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The Definition And Features Of Modern Tragedy In The Novel Great Expectations

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Literature can reflect society. Literature also points out what is wrong with the society. In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens exposes the dark side of Victorian era’s industrial age by making his novel a tragedy. Through the character, and structure, Great Expectations can be defined as a modern tragedy and with its tragedy characteristics, the novel reflects the Victorian society’s suffering.

First of all, Pip has many characteristics that belong to a tragic hero which is so crucial to a tragedy. A tragic hero has heroic traits or greatness to make the reader or audience feel sympathetic towards him. Pip also has the tragic greatness. When he is young, he is innocent and helps a hungry convict by stealing his family’s food to give him. This kindness of him leads to his rise in fortune as Magwitch tells Pip that, “You acted noble, my boy…noble, Pip! And I have never forget it!”(362). Later he also becomes guilty of being prideful to Joe and Biddy and of leading Herbert into debt. He further helps Herbert financially in Herbert’s business. Moreover, he helps Magwitch escape and sympathize him. However, Pip has tragic flaws too. He is prideful and condescending to his old best friend Joe. He sees Joe inferior to himself as he tells Biddy that, “ he is rather backwards in some things” (173). He is further snobbish to both Biddy and Joe since he accuses Biddy that she is envious of him and he hires the Avenger, a servant, to seem like a true gentleman to Joe. Besides Joe and Biddy, he does not accept nor is thankful of Magwitch but instead put him away and tells him to “stay!” and “keep off!”(362) when Magwitch is all loving to him. In Greek tragedy convention, the tragic hero has flaw of thinking himself superior to other people. But that means he is against God too so this hubris of him will bring about his own catastrophe. In Great Expectations, Pip’s pridefulness makes him lose his family and friends. Another tragic flaw is hamartia which is a tragic hero’s wrong move and comes from ignorance. Pip’s wrong move is that he enjoys thinking that Miss Havisham is his secret benefactor and that thinking of himself as a hero who will help Miss Havisham and Estella from Satis house: “She reserved it for me to restore the desolate house, admit the sunshine into the dark rooms…(267). Those false ideals hurt him greatly when he finds out that they are not true. Being irrational is one of tragic hero traits too. In Oedipus Rex, made even clearer by his foil Creon, Oedipus is irrational, blind, and persistent thinking that Creon plans to usurp his throne but Creon is already satisfied with his position. Similarly, Pip is not a rational character. He overly idolizes Estella although Miss Havisham’s story of idolizing someone can destroy us gives him a warn that he might be hurt too if he keeps loving Estella. He loves Estella so greatly but does not know why: “I loved her simply because I found her irresistible”(267). His irrationality brings about his calamity which is his heartache. Like Oedipus who is very persistent to know the truth, Pip is persistent in loving Estella. Another trait of a tragic hero Pip has is that he is not that afraid of death: “The death close before me was terrible, but far more terrible than death was the dread of being misremembered after death”(486). In Antigone, the tragic heroine Antigone decides to bury her brother even though it will trade with her life.

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Therefore, Pip has heroic traits, tragic greatness, and tragic flaws, which makes him a true tragic hero. All those traits urge the reader to experience the feeling of catharsis which is a crucial element of a tragedy that purifies pity and fear among the reader. We pity Pip because he has a lot of nice traits and because his downfall is worse than what he deserves. For example, although he overly idolizes Estella, he just internalizes what Miss Havisham intentionally convinces him, so his punishment is too much. We also get to have sympathy to Pip when Orlick is going to kill him because Pip has more fear than death that everyone will not know that he has been unhappy—he feels guilty to everyone at this point. Obviously his change of attitude and guilt to those who love him earns him the reader’s sympathy that comes from mutual feeling. The reader feels that Pip is human like them too so they share the same suffering. For the feeling of terror, we have terror when Pip encounters his downfalls which are the disappointment and heartbreak from Miss Havisham and Estella, losing his family and friends, and being threatened to death by Orlick. After readers realize that Pip is also a human as them, they begins to fear that the calamity the tragic hero Pip has might happen to them. Thus, after they pity Pip and fear for what Pip encounters, they get to experience catharsis because their pity and fear in the mind are purified and purged.

Moreover, by plot analysis, Dickens’ Great Expectations can be a tragedy as it follows Greek and Shakespearean tragedy that is known to have five-act structure. The first act or the exposition provides background information of the protagonist Pip. In the very beginning of the novel, it introduces a young orphaned bot named Pip at his parents’ tombstone where he meets a convict. One day his sister wants him to go to play at Miss Havisham’s house hoping for money in return. At the house, Pip gets to see Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter Estella whom he falls in love with. He becomes to feel that he is lack of many things. The exposition hints the protagonist Pip’s dissatisfaction about his low born and social status. In Shakespearean tragedies, the exposition also ends with the tragic hero’s uneasiness and need to do something. For example, in Hamlet, Hamlet is told by his father ghost how he dies so Hamlet gets uneasy and feels like avenging his father’s death. Likewise, Pip is convinced by Miss Havisham and Estella that he is lacking so he feels uncomfortable and wants to be a gentleman.

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The Definition And Features Of Modern Tragedy In The Novel Great Expectations. (2021, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 7, 2023, from
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