Upon detailed examination of Charles Dickens’ classic novel Great Expectations, subtle themes of repression emerge to offer greater depth of meaning to the plot and its characters. These ideas of repressed feelings, thoughts, and actions are derivative of psychoanalysis, a method of psychological therapy originated by the famous Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud. The many occurrences of repression become clearer and more intriguing with a basic knowledge of psychoanalysis and its uses in literary criticism.

Psychoanalysis is based on the fundamental theory that the mind is divided into two separate parts – the conscious and the unconscious. The unconscious self, which Freud named the “id,” is not outwardly expressed; it is irrational and unknown, and hidden from view within the recesses of our minds. Freud suggests that the id is the power which motivates men and women, and controls their fears, desires and instincts. The conscious self, or “ego,” is predominantly rational, logical, and orderly. Whatever the conscious mind tells us not to do or think is repressed, forced into the unconscious mind. Psychoanalysis utilizes the interpretations of dreams to explore the repressed or unconscious impulses, anxieties, and internal conflicts of the human mind.

Freud’s theories can easily be adapted to analyze literature, as well as the human psyche. Literature can be seen as analogous to dreams, as it is also fictional – an invention of the mind. Therefore, the principles of psychoanalysis can be translated to literature – specifically, to give us a greater understanding of Great Expectations and the themes of repression found within.

Repressed themes are seen most broadly in the presence of what can be called the “dominant” and “repressed” plots in the novel. The idea of Pip improving himself from a common blacksmith, with the ultimate goal of becoming a gentleman and fulfilling his expectations, is one of the dominant plots that guide the story; however, there is another, repressed plot of criminality that is also present at the same time. It is shown in Pip’s repeated transgressions, which act against his high-class dreams.

More importantly, it is seen in the characters associated with Pip throughout the novel, especially those of Magwitch and Orlick. Magwitch is a convict himself, who is introduced at the beginning of the novel and later forgotten, although certain events remind Pip (and the reader) of “his convict” at various points during the story, until his eventual return. When Magwitch is finally reveals himself to be Pip’s mysterious benefactor instead of Miss Havisham, as was previously assumed, the truth that had been hidden (or repressed) is brought to the surface and Pip becomes fully aware of his situation for the first time. In fact, Pip feels that he knew Magwitch was coming even before he arrived, and before he knew anything of his past or his expectations. Pip reveals that he

began either to imagine or recall that I had had mysterious warnings of this man’s approach…I had passed faces in the streets which I had thought like his…these likenesses had grown more numerous as he, coming over the sea, had drawn nearer.

Thus, Pip’s unconscious mind is busy at work during this time. He knows that there is something lurking beneath the surface of his thoughts, but he is unable to access this part of his mind until it is brought to the forefront by the appearance of Magwitch in his home. It is as if his unconscious mind has been allowed into his consciousness, so that there is no longer a repression of the important, yet decidedly disappointing, identity of the individual who had given Pip his expectations.

In addition, the characters of Orlick and Pip can be seen as “doubles.” The two boys follow similar paths, from the forge, to Miss Havisham’s, and eventually to the marshes where they have their climactic meeting. However, Orlick is the “dark side” of Pip, acting out in ways that Pip would never do. Orlick expresses the feelings and behaviors that Pip keeps repressed, acting as a physical metaphor for Pip’s own unconscious self. Even though both he and Pip are mistreated by Mrs. Joe, only Orlick is able to fight back, both verbally and physically, while Pip keeps his feelings hidden inside. Later, Pip returns to Satis House, only to find that Orlick now works there as a doorman. Upon opening the door, Orlick notes, “Ah, young master, there’s more changes than yours,” as if his improvements have mirrored those of Pip.

He then answers all of Pip’s questions in a very literal, sarcastic manner, as if he were a direct representation of Pip’s subconscious, speaking only the absolute truth and unable to hide behind lies or pleasantries. When Orlick invites Pip into the house, he shows him his room, a room that Pip had never seen before. This is suggestive of Pip’s discovery of a previously hidden place in his own mind, so that he is newly made aware of things that had until that time only resided in his unconscious, or id.

The second, and perhaps equally important, occurrence of one plot dominating another is found within Satis House, in which the “dream” or “fairy tale” vision of the house and nobility cause the “nightmare” of the place to be repressed. From his first visit, Pip knows that he wants to be a part of that world, although Miss Havisham and the house possess some eerie, dark qualities.

Nevertheless, Pip focuses only on the dream of Satis House, ignoring the nightmare hidden beneath the surface. In effect, he represses the reality of the house so that he may continue to have high aspirations for a future as part of that society. Sometimes, though, elements of the nightmare show themselves on the surface, as if in a dream during which the subconscious suddenly dominates. On two occasions, Pip sees ghost-like images of Miss Havisham hanging from the house when he wanders its grounds, but when he takes another look the apparition is gone. The appearance of such a vision may signify the future hardship that Pip will encounter in his quest to become a gentleman of London society; however, it is hardship that he will ignore at the present , and repress in the future, so that his goals remain unfettered by their possible consequences.

It becomes clear that Pip will never be able to fully escape his past, no matter how much he tries to repress it, when he returns to Satis House for his periodical visits throughout the story. Every time he goes back to see Miss Havisham and Estella, he is brought down once again to the same standing that he inhabited as a child – lowly and common, with calloused hands and heavy boots, in comparison to the lovely and graceful Estella. No matter how much he has gained in the city, his status is not elevated with respect to the rest of Satis House, so he remains perpetually subservient to Miss Havisham and Estella.

Estella herself is an excellent example of repression in Dickens’ work. She was adopted and raised by Ms. Havisham to exact revenge on males, in order to get back at them for the heartbreak that she herself had endured years ago. To accomplish this, Estella has been groomed to feel no love, to be “proud” and “hard” instead. Miss Havisham has succeeded so thoroughly that Estella cannot even express feelings for her adopted mother, keeping them suppressed deep within herself. She asserts this fact to Pip many times, and at last explains to him:

“It seems…that there are sentiments, fancies – I 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.”

Estella has kept her feelings repressed for so long that she does not even recognize their existence. At the end of the novel, however, hardship has taught her to feel again, so that she is eventually able to understand what Pip once felt.

Pip is also repressing his more “common,” peasant past when he travels to London to become a gentleman. He wants to start a new life, and wants no one to know about his upbringing, to the point that he tries to slowly break ties with Joe and Biddy at the forge. Pip is unable to completely escape his past, however, as is seen when he begins to live at the Pocket’s house and goes rowing on the river in the evening. Pip says that his rowing tutor “confused me very much, by saying I had the arm of a blacksmith. If he could have known how nearly the compliment lost him his pupil, I doubt he would have paid it.” Eventually, Pip reconciles his past with his present, and is able to bring to light many of the things that he had kept hidden from himself for so long.

As we have seen, Pip’s efforts to hide his past in order to begin his new future are futile. Psychoanalytic criticism promotes the theory that in order to live a fulfilling life and succeed in the future, one must confront his past and understand it. Therefore, as each repressed theme is uncovered and becomes a conscious element of the plot, Pip moves closer to achieving a clean slate for his future. By the end of the novel, when most of its secrets have been revealed, he has largely succeeded in this task.

This essay was written April 2004 for the NYU class “Literary Interpretation.”