The Importance of Being a Gentleman

In Great Expectations–in which Bertrand Russell said Dickens officially apologies those he felt he had “sold out” in his rise to fame and success–Dickens tries not only to relive his own life’s follies pitfalls, but also explore what it means to be a good person. Joe Gargery is both the man who comes to personify virtue in poverty, in Dickens words “a Gentle Christian Man,” and is also a foil to Pip, who in all ways except one is a sell out. When Pip first receives a fortune from an unknown source, he is corrupted by money so that when he sees Joe for the first time in a long time, he barely knows what to say to his uncle. It is as though they are strangers. Both of them feel the distance. Yet Pip does–after losing his fortune the first time–discover it in his heart to be the good friend he ought to be towards Joe. He gives up the girl (Biddy) who is his new found love because she is engaged to Joe.

Joe’s nobility is as refined through his suffering as his manners are not. Apart from being poor and working as a blacksmith, Mrs. Joe–his first wife and Pip’s sister–beats both Joe and Pip. Yet Joe is abhorrent of the practice of what we would call spouse abuse today, especially when it is directed towards a woman. He cannot believe any woman deserves to be beaten, no matter how abusive she is first. More, he is a forgiving man, who loves Pip and never gives up on him in reality.

I feel like we can learn from Joe and Pip’s story today. Very few of the people reading this Blog are probably suffering from poverty. Yet if we ask ourselves, isn’t it possible that we had ancestors who did? I know that although not as poverty stricken as Grandma Alderson’s parents were, my Grandma Alderson made extra money from babysitting while my Grandpa only had an 8th Grade education and worked as a conductor on a train during the Great Depression (Grandma Alderson had a high school diploma). By contrast, Grandpa and Grandma Williams were poor farmers, though Grandma had a college degree and before their marriage worked as a Social Worker in the Dust Bowl. That said… Grandma Williams family came to America from Sweden… and as such were immigrants. It is a miracle that with the help of her uncles and grandparents, her parents managed to send Grandma Williams to school. Yet Grandpa still words like “ain’t.” His education was not that great. I know people might not find my personal history interesting. Yet I want to ask: if I maintain a prejudice against immigrants, am I not hurting my own Grandma Williams in a sense? Is it not the truth that just because somebody is from Mexico and not Sweden I would not allow them to come to this country, I am not doing my Grandma’s legacy a deep injury?

That is why we ought to open our hearts to others in the way that Dickens said the true “Gentle Christian man” in Joe did. True, I am Jewish and not Christian. Yet if you think of it, Dickens was a Unitarian because he disbelieved in miracles and the Trinity. Though he apparently believed in Jesus’ teachings (he wrote a book Life of Our Lord for his children), what he believed at heart was in love. We should see nobility in the people who may be like our very own ancestors. We should be wary of becoming the ungrateful Pip to today’s Joe. That is what Charles Dickens believed being a true “gentleman” or true “lady” is.

Published by hadassahalderson

I am a professional author who lives in Wichita, KS. I went to Friends University and spent one year at Claremont Graduate University. My published work includes: The Bible According to Eve I-IV and Faust in Love.

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