an orphan boy growing up in the bleakness of marsh country to an adult with overwhelming misfortune and despair, Philip Pirrip’s coming-of-age tale is quite dark. However, from beginning to end there is one aspect of his life that gives him hope and light: the stars. Dickens’ astral symbolism allows readers to contrast the light and dark aspects of Pip’s coming-of-age and eventually discover that not every wish is a good one.
A star is often a symbol of fate and something upon which wishes are cast. However, not just any star in the galaxy can grant one’s true wish. The name Estella literally means star, and throughout the novel she figuratively acts as a “guiding light” for Pip. Dickens’ use of symbolism in this aspect is twofold. Like a star she is beautiful and appealing, but upon a closer look she is cold, deceiving, and unreachable. While Pip is not ignorant of her adverse qualities, he continues to see her as a wishing star upon which to cast his hopes of attaining financial and social progression.
In the beginning of the novel, before he has met Estella, Pip has no wishes and no expectations for his unfortunate life. On his way to Miss Havisham’s, he says, “I could at first see no stars... But they twinkled out one by one, without throwing light on the questions why on earth I was going…” (Dickens 40). At this point he begins to see the “stars,” the possibility of something new, but is unsure exactly what it is yet. Estella is the one star that he finds within his dark life, as evident when he sees her within Miss Havisham’s home: “and her light came along the dark passage like a star” (Dickens 45). From this point forward Pip embarks on a struggle to obtain Estella’s love by becoming a gentleman.
Once Pip actually gains the unforeseen opportunity to be educated, he begins to see the stars differently than before. In a passage before he is about to leave for London he acts quite superior and says, “The very stars to which I then raised my eyes, I am afraid I took to be but poor and humble stars for glittering on the rustic objects among which I had passed my life” (Dickens 112). It seems as if he no longer thinks he will need these pitiful stars. His dream is becoming realized; he is reaching the “stars” and is no longer a useless rustic object like Joe or his child self. His statement implies that he believes that life, that place, and those people are not worthy; even the stars that shine upon them are poor and lowly.
Pip’s relationship with the stars, or Estella, is a way in which Dickens shows the protagonist’s inner struggle throughout the book. As stated by scholar G. Robert Stange, “Conflicting values in Pip’s life are also expressed by the opposed imagery of stars” (13). Pip continues to seek the balance between the life he wants and the life he lived with the people that truly care about him. Stange notes that while Estella and the stars are light symbols that are cold and “pitiless,” there are light symbols such as the fire that Joe and Pip spend time next to at the forge that represents warmth and the love that Pip never had to seek out or wish for. Through these opposing images Dickens expresses the conflict that will contribute to Pip finding his true self.
It becomes evident to Pip that his new life has changed him. He feels guilty for his treatment of Joe and Biddy; he even feels sad about his abusive sister’s death. As he talks to Biddy about Mrs. Joe’s death he mentions, “the stars that were coming out were blurred in [his] own sight” (Dickens 222). Dickens is using this symbol or imagery to represent Pip’s awareness of the tribulations of his new lifestyle. Even though his “better life” is still there, still possible, it is dim, and he is not fulfilled or happy.
In the final scene of the novel, Pip describes the setting upon Mrs. Havisham’s old estate and says, “the stars were shining beyond the mist, and the moon was coming, and the evening was not dark” (Dickens 378). Through this setting the reader can understand that Pip has finally found happiness. Pip can see his star without darkness, something that did not happen throughout the rest of the book. The use of this imagery foreshadows the ending, where Pip’s coveted star, Estella, is finally within his reach. Through her suffering she has found remorse for her ill treatment of Pip and is no longer the star leading Pip into darkness.
many ways it can be argued that Dickens uses the twofold symbol of
stars as a representation and commentary about high-class society and
expectations of success. Through Pip’s journey to self-identity, the
stars signify opportunity -- chances for a new life. However, he finds
that by gaining wealth and status one often loses sight of the real
object of life. Having money or success can often can lead to
heartache, and sometimes our greatest expectations are not so great
Dickens, Charles. 1961/2001. Great Expectations. New York: Dover Publications.
Stange, G. Robert. “Expectations Well Lost Dickens' Fable for His Time.” College English. 16.1 (Oct., 1954): 9-17. JSTOR. Web. 18 Feb 2013. <http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/stable/10.2307/371614>