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  • Apprentices and Apprenticeship in Great Expectations
  • Jerome Meckier (bio)

Dickens knew a great deal about apprenticeship and apprentices.1 He depicts Oliver Twist, for example, as a victim of “pauper-apprenticing” (Lane 18). Orphans were delivered from the workhouse to established tradesmen who became, in effect, surrogate fathers, receiving the apprentices into their households. Unfortunately, Oliver is apprenticed to Mr. Sowerberry, “the parochial undertaker,” and his “vixenish” wife (13; ch. 4); their other apprentice, Noah Claypole, bullies him. A warm-hearted blacksmith makes a better master than a sour coffin maker, but Pip’s eventual disdain for the forge reflects the steady decline in the social status of blacksmiths as the new century advanced. In the eighteenth century, they ranked high among skilled craftsmen (Lane 149). Nor was theirs the healthiest of occupations. Blacksmiths suffered harm from iron’s sulfurous fumes and were prone to develop “swellings in the veins of their legs and kidney ulcers” from standing for long periods (Lane 49). These disadvantages were in store for Pip had he remained at the forge. Being seen by Estella “with a black face and hands, doing the coarsest part of [his] work” (87; ch. 14), ought not to have been Pip’s biggest concern.

For seven years, beginning at age fourteen, a premium having been paid, a young person was “bound by indentures” to a tradesman who contracted to teach the apprentice a trade (Lane 23). “I was fully old enough now to be apprenticed to Joe,” Pip states in chapter 12, so he is at least fourteen. Noticing how tall Pip has grown, Miss Havisham says he “‘had better be apprenticed at once’” (79; ch. 12), that is, before he gets much older. Given that he is Joe’s brother-in-law, one wonders why Miss Havisham insists on paying a generous premium of “five-and-twenty guineas” (82; ch. 13). She claims that Pip has “earned it,” presumably by helping her teach Estella the art of breaking men’s hearts. Now that Estella has completed what may be considered her apprenticeship, Miss Havisham seems anxious to dispense [End Page 102] with Pip. He is in “the fourth year” of apprenticeship, at eighteen, when Jaggers announces his “great expectations” (105, 109; ch. 18); for the next five years he becomes, in effect, Magwitch’s boy, an apprentice gentleman.2 Magnanimously Joe refuses “compensation” for the loss of Pip’s services (111; ch. 18).

Apprentices were expected to “rise economically and socially;” it was not unusual to partner with one’s master and marry into his family (Lane 2, 79). Simon Tappertit, Gabriel Varden’s apprentice in Barnaby Rudge, deludes himself with hopes of marrying his master’s daughter. Joe looks forward to having Pip for a partner, but the master, not the apprentice, marries someone from the master’s household. Joe weds Biddy who takes charge of housekeeping after Mrs. Joe is incapacitated. Ironically, Joe’s apprentice foresees “a rise in station” (116; ch. 19) for his master. Pip plans to elevate Joe once he comes into his expectations, although the young snob doubts if Gargery is “qualified” to move up in the world. After Joe fights Orlick and Pip departs for London, the blacksmith makes do without a journeyman or an apprentice. Nevertheless, he is successful enough to pay off the debt for which Pip is arrested.

Morose and obstinate, Dolge Orlick is a former apprentice who abandons his trade after quarreling with Joe. The journeyman’s mysterious surname could be an anagram for “liquor” -Or-lick, liquor - with “Dolge” short for “indulge” (90; ch. 15). As he prepares to murder Pip, Orlick takes “a fiery drink” (317; ch. 53) from a tin bottle slung around his neck. Pip believes Orlick “imposed his name upon the village “as an affront to its understanding” (90; 15); it seems more like its bearer’s private joke, an affront to propriety. Apprentices were forbidden to marry or play at cards and dice, but a master could not dismiss an apprentice for drunkenness (Lane 3), which may explain how Orlick was able to rise from apprentice to journeyman.

When Trabb’s boy helps Herbert and Startop to rescue Pip from Orlick...


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pp. 102-108
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