Great Expectations and Supermen

Dickens, Nietzsche, and the science of a better life


One of the most memorable scenes of Great Expectations, as illustrated in the original 1861 text

Pip, of Dickens’s Great Expectations, was set to have a normal childhood and to lead a happy existence, albeit a humble one, until Estella came along. He had a job ready for him in Joe’s forge; he had a father-figure, a mentor, and a friend, in Joe; he had a faithful friend, even a prospective romantic companion, in Biddy. He took happiness even from—indeed, only from—the simplest of things.

For example, in their nightly eating of bread and butter by the hearth, Pip and Joe shared in an amusing ritual.

In our already-mentioned freemasonry as fellow-sufferers, and in his good-natured companionship with me, it was our evening habit to compare the way we bit through our slices, by silently holding them up to each other’s admiration now and then,—which stimulated us to new exertions.

They did all this while trying to avoid the wrath of Pip’s tyrannical older sister. The reader comes to look back with fondness on a time when avoiding Mrs. Joe’s temper was the greatest of Pip’s troubles.

Everything changes when Pip meets Estella, the gorgeous but ice-hearted daughter of Miss. Havisham, a reclusive, mysterious old rich woman, at a mansion in the nice part of town.

Over a game of beggar my neighbor: “He calls the knaves Jacks, this boy!” said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. “And what coarse hands he has! And what thick boots!”

Back home, Pip broods over his hands and his boots.

I took the opportunity of being alone in the courtyard to look at my coarse hands and my common boots. My opinion of those accessories was not favorable. They had never troubled me before, but they troubled me now, as vulgar appendages. I determined to ask Joe why he had ever taught me to call those picture-cards Jacks, which ought to be called knaves. I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too.

Thus begins Pip’s obsession with becoming a “gentleman”. He’d like to wear the finest clothes; to become literate and read the best books; to associate with the most refined of people. Life in the kitchen and forge was good enough for Pip, until it wasn’t.

Yet when Pip comes into a fortune and starts a new life in London, all is not always splendid. Worse than his daily troubles and trifles is the fact that his once-easygoing relationship between Joe becomes stilted and forced. Back in rural Kent, now-gentlemanly Pip has dinner with his uncultivated companions:

Soon afterwards, Biddy, Joe, and I, had a cold dinner together; but we dined in the best parlor, not in the old kitchen, and Joe was so exceedingly particular what he did with his knife and fork and the saltcellar and what not, that there was great restraint upon us.

And their easygoing relationship of the past seems distant and inaccessible.

“Mr. and Mrs. Hubble might like to see you in your new gen-teel figure too, Pip,” said Joe, industriously cutting his bread, with his cheese on it, in the palm of his left hand, and glancing at my untasted supper as if he thought of the time when we used to compare slices.

Despite all the frills of life with London’s upper crust, Pip can’t help but wonder at times, “with a weariness on my spirits, that I should have been happier and better if I had never seen Miss Havisham’s face, and had risen to manhood content to be partners with Joe in the honest old forge.”

Great Expectations gives rise to a question I myself have considered quite a bit: is it necessarily better to eat better food, to see better plays, and to dine with people who have better manners? Or might one rationally opt to gain pleasure from baser sources? If a college student gains as much pleasure from Burger King as a chef does from French haute cuisine, is not the student better off in this regard? Is Pip wise to pursue a life of excellence, at the expense of the simple things which once gave him pleasure?

What’s better?

First, let’s define our terms. What even constitutes better things in the first place? I’ve touched upon this topic in the past. For whatever reason, a genuine Van Gogh is better than a nearly-indistinguishable impersonation, at least in the sense that it sells for more money; it’s more coveted by experts; it winds up at more prestigious museums. Why is all of this the case? The reason is not entirely clear, but, in short, it seems that a genuine Van Gogh is rare, and it represents excellence.

Even if we grant that a painting is rare and excellent, it’s still a bit difficult to connect these characteristics to prestige. I’ve also addressed the topic of prestige in the past, and the fact that such a notion can be elusive. But for our purposes, I think we can grant that certain artists produce better work, and that they are revered for it, as a matter of fact. In other words, prestige exists, and it is, to at least some degree, meritocratic.

Higher disciplines

I’ve made the argument that disciplines, like things, can be rare sources of untold complexity and intrigue. Blacksmithing may be one such discipline, but we might imagine that literature and fine arts would be more so. Disciplines like these, I have argued, are rewarding to partake in, because of the rich worlds they uniquely proffer.

Was Pip justified in pursuing such lofty experiences? It certainly seems that he was. The experiences which London was poised to offer were, simply, better, in any coherent sense of the world.

On the other hand, we have yet to show that better experience actually yields a better life.

Excellence and the good life

The good life has been a central topic in western philosophy since Socrates, and is outside the scope of this post. However, we might find some instruction in the philosophy of Nietzsche, who rejected the notions of self-restraint, as espoused by the ancient Greeks, as well as the compassion encouraged in Judeochristian thought, as “life-denying”. Rather, we ought to strive for life-affirming values of individual excellence.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche invokes the “overman” as an ideal being:

I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?

All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 3)

A good life, even a moral life, according to Nietzsche, consists in furthering the tide of human progress: one must achieve more, do better, and so on, and, in doing so, overcome the earthly limitations of man.

Interestingly, Nietzsche goes on to suggest that, in order to create, one must consult the physical sciences.

To that end [of creating ourselves] we must become the best learners and discoverers of everything that is lawful and necessary in the world: we must become physicists in order to be creators in this sense— while hitherto all valuations and ideals have been based on ignorance of physics… Therefore: long live physics! (Gay Science, 335)

His sentiment offers credence to our conclusion that what is better is not a matter of opinion, but rather a matter of fact, subject to the rules and laws of physics. One need only successfully interpret and obey these laws in order to discover worthy pursuits, and to partake in them. Meanwhile, the book’s title, also translated as The Joyful Wisdom, may refer to the result of these lofty pursuits, although Nietzsche may use the phrase facetiously.

Through these select pursuits, one can approach the overman, or, rather, the “higher man” described in Nietzsche’s more mature works. “What is noble?” Nietzsche asks, responding: “That one instinctively seeks heavy responsibilities.” (The Will to PowerNietzsche invokes Goethe, one of his paradigmatic higher men (along with Beethoven, and himself): “He was not fainthearted but took as much as possible upon himself, over himself, into himself.” (Twilight of the Idols, 49)

If Pip is to become a higher man, he ought to do the same. And London offers Pip a better chance at seeking worthy responsibilities than does Kent.

I will note that the second half of Great Expectations is less a depiction of Pip’s new, worthy responsibilities, and more a parody of his failure to shoulder them. Pip shirks his studies, instead spiraling deep into debt, alongside his friend Herbert, thanks to a multitude of ridiculous and superfluous purchases. One such purchase is the entry fee to The Finches of the Grove, a comically-pseudoprestigious “secret society”.

So now, as an infallible way of making little ease great ease, I began to contract a quantity of debt. I could hardly begin but Herbert must begin too, so he soon followed. At Startop’s suggestion, we put ourselves down for election into a club called The Finches of the Grove: the object of which institution I have never divined, if it were not that the members should dine expensively once a fortnight, to quarrel among themselves as much as possible after dinner, and to cause six waiters to get drunk on the stairs. I know that these gratifying social ends were so invariably accomplished, that Herbert and I understood nothing else to be referred to in the first standing toast of the society: which ran “Gentlemen, may the present promotion of good feeling ever reign predominant among the Finches of the Grove.”

Pip has breakfast daily with Herbert, and with a child servant he dubs the Avenger. Times get difficult:

As we got more and more into debt, breakfast became a hollower and hollower form, and, being on one occasion at breakfast-time threatened (by letter) with legal proceedings, “not unwholly unconnected,” as my local paper might put it, “with jewelery,” I went so far as to seize the Avenger by his blue collar and shake him off his feet,—so that he was actually in the air, like a booted Cupid,—for presuming to suppose that we wanted a roll.

And difficult times are met, obligatorily, by a hilarious procedure that Pip and Herbert call “looking into affairs”:

I would then take a sheet of paper, and write across the top of it, in a neat hand, the heading, “Memorandum of Pip’s debts”; with Barnard’s Inn and the date very carefully added. Herbert would also take a sheet of paper, and write across it with similar formalities, “Memorandum of Herbert’s debts.”

Each of us would then refer to a confused heap of papers at his side, which had been thrown into drawers, worn into holes in pockets, half burnt in lighting candles, stuck for weeks into the looking-glass, and otherwise damaged. The sound of our pens going refreshed us exceedingly, insomuch that I sometimes found it difficult to distinguish between this edifying business proceeding and actually paying the money. In point of meritorious character, the two things seemed about equal.

And the cycle would continue.

Regardless of the practical difficulty of shouldering worthy responsibility, however, we should ask whether one should strive to shoulder such responsibility in the first place. If we are to believe Nietzsche, one should.

However, before we pursue the good life, we should ask how we ought to define good. It seems that Nietzsche’s definition includes purposeful: so purposeful, indeed, and so productive, that mankind itself can be bested. But does it include happy? In fact, Nietzsche’s ideal actually excludes happiness.

The noble human being honors himself as one who is powerful, also as one who has power over himself, who knows how to speak and be silent, who delights in being severe and hard with himself and respects all severity and hardness. (Beyond Good and Evil, 260)

“What is noble?” Nietzsche asks: “That one leaves happiness to the great majority.”  (Will to Power, 944).


Nietzsche seems to claim that the better one becomes, so the more difficult life becomes. We seem to have reduced our question to a simple matter of opinion: would one rather be happy or productive?

There’s perhaps more to be said, though. I argue that we might distinguish between the acts of creating, or partaking, on one hand, and the state of knowing, on the other. We may even choose to return to Nietzsche’s notion of a joyful wisdom. Maybe partaking in worthy responsibility doesn’t immediately deliver pleasure. But it delivers wisdom, which, itself, may offer some sort of secondary pleasure, or joy.

We can point to connoisseurship, which has been discussed fairly extensively on this blog. One can explore entire worlds of fine coffee, chocolate, wine, art, and so on.

If we are to believe Nietzsche, the aficionado takes as no more corporeal pleasure from the Three Africas coffee, which blends Congolese and two types of Ethopian beans, and which has been described by Oakland-based Blue Bottle Coffee as having “a very easy-to-like personality with good body and unthreatening complexity”, than the long-distance trucker takes from a hot pot of gas station brew. This may well be the case. But the connoisseur has a pleasure of knowing and understanding, which the trucker distinctly does not have. We can be agnostic about the pleasures delivered by higher or lower pursuits, while still granting that he who partakes in the higher pursuit is more knowledgeable about the discipline he pursues. And being knowledgeable is rewarding.

In fact, this very dichotomy has played out on the pages of this blog. One author takes immense pleasure in a relatively base form of music, while acknowledging that other forms of music may be more gratifying, intellectually. Perhaps our choice is not one between happiness and severe, hard productivity, but rather one between happiness and wisdom.


In The Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Nietzsche on Morality, renowned philosopher and legal scholar Brian Leiter ascribes five qualities to Nietzsche’s higher man. One of them is the tendency to seek burdens and responsibilities, already discussed. Another is the tendency to be solitary.

Every choice human being strives instinctively for a citadel and a secrecy where he is saved from the crowd, the many, the great majority… (Beyond Good and Evil, 26)

Nietzsche writes. Indeed, his approach towards other people moves from indifference to disgust to malice:

A human being who strives for something great considers everyone he meets on his way either as a means or as a delay and obstacle — or as a temporary resting place. (Beyond Good and Evil, 273).

Again, if Pip ever strove to embody Nietzchian ideals, he did a poor job. He doesn’t eschew friendship; rather, he finds a strong, steady, and true friend in Herbert. If Pip had followed Nietzsche, he would have had neither Joe and Biddy nor Herbert. But, as is, there’s no doubt that his relationships with Joe and Biddy suffer. Over the dinner table, back in Kent, Joe can’t help regard Pip as a stranger. Neither can Pip help but to disdain Joe. “Well! Joe is a dear good fellow,—in fact, I think he is the dearest fellow that ever lived,” he tells Biddy, “—but he is rather backward in some things. For instance, Biddy, in his learning and his manners.” “…if I were to remove Joe into a higher sphere, as I shall hope to remove him when I fully come into my property, they would hardly do him justice,” he adds.

Biddy is taken aback, naturally, and presses the issue, when Pip snaps, “Now, Biddy, I am very sorry to see this in you. I did not expect to see this in you. You are envious, Biddy, and grudging. You are dissatisfied on account of my rise in fortune, and you can’t help showing it.” “If you have the heart to think so,” Biddy returns, “say so. Say so over and over again, if you have the heart to think so.”

If one is eager to be the overman, it seems, one must be content to strive for the citadel, and to render friendships mercenary. The reward may be productivity, or joyful wisdom, or both. But the cost, as indicated above, might be substantial.

Of course, we can argue that, outside of Nietzsche, expertise is by no means mutually exclusive with friendship. But if Great Expectations shows us anything, it’s that the desire to achieve a new life comes, at least to some degree, at the expense of the old one. Perhaps this is a necessary cost. We might then ask whether or not the pleasure of connoisseurship, if not the pleasure of productivity, of excellence, of furthering the tide, is worth this cost.


The desire to achieve London, at the expense of Kent, (or Estella, at the expense of Biddy), may not always be a matter we have a choice in. Pip, by the looks of it, did not.

Once for all; I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved [Estella] against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be.

The ever-wise Biddy challenges Pip on his rationale for wanting to be a gentleman.

“Do you want to be a gentleman, to spite [Estella] or to gain her over?” Biddy quietly asked me, after a pause.

“I don’t know,” I moodily answered.

“Because, if it is to spite her,” Biddy pursued, “I should think—but you know best—that might be better and more independently done by caring nothing for her words. And if it is to gain her over, I should think—but you know best—she was not worth gaining over.”

Exactly what I myself had thought, many times. Exactly what was perfectly manifest to me at the moment. But how could I, a poor dazed village lad, avoid that wonderful inconsistency into which the best and wisest of men fall every day?

Indeed, questions like Pip’s might be answered by instinct (or impulse) long before they’re addressed by reason. But this shouldn’t be to say that questions  like these are out of reach of the philosophy of Nietzsche, or the story of Pip.

But if reason fails, we might still, at least, hope that it may tell us how we have erred in the past, where it failed to change how we acted in the present. After things are all but lost, Pip plans to open his heart to Biddy:

Then I would say to her, “Biddy, I think you once liked me very well, when my errant heart, even while it strayed away from you, was quieter and better with you than it ever has been since. If you can like me only half as well once more, if you can take me with all my faults and disappointments on my head, if you can receive me like a forgiven child (and indeed I am as sorry, Biddy, and have as much need of a hushing voice and a soothing hand), I hope I am a little worthier of you that I was,—not much, but a little.


  1. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  2. Nietzsche’s Moral and Political Philosophy from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  3. Beyond Good and Evil, trans. W. Kaufmann, New York: Vintage, 1966
  4. The Gay Science, trans. W. Kaufmann, New York: Vintage, 1974
  5. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. & trans. W. Kaufmann, New York: Viking, 1954
  6. Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche (above)
  7. The Will to Power, trans. W. Kaufmann & R.J. Hollingdale, New York: Vintage, 1968.
  8. Leiter, Brian, 2002. Nietzsche on Morality, London: Routledge

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