Charles Dickens - Great Expectations
3a. What's in a Name?
Dickens chose his names very carefully, both to convey information about the character he was writing about, but also to affect the reader at a subconscious level.
He trawled through newspapers, court records, baptism registers and the like, collecting odd and interesting-sounding names, and he used his collection to provide the names for the characters in his books.
Dickens kept very few records for Great Expectations, but one of the things which have survived is his list of names for the characters in the book.
The name Pip is a diminutive of ‘Philip’. Dickens took the name from a poem by the 16th century poet Philip Sidney called Astrophil and Stella (Astrophil means ‘star-lover’ and Stella means ‘star’). The poem is about a young man rejected by his lover, and in one line talks about his ‘great expectations’ which were dashed.
A ‘pip’ is also a seed, and Dickens meant it to signify a character which ‘grows’ up to ‘bear fruit’ (good or bad) as a human being.
‘Mag’ is a slang name for a magpie (a bird associated with theft), but a ‘Mage’ is a wise man (after the Magi who visited Jesus in the Bible story). Magwitch carries a bible he has stolen ‘as a sort of legal spell or charm’ to keep him from capture. The idea of ‘magic’ in both ‘mag’ and ‘witch’ also perhaps hints at his amazing powers (to escape, to make money), but the idea of a ‘witch’ also suggests a person unfairly condemned by society and the laws.
Coming to London at the end of the novel, Magwitch takes the name ‘Provis’ – ‘providence’ means ‘God’s plan for your life’/ ‘your fate’. It reminds us that Magwitch’s interactions with Pip direct the whole of Pip’s life – first in the churchyard, then as his anonymous benefactor, and finally as the cause of his downfall.
Magwitch’s first name is Abel. In the Bible, Abel is a sheep-herder who is killed by his brother Cain. Magwitch makes all his money in Australia as a sheep-herder, and he is tricked and betrayed by Compeyson, whom he wants to kill in revenge.
Dickens took her name from a poem by the 16th century poet Philip Sidney called Astrophil and Stella (Astrophil means ‘star-lover’ and Stella means ‘star’). The poem is about a young man rejected by his lover, and in one line talks about his ‘Great Expectations’ which were dashed.
Her name means ‘star’ – which is associated with beauty and love, and yet at the same time is cold, distant and unobtainable. Pip, in his desire to be a gentleman, is ‘reaching for the stars’, but doomed to fall short.
Perhaps Dickens also associated Estella with his teenage, starlet lover Ellen Ternan (the ‘ell’ of Ellen is picked up in the name Estella). Did this give special vibrancy to his descriptions of Pip’s yearning love for Estella?
The name ‘Orlick’ may be onomatopoeic – it sounds like the noise his feet would make when he walked around in the mud by the sluice house in the marshes where he lived.
The name ‘Dolge’ is entirely made up – ‘as an affront’ to decent people, says Dickens.
Both names suggest sludge, dirtiness and something primeval and uncivilized.
His name comes from the French word meaning ‘companion’, for he was Magwitch’s partner.
Biddy’s name suggests ‘biddable’ – someone who does as she is asked. She therefore represents the ideal Victorian woman – she is always darning or knitting, and never contradicts or argues with Pip. Towards the end f the novel, Pip realises that it is Biddy, not Estella, whom he should have been chasing.
Dickens uses Biddy in the novel as the voice of Pip’s conscience, calling him to ‘see sense’ – so she also ‘bids’ (encourages) him to become a better man, as well as being 'biddable' herself..
Is a pig of a man - Dickens gave him the name ‘Bentley’ as revenge on a publisher who had cheated him twenty years earlier.