An orphan is raised by his sister in an English village surrounded by marshes, where the crook of a river bends towards the sea. His childhood has its share of passions and terrors, but life remains narrow and familiar until the day he unexpectedly receives a sizeable income. The source of the money is unclear, but the consequences are certain: he must buy a suit, and he must go to London.
This is how he remembers his visit to the tailor: “Mr. Trabb measured and calculated me, in the parlour, as if I were an estate and he the finest species of surveyor, and gave himself such a world of trouble that I felt no suit of clothes could possibly remunerate him for his pains.” Until recently, his life resembled Mr. Trabb’s shop assistant, the boy who fetches bolts of cloth under volleys of insults, far more closely than the tailor’s regular clients, and it is no surprise the young man feels out of place. Nevertheless, he buys the suit, buys new boots and a hat, and arranges to leave for London once his new garments are ready.
The young man’s name is Pip, and his story is Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. It is a love story, but also a tragedy. Pip’s expectations make him ashamed of the boy he used to be—and of the life he might have lived. When his father was sent to debtor’s prison, the young Dickens fell into poverty, and into childhood labor, sent to a boot polish factory. It’s sometimes said that the pain of that fall haunts his novels. Certainly, the book’s plot is driven by transfers of wealth. But the money shapes character as well as events. Pip’s attitudes and relationships change. He becomes the kind of man who can neglect to pay his tailor and stay out of prison: he becomes a gentleman.
If this story was simple wish fulfillment for Dickens, the money would satisfy Pip, but it only allows Pip to confirm his suspicion that village life is trivial, and his closest friend Joe painfully simple. Pip buys new clothes, meals, and friends, not because he desires them but because he fears that without them he might be no better. Dickens doesn’t expect us to be surprised at the outcome of Pip’s furious wishing, and his suit is a symbol of the malaise. “My clothes were rather a disappointment, of course. Probably every new and eagerly expected garment ever put on since clothes came in, fell a trifle short of the wearer’s expectation.”
Pip is embarrassed by the way Joe speaks, by his illiteracy and awkwardness around others. He is embarrassed by Joe’s only suit, too formal for any event he would ever attend, and his shirt, whose high collar pushes up his hair in tufts “like some extraordinary bird.” It is only towards the end of the novel that Pip recognizes that the awkwardness was his alone. Pip’s clothes were all expectations, and they never quite fit. Joe’s suit was a way to mark exceptional days without hating the ordinary ones, and it didn’t let him down.