Recent criticism of Great Expectations has tended to emphasize its symbolic and mythic content , to show , as M. D. Zabel has said of Dickens generally , that much of the novel's impact resides in its `` allegoric insight and moral metaphor '' .
J. H. Miller's excellent chapter on Great Expectations has lately illustrated how fruitfully that novel can be read from such a perspective .
In his analysis , however , he touches upon but fails to explore an idea , generally neglected in discussions of the book , which I believe is central to its art -- the importance of human hands as a recurring feature of the narrative .
This essay seeks to make that exploration .
Dickens was not for nothing the most theatrical of the great Victorian writers .
He knew instinctively that next to voice and face an actor's hands are his most useful possession -- that in fiction as in the theatre , gesture is an indispensable shorthand for individualizing character and dramatizing action and response .
It is hardly accidental , therefore , that many of his most vivid figures do suggestive or eccentric things with their hands .
In Great Expectations the hands become almost an obsession .
Mr. Jaggers habitually bites his forefinger , a gesture which conveys both contempt and the inscrutable abstractedness that half fascinates , half terrifies all who have dealings with him .
Miss Havisham's withered hands , heavy as if her unhappiness were somehow concentrated in them , move in restless self-pity between her broken heart and her walking stick .
Pumblechook's `` signature '' is the perpetually extended glad hand .
Wemmick reveals his self-satisfaction by regularly rubbing his hands together .
Old Mr. Pocket's frantic response to life imprisonment with a useless , social-climbing wife is to `` put his two hands into his disturbed hair '' and `` make an extraordinary effort to lift himself up by it '' , whereas Joe Gargery endures the shrewish onslaughts of Mrs. Joe by apologetically drawing `` the back of his hand across and across his nose '' .
Such mannerisms would be less worthy of remark , were it not that in Great Expectations , as in no other of Dickens' novels , hands serve as a leitmotif of plot and theme -- a kind of unifying symbol or natural metaphor for the book's complex of human interrelationships and the values and attitudes that motivate them .
Dickens not only reveals character through gesture , he makes hands a crucial element of the plot , a means of clarifying the structure of the novel by helping to define the hero's relations with all the major characters , and a device for ordering such diverse themes as guilt , pursuit , crime , greed , education , materialism , enslavement ( by both people and institutions ) , friendship , romantic love , forgiveness , and redemption .
We have only to think of Lady Macbeth or the policeman-murderer in Thomas Burke's famous story , `` The Hands Of Mr. Ottermole '' , to realize that hands often call up ideas of crime and punishment .
So it is with Great Expectations , whether the hands be Orlick's as he strikes down Mrs. Gargery or Pip's as he steals a pie from her pantry .
Such associations suit well with the gothic or mystery-story aspects of Dickens' novel , but , on a deeper plane , they relate to the themes of sin , guilt , and pursuit that have recently been analyzed by other critics .
The novel opens with a fugitive convict frantically trying to avoid the nemesis of being `` laid hands on '' -- a mysterious figure who looks into Pip's frightened eyes in the churchyard `` as if he were eluding the hands of the dead people , stretching up cautiously out of their graves , to get a twist upon his ankle and pull him in '' .
Magwitch terrifies Pip into stealing a pork pie for him by creating the image in the boy's imagination of a bogy man who may `` softly creep his way to him and tear him open '' , `` imbruing his hands '' in him .
As Pip agonizes over the theft that his own hands have committed , his guilty conscience projects itself upon the wooden finger of a local signpost , transforming it into `` a phantom devoting me to the Hulks '' .
Held upside down in the graveyard , Pip clings in terror `` with both hands '' to his convict ; ;
later he flees in panic from the family table just as his theft is about to be discovered and is blocked at the front door by a soldier who accusingly holds out a pair of handcuffs which he has brought to Gargery's forge for mending .
Through such details Dickens indicates at the outset that guilt is a part of the ironic bond between Pip and Magwitch which is so unpredictably to alter both their lives .
Since they commonly translate thoughts and feelings into deeds , hands naturally represent action , and since nearly half the characters in Great Expectations are of the underworld or closely allied to it , the linking of hands with crime or violence is not to be wondered at .
Dickens , for excellent psychological reasons , never fully reveals Magwitch's felonious past , but Pip , at the convict's climactic reappearance in London , shrinks from clasping a hand which he fears `` might be stained with blood '' .
Orlick slouches about the forge `` like Cain '' with `` his hands in his pockets '' , and when he shouts abuse at Mrs. Joe for objecting to his holiday , she claps her hands in a tantrum , beats them `` upon her bosom and upon her knees '' , and clenches them in her husband's hair .
This last `` rampage '' is only the prelude to the vicious blow upon her head , `` dealt by some unknown hand '' whose identity is later revealed not verbally but through a manual action -- the tracing of Orlick's hammer upon a slate .
Pip himself is to feel the terror of Orlick's `` murderous hand '' in his secret rendezvous at the sluicehouse on the marshes .
Dickens lays great emphasis on the hands in this scene .
Orlick shakes his hand at Pip , bangs the table with his fist , draws his unclenched hand `` across his mouth as if his mouth watered '' for his victim , lets his hands hang `` loose and heavy at his sides '' , and Pip observes him so intensely that he knows `` of the slightest action of his fingers '' .
Orlick might almost be Magwitch's bogy man come alive , a figure of nemesis from Pip's phantasy of guilt .
The scarred , disfigured wrists of Mr. Jaggers' housekeeper are the tell-tale marks of her sinister past , for her master , coolly exhibiting them to his dinner guests , makes a point of the `` force of grip there is in these hands '' .
Jaggers' iron control over her ( `` she would remove her hands from any dish she put before him , hesitatingly , as if she dreaded his calling her back ) '' ) rests on his having once got her acquitted of a murder charge by cleverly contriving her sleeves at the trial to conceal her strength and by passing off the lacerations on the backs of her hands as the scratches of brambles rather than of human fingernails .
It is the similarity between Estella's hands and Molly's ( `` The action of her fingers was like the action of knitting '' ) that provides Pip with a vital clue to the real identity of both and establishes a symbolic connection between the underworld of crime and the genteel cruelty of Satis House .
Finally , Magwitch's pursuit of Compeyson , his archenemy and betrayer , begins by his holding him in a vicelike grip on the river flats to frustrate his escape and culminates in his `` laying his hand on his cloak to identify him '' , thus precipitating the death-locked struggle in the water during which Compeyson drowns .
Magwitch's hand here ironically becomes the agent of justice .
But only in one of its aspects is Great Expectations a tale of violence , revenge , and retribution .
Money , so important a theme elsewhere in Dickens , is here central , and hands are often associated in some way with the false values -- acquisitiveness , snobbery , self-interest , hypocrisy , toadyism , irresponsibility , injustice -- that attach to a society based upon the pursuit of wealth .
Dickens suggests the economic evils of such a society on the first page of his novel in the description of Pip's five little dead brothers `` who gave up trying to get a living exceedingly early in that universal struggle '' , who seemed to have `` all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets , and had never taken them out in this state of existence '' .
Pip's great expectations , his progress through illusion and disillusionment , turn , somewhat as they do for the naive hero of Dreiser's American Tragedy , upon the lure of genteel prosperity through unearned income -- what Wemmick calls `` portable property '' and what Jaggers reproaches Pip for letting `` slip through ( his ) fingers '' .
Since a gentleman must , if possible , avoid sullying them by work , his hands , as importantly as his accent , become the index of social status .
Almost the first step in the corruption of Pip's values is the unworthy shame he feels when Estella cruelly remarks the coarseness of his hands : `` They had never troubled me before , but they troubled me now , as vulgar appendages '' .
Pip imagines how Estella would look down upon Joe's hands , roughened by work in the smithy , and the deliberate contrast between her white hands and his blackened ones is made to symbolize the opposition of values between which Pip struggles -- idleness and work , artificiality and naturalness , gentility and commonness , coldness and affection -- in fact , between Satis House and the forge .
When the snobbery that alienates Pip from Joe finally gives way before the deeper and stronger force of love , the reunion is marked by an embarrassed handshake at which Pip exclaims : `` No , don't wipe it off -- for God's sake , give me your blackened hand '' ! !
Pip's abject leave-taking of Miss Havisham , during which he kneels to kiss her hand , signalizes his homage to a supposed patroness who seems to be opening up for him a new world of glamour ; ;
when , on the journey to London that immediately follows , he pauses nostalgically to lay his hand upon the finger-post at the end of the village , the wooden pointer symbolically designates a spiritual frontier between innocence and the corruption of worldly vanity .
Incidentally , one cannot miss the significance of this gesture , for Dickens reintroduces it associatively in Pip's mind at another moral and psychological crisis -- his painful recognition , in a talk with Herbert Pocket , that his hopeless attachment to Estella is as self-destructive as it is romantic .
In both cases the finger-post represents Pip's heightened awareness of contrary magnetisms .
A variety of hand movements helps dramatize the moral climate of the fallen world Pip encounters beyond the forge .
The vulture-like attendance of the Pocket family upon Miss Havisham is summed up in the hypocritical gestures of Miss Camilla Pocket , who puts her hand to her throat in a feigned spasm of grief-stricken choking , then lays it `` upon her heaving bosom '' with `` an unnatural fortitude of manner '' , and finally kisses it to Miss Havisham in a parody of the lady's own mannerism toward Estella .
Pumblechook's hands throughout the novel serve to travesty greed and hypocritical self-aggrandizement .
We first see him shaking Mrs. Joe's hand on discovering the sizable amount of the premium paid to her husband for Pip's indenture as an apprentice and later pumping Pip's hands `` for the hundredth time at least '' ( `` May I -- may I -- '' ? ?
) in effusive congratulation to Pip on his expectations .
We take leave of Pumblechook as he gloats over Pip's loss of fortune , extending his hand `` with a magnificently forgiving air '' and exhibiting `` the same fat five fingers '' , one of which he identifies with `` the finger of Providence '' and shakes at Pip in a canting imputation of the latter's `` ingratitoode '' and his own generosity as Pip's `` earliest benefactor '' .
Pip first learns `` the stupendous power of money '' from the sycophantic tailor , Mr. Trabb , whose brutality to his boy helper exactly matches the financial resource of each new customer , and whose fawning hands touch `` the outside of each elbow '' and `` rub '' Pip out of the shop .
The respectability which money confers implies a different etiquette , and , upon taking up the life of a London gentleman , Pip must learn from Herbert Pocket that `` the spoon is not generally used over-hand , but under '' .