The film discussion group

Reviewed by Aly Thompson


Authored on :
13/06/2020by :

Containing Groups


On Wednesday 10th of June 2020 I attended the Film Group on APPCIOS community site and I wanted to write to express my thanks to the facilitators Richard Pratt and Susan MacIver by writing about my own subjective experience. 

The first film we were invited to watch was Great Expectations (dir. David Lean, 1946). I have read many novels written by Charles Dickens and have been intrigued by the ethical and political flavour of his literature and how his fiction possibly sparked debates in parliament about moral and social reform. Though to be honest, I was not looking forward to watching the film,  yet interestingly David Lean, the actors, the music and the cinematography touched me on many different levels. At one stage I was transported back in time sitting on the floor resting against my mother’s legs, my mother’s hands stroking my hair, watching the Sunday Matinee on the television.  

I do not think I was alone with the complex affective, memorial, somatic and ideational experience. Others, I am sure, processed the experience in different ways and the film took on aspects that were represented visually, linguistically, somatically, sonically, gesturally and interpretatively in the group discussion. 

These different aspects generated a special type of unconscious group work, as one interpretation made by an individual evoked within the rest of us an avalanche of associations, types of thinking and psychic states. This then appeared to promote a subjective movement that ultimately expressed the group’s thinking more than the original interpretation. This avalanche did not feel to me stifling or stressful, in fact surprisingly it opened us up, liberating areas of our minds so that we were able to dance in the snow of associations and thoughts, throwing snowballs of ideas to each other. Someone would catch a snowball and add another layer so that it grew in significance and another person would make his or her own snowball that glistened with its own resonance, but no less thoughtful or significant.  

These snowballs full of meaning lead to a rich, fruitful and engaging discussion, including Bion’s thoughts on time standing still, Klein’s paranoid schizoid position, Steiner’s psychic retreat, Weldon’s perverse mothers, quotes and thoughts from Winnicott. The discussion continued in a more symbolic vein with mention of themes such as the powerful images against the phantasy, the emotionality conveyed throughout and the thought that perhaps it was all a dream. When the discussion turned to how Miss Havisham’s death scene vividly conveyed the emptiness of her inner life, my thoughts were how this group had enriched mine, also stimulating my intellectual senses and leaving a determination to reread papers and books on the theories mentioned.   

Richard mentioned the symbolic meaning to a pie that Pip fed to Magwitch;  Magwitch might have had his appetite sated but I left the group wanting more.  My unconscious yearning was met the next day by a paper titled “The superego, narcissism and Great Expectations” by  Graham Ingham, sent by Richard on recommendation from a member of the group.

I finish with a quote from Great Expectations also sent by Richard 

"That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."

I think this quote holds valuable meaning, as it was a memorable day when APPCIOS started its community site and the various different groups I have joined, have made great changes in me. 


Susan Maciver


Thank you for this beautifully expressed review of our group discussion. I loved your metaphors of snow and snowballs. See you soon to discuss "Ladybird."

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Richard Pratt


Thank you for this generous and enriching personal account, Aly  - much appreciated 

Tony Burch


Int J Psychoanal 2007;88:753–68

The superego, narcissism and Great Expectations



The author notes that the concepts of the superego and narcissism were linked at conception and that superego pathology may be seen as a determining factor in the formation of a narcissistic disorder; thus an examination of the superego can function as a ‘biopsy’, indicating the condition of the personality as a whole. Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations is presented as a penetrating exploration of these themes and it is argued that in Pip, the central character, Dickens provides a perceptive study of the history of a narcissistic condition. Other key fi gures in the book are understood as superego representations and, as such, integral to the vicissitudes of Pip’s development. In particular, the lawyer Jaggers is considered as an illustration of Bion’s notion of the ‘ego-destructive superego’. In the course of the paper, the author suggests that Great Expectations affi rms the psychoanalytic understanding that emotional growth and some recovery from narcissistic diffi culties necessarily take place alongside modifi cation of the superego, allowing for responsible knowledge of the state of the object and the possibility of realistic reparation.

Keywords: superego, narcissism, Great Expectations, Dickens, Jaggers, egodestructive superego, guilt


In this paper, I argue that Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1965) provides a compelling account of the history of a narcissistic disorder and its connections with abnormal superego formation. After briefl y outlining the concept of the superego, I try to show how several signifi cant characters in the novel may be seen as superego representations and that mental health and emotional growth are indivisible from the condition of the superego.

The superego

The superego is, of course, a vast subject and I will highlight only key features. It is in Freud’s paper ‘On narcissism: an introduction’ (1914) that the superego begins to emerge as a concept in the form of ‘the ego ideal’, a part of the mind that observes the ego and judges it in relation to an exemplary standard. The ego and the id (1923) sees the fi rst use of the term ‘superego’ and here Freud introduces it as the heir to the Oedipus complex, constructed out of the renunciation of oedipal strivings. These renunciations have as their corollary that the child ‘transforms his cathexis of his parents into an identifi cation with them—he internalizes the prohibition’ (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1988, p. 436). Freud also argues that the contents of the superego are the values and moral dispositions of prior generations, propagated and inherited generation to generation; in this way, ‘the ego forms its superego out of the id’ (1923, p. 38) and the superego owes at least as much allegiance to the id as to the ego.

The superego, then, is a structure within the mind, in contact with the id as well as the ego, and largely unconscious. It is, however, experienced subjectively as conscience: ‘tension between ego and superego is manifest as a sense of guilt and worthlessness’ (Sandler, 1960, p. 132). The impact of conscience on our minds is, in effect, the superego at work. The activity of the superego does not, though, necessarily have conscious expression. Freud refers to ‘the unconscious sense of guilt’, or ‘the need for punishment’ (1924, p. 166) and guilt may only be evident in patterns of self-defeating behaviour.

Whatever its manifestation, conscious or unconscious, the superego carries the threat to withdraw approval, and ultimately love, from the ego. The consequences of such an action are considerable: ‘the ego gives itself up because it feels itself hated and persecuted by the superego, instead of loved. To the ego, therefore, living means the same as being loved—being loved by the superego’ (1923, p. 58). Indeed, at its extreme, in severe depression, the melancholic superego constitutes ‘a pure culture of the death instinct’ (p. 53)—the death drive has uncoupled from the life instinct, effectively captured the superego, and is capable of driving the ego to death.

In Civilization and its discontents, Freud emphasizes that the severity of the harshness of the superego is less a factor of the nature of actual experience of external authority and much more ‘represents one’s own aggressiveness towards [the object]’ (1930, p. 130). Melanie Klein, who Freud acknowledges as the source of this insight, is among those who have made signifi cant contributions to the concept of the superego. She differs from Freud in dating its origins prior to resolution of the Oedipus complex, indeed to early experiences of the primary object, experiences infused with phantasies of great violence and sadism and at core representing attacks on the mother’s body. She stresses that, if these phantasies are worked through to a signifi cant degree, ‘the superego is not excessively harsh [and] the individual is supported and helped by its infl uence’ (1963, p. 279).

In Britain, at least, the object-relationship perspective on the superego is to the fore. Sandler and Sandler, writing in 1987, summarize our contemporary understanding as follows: ‘The concept of superego as a large-scale structure or agency is probably … found less useful than the concept of internal object relations’ (pp. 331–2). They continue: ‘Such internal relations refl ect a to-and-fro dynamic interaction between self and inner objects and authority and support—an interaction which has both critical-aggressive and loving aspects’ and refer to ‘superego introjects’ (p 333). Klein, similarly, describes the superego as ‘an assembly’ of internal objects, organized ‘in the higher strata of the mind’ (1940, p. 146) and Riesenberg-Malcolm has recently put it that ‘the superego is the internal objects’ (1999, p. 70).

The term ‘narcissism’ is famously confusing, contradictory and contentious and I will not enter into its controversies. Britton has provided a clear and helpful outline of its vagaries (2003, pp. 152–7) and, for the purposes of this paper, the use of the term will be limited to denoting a largely unconscious orientation of disregard towards the needing self and the needed and separate object. I will also take it to encompass the disorders that result from this disposition towards the object.

I remarked earlier on the shared history of the two concepts of superego and narcissism, that Freud (1914), anticipating the superego, writes of ‘a special psychical agency which performs the task of seeing that narcissistic satisfaction from the ego ideal is ensured’ (p. 95), and he stresses that here is an agency with the power to deprive the self of any sense of being loved and protected. In short, disturbances in the development of the superego will necessarily result in diffi culties in the capacity of the ego to obtain the satisfactions that promote healthy self-love and esteem and, the more pronounced the superego disturbances, the more dire the consequences for the ego.

Great Expectations

Given that the ego’s experience of self and other is so tightly bound to the fate of the superego, an examination of the superego might be thought of as functioning as a ‘biopsy’, a fair indication of the mental health of the individual as a whole. In Great Expectations, Dickens undertakes such periodic examinations; the nature and fate of certain characters, viewed as superego representations, can help us understand some of the links between changes in the superego and developments in the personality as a whole.

Dickens’s novels have not been primarily celebrated for their introspection or psychological complexity. Vivid, rich and wonderfully realized as his characters are, we tend to know them as larger-than-life and iconic fi gures, emblematic of envy, greed, hypocrisy, self-sacrifi ce, devotion and so on, but not notable for their interiority. Initially responded to by some as one of Dickens’s lesser works, and dismissed in a contemporary edition of The Times as ‘a jolly book’ (Dickens, 1965, p. 14), Great Expectations has, at least since the mid-20th century, been understood not only as a great novel but also as ‘seriously engaged in discussing, by exemplifying, profound and basic realities of human experience’ (Leavis, 1972, p. 362). Re-evaluations have often stressed its concerns with ‘self’ and darkness of mood and theme, such that one commentator refers to it as a ‘particularly sinister version of the Bildungsroman’ (Brooks, 1980, p. 115), and I will suggest that in ‘Pip’, the novel’s hero, Dickens provides us with a subtle, acute and penetrating study of destructive and constructive forces in the personality, a study that in psychoanalytic terms can be viewed as a developmental account of Pip’s relationship with his superego.

The establishment of a narcissistic structure

The novel’s concerns with guilt and punishment are evident in its fi rst pages. Philip Pirrip (‘Pip’) is a young orphan living with his callous, shrewish, much older sister and her kindly but ineffectual blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery. It is a wintry late afternoon and Pip is in the churchyard where his parents are buried, a ‘bleak place overgrown with nettles’ surrounded by a ‘dark fl at wilderness’ (1965, p. 35). As he forlornly gazes at his parent’s headstone he is suddenly accosted by an escaped convict, Magwitch, who threatens dreadful consequences unless Pip steals a fi le and food. Magwitch seems to emerge from the parental grave and to embody primitive menace, dire and horrifying punishments—the ‘ghost’ of the lost parents, infused with the abandoned child’s own rage and hatred, his omnipotent and sadistic phantasies. Pip obeys Magwitch but with agonies of guilt and self-reproach. His sister, ‘Mrs Joe’, has made Pip familiar not only with physical threat but also with unrelenting accounts of his moral failings and Pip is weighed down by belief in his culpability, tormented by guilt: ‘I was in mortal terror of myself’ (p. 46).

The fi rst-person narrator, the adult Pip, refl ects throughout the novel on the history of his great expectations with a moral rigour that is unrelenting. He allows himself to get away with nothing. He refers to ‘the singular kind of quarrel with myself that I was always carrying on’ and tells us, ‘all other swindlers upon earth are nothing to self-swindlers, and with such pretences did I cheat myself’ (p. 247). Oedipal anxieties come to mind when Pip, referring to the fi le stolen for Magwitch, laments that

…conscience is a dreadful thing when it accuses man or boy but when, in the case of a boy, that secret burden co-operates with another secret burden down the leg of his trousers, it is (as I can testify) a great punishment. (p. 44)

Conscience, threat, violence and sexuality are brought into early association.

Pip’s expectations are fi rst linked with Miss Havisham. Jilted on her wedding day, Miss Havisham has frozen in time anything that belongs to that day, notably the life within her. She embodies grievance, vengefulness and an envious hatred of human connections; she is the parent deprived of life and endlessly aggrieved. According to Stange, ‘Miss Havisham is death’ (1972, p. 133) and she is indeed the chilling personifi cation of Freud’s description of the melancholic superego as ‘a pure culture of the death instinct’ (1923, p. 53). Incapable of letting go of and mourning her loss, she stagnates in her decaying mansion, Satis House. Pip is invited to the house, supposedly to provide a playmate for Miss Havisham’s beautiful young ward Estella, though for Pip these visits are the occasions of mortifying mockery of his humble origins. A mysterious benefactor, however, seems to have recognized his difference, his specialness, and grants Pip the means to become ‘a gentleman’. Pip assumes the source to be Miss Havisham and thus transforms the occasion of his humiliation into his ally; his tormentor is to become the provider of the resources to rescue him from the pain of struggling with feelings of lack, frustration, limitation, and make of him a fi tting partner for the perfection of the icy and detached Estella. This might be seen as the fi rst manifestation of the narcissistic solution: an unearned release from feelings of smallness, weakness and inadequacy via an alliance with superiority and carelessness of one’s objects. Self-sabotage masquerades as self-suffi ciency and there is a preference for deathliness (and sometimes literal death) over ordinary human need and dependence (see Rosenfeld’s concept of ‘destructive narcissism’, 1979).

The release granted by the narcissistic solution is also a release from the struggles and frustrations of the Oedipus situation. Tolerating one’s relative smallness and weakness, one’s rivalry and desire, envy and jealousy; facing the consequent hatred and murderousness, the pain of the conjunction of love and hate—we know these to be universal challenges. Pip’s external-world resources comprise a well-meaning but cowed father fi gure and a coarse, unempathic mother substitute, incapable of imagining beyond her self-interest, ‘not an evil woman, merely a more than average bad one … unwilling to offer more than sourness back to life’ (Dyson, 1970, p. 232). I wish to particularly stress the absence of a father who might support Pip in his inevitable hatred of the abandoning, depriving mother, and help him face and tolerate his hatred and resentment. Instead, in Joe, Pip has a ‘father’ whose ‘saintly understanding and self-accusation helps neither of them’ (p. 229). Joe ‘conspire[s] reassuringly’ with Pip and fails ‘to enter Pip’s private world of need and guilt’ (p. 231).

Pip is left prey to the ministrations of an archaic, unmodifi ed superego; prey to the terrors of Magwitch. Unable to make headway in the integration of his feelings, Pip can only turn to further repression and splitting. In his need to idealize and unite himself with an impeccable woman, Pip’s pathology provides the perfect fi t for Miss Havisham’s vengefulness. She has groomed Estella to be the agent of this revenge, it is Estella’s role to break Pip’s heart. Pip’s need to self-abase is matched by his need to self-idealize and he cannot bear that he is not to be Estella’s partner, that this version of his fate is not written in the stars. Hence Pip’s readiness to believe that Miss Havisham is the agent of the realization of his expectations: cold, distant, stellar objects are his support.

Klein suggests that ‘fear of the superego will cause the ego to turn away from the anxiety-arousing object’ (1933, p. 251) and recently Britton has described how this turning away takes the form of ‘a particular kind of internal object relationship in which the separate existence and particular qualities of the internal object are denied and an internal narcissistic relationship is created by projective identifi cation’ (2003, p. 154). In order to avoid the disaster of dependence on the love of an abandoning superego or a superego infused with envy and sadism, there is, according to Kernberg, ‘a fusion between ideal self, ideal object and actual self imagos’ (1970, p. 55). Reliance on such a fusion prevents integration of these imagos with the experience of real objects, resulting in the deeper disaster of estrangement from any of the benign modifying infl uences that reality can provide. So Estella scarcely exists in her own right, she is a creation of Pip’s projection of an ideal self. Britton writes of such an internal object relationship: ‘twin internal souls, united by a narcissistic love that might make redundant the ego’s need for that love from the superego that Freud thought a necessary condition for living’ (2003, p. 154). Dickens, in fact, has Pip and Estella ‘united’ in their origins: she is, we later learn, the biological daughter of Magwitch, while Pip is effectively the adopted son.

Pip now moves to London, resourced as he believes by Miss Havisham, and commences living the life of a Victorian ‘gentleman’ of the worst sort: shallow, snobbish and dissolute. He has taken up with a boorish group of young wealthy rakes, ‘The Finches of the Grove’, and he is increasingly reliant on manic mechanisms to maintain a precarious equilibrium (a narcissistic disorder might be said to operate as a relatively stable organization of the manic defences). Here Dickens provides a painful portrayal of the impoverishment of the personality that results from narcissistic object relationships. Pip’s retrospective summary is as follows:

We spent as much money as we could, and got as little from it as people could make up their minds to give us. We were always more or less miserable, and most of our acquaintance were in the same condition. There was a gay fi ction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did. (p. 240)

Pip, though, remains capable of disquiet; he knows that his conscience is not comfortable about his treatment of his good objects—‘I lived in a state of chronic unease respecting my behaviour to Joe’ (p. 291). At the same time we know him to be in the thrall of his deadly idealized objects—‘throughout our life our worst weaknesses and meanesses are usually committed for the sake of the people we most despise’ (p. 239). The mood of the novel’s narrative is increasingly probing and self-accusing.

We might conjecture that, with the support of a healthier superego, Pip’s proper unease and anxiety could have initiated purposeful rather than morbid self-refl ection and helped sustain a sense that actual, real and painful feelings, and especially guilt, could be faced. In the event, Pip increasingly encounters Jaggers, Miss Havisham’s lawyer. It is Jaggers who has introduced Pip to Miss Havisham, and subsequently to his good fortune, and who administers this on behalf of the anonymous benefactor. Pip, indeed, refers to Jaggers as his ‘guardian’ (p. 235).

Jaggers is an extraordinary character—not one of Dickens’s most celebrated, but, at least in the view of one commentator, ‘probably Dickens’s greatest success in any novel’ (Leavis, 1972, pp. 402–3). Both remarkably evocative and extraordinarily elusive, Jaggers is ‘heavy with implication … so much at the centre of the fable that we are challenged to interpret him—only to fi nd that his meaning is ambiguous’ (Stange, 1972, p. 87). He has been instrumental in shaping the lives of the novel’s central characters. Knowledge is his means of infl uence and control—jealously guarded knowledge. He knows but is not known. He asks, ‘You know what I am, don’t you?’—confi dent that no one would brave a claim to such knowledge. He has ‘an expression of contempt on his face’ (Dickens, 1965, p. 160). He exudes ‘an air of authority not to be disputed, and with a manner expressive of knowing something secret about every one of us that would effectively do for each individual if he chose to disclose it’. He ‘wrenched the weakest part of our disposition out of us’ (p. 163). Even the most affable and well-meaning of Pip’s companions, Herbert Pocket, is described, after a visit from Jaggers, as feeling that ‘he must have committed a felony and forgotten the details of it, he felt so dejected and guilty’ (p. 311). Jaggers’s assistant, Wemmick, remarks that ‘he keeps himself so high. He’s always so high’ (p. 283) and from this height Jaggers looks down on moral malignancy, exuding ‘the smell of scented soap’ with which he repeatedly washes his hands (p. 163).

Apparently at odds with this portrait of an utterly unforgiving superego is Jaggers’s enthusiastic interest in Drummle, the frankly psychopathic member of the Finches: ‘I like the fellow Pip; he is one of the true sort’ (p. 239). I think, though, that here is an instance of Dickens’s intuitive understanding of the superego’s affi nity with the id, of the superego’s knowledge of the id being greater than that of the ego (Schafer, 1960, p. 166). Dickens knows that Jaggers and Drummle feed from the same bowl.

This brings us into the realm of the ‘ego-destructive superego’ (Bion, 1959, p. 314)—a superego that employs sadism to strip rather than equip the ego (see O’Shaughnessy, 1999, for her exploration of this concept). Jaggers embodies such a superego. Rather than supporting Pip’s mental development, he holds what he knows tightly to himself; rather than showing concern for Pip’s moral development, he impassively stands by and voyeuristically measures Pip’s decline. His cold, all-seeing eye, his relentless enquiry into pathology and indifference to health and growth personify Bion’s description of the ego-destructive superego as ‘an envious assertion of moral superiority without any morals’ (1962, p. 97). The ‘knowing’ of this superego is that of a cruel, unforgiving omniscience.

Perhaps Jaggers carries particular signifi cance from a psychoanalytic point of view because of associations with (mis)perceptions of the analytic stance. His detachment and impassivity, his assumed omniscience and moral probity, his clinical curiosity and unimpeachable professional reserve, all these and more are redolent of a stereotype of an analyst. In addition to his aura and his position in the novel as deus ex machina, there is much in Jaggers that teases with possibility—his acuity of insight into character, his unfl inching view of human damage, his convincing eschewal of personal interest—but, rather than prompting Pip’s knowledge of himself and his environment, Jaggers puts his qualities to ego-destructive purposes. This is an analytic superego which insists on remaining split off from the ego, which is unable to bear the contamination of being touched by, rather than merely observing, the human.

Britton follows Bion in viewing the ego-destructive superego as a consequence of ‘a failure of maternal containment’ (2003, p. 120). There has arisen in Pip’s mind, and as if from the grave, a superego, at fi rst terrifying and archaic (Magwitch), and later more subtly anti-developmental and dedicated to superiority, self-suffi ciency and omnipotence (Jaggers). The fi rst inspires terrors of being consumed, castrated, physically destroyed; the second fears of being cast out, exposed as unworthy and unlovable, and fi nally stripped of any sense of a worthwhile self. Rather than the object being turned to, it is turned from and real enquiry into a real object is made impossible; the ‘Jaggers superego’ supports the installation of an idealized and false self which pursues idealized and false objects. Pip’s omnipotent and violent phantasies have destroyed the parents and the siblings, and his unmodifi ed triumph at being alive, with its origins in the narcissistic satisfactions of living, has infl ated into omnipotent guilt and a melancholic superego.

The unravelling of a narcissistic structure

Pip is confronted by two shattering discoveries. The fi rst is that union with Estella has never been his destiny. Miss Havisham’s vengeful motives are now transparent, exposed in part by her horror at fi nding she is no exception to Estella’s icy detachment. The second ‘great event in my life, the turning point of my life’ is the reappearance of Magwitch (p. 318), an event as shocking for Pip as the chained criminal’s fi rst apparition on the marshes. Pip learns that his career as a gentleman has been funded by Magwitch, who, having been transported to Australia, made his fortune sheep farming and has now returned under penalty of death. Jaggers has been lawyer to Magwitch throughout.

The disposition of Magwitch towards Pip, from one point of view, can be seen as no different from that of Miss Havisham towards Estella—both have attempted to manufacture the embodiments of their ego ideals. From this point of view, the investment made by both Miss Havisham and Magwitch is narcissistic in nature, but whereas the former can be seen as fi rmly in the camp of destructive narcissism, the latter has more resemblances to what Britton terms ‘libidinal narcissism’. Britton associates the former to Bonnie and Clyde, the latter to Romeo and Juliet: ‘death lurks in both scenarios, but in one the partnership is based on a shared love of killing, in the other death is preferred to life without the other’s love’ (2003, p. 163). In libidinal narcissism, ‘infantile and childhood trauma appears to play the larger part’ (p. 164) and this is certainly true of the ‘ragged little creetur’ that was Magwitch and whose fi rst memory is of ‘thieving turnips for my living’ (1965, pp. 360–1) and I think there is no doubting his genuine wish to make reparation to ‘the small bundle of shivers’ (p. 36), the child Pip with whom he is so identifi ed.

For the present, though, Pip is horrifi ed to discover the nature of his benefactor and his narcissistic illusions are in ruins. The ‘family romance’ that he is the chosen protégé of superiority and refi nement is a mockery, the grandiosity of his aspirations is exposed: ‘Miss Havisham’s intentions towards me, all a mere dream; Estella not designed for me’ (p. 341). Pip’s guilt begins to take on defi nition and clarity, not now the permeating but vague sense of culpability, of responsibility for somehow, somewhere, something being amiss. This guilt has focus, and it fi rst has sight of Pip’s most identifi able good object—Joe. Pip sees himself as having betrayed Joe in order to collude with a criminal: ‘But sharpest pain of all—it was for the convict, guilty of I knew not what crimes … that I had deserted Joe’. Pip is remorseful and overcome with hopelessness: ‘I could never, never, never, undo what I had done’ (p. 341).

It is, however, the changes in Pip’s feelings towards Magwitch that most impress; Pip now begins to fi nd sympathy based on fellow feeling. On learning that Magwitch is in danger of being betrayed, he determines to do what he can to smuggle him out of the country; he is preoccupied with Magwitch’s safety, not his own wellbeing. Progressively self-stripped of his pretensions and falseness, Pip’s clearer picture of himself impels him towards strenuous reparative efforts and away from self-pity.

As the fog of self-deception clears, so what Pip knows can grow and the mysteries surrounding the histories of some key fi gures are dispelled. Estella, who has increased Pip’s agonies by marrying the brutish Drummle, now transpires to be the daughter of Molly, the housekeeper of Jaggers. We discover that Jaggers arranged her placement with Miss Havisham after he had successfully defended Molly on a murder charge. Wishing to save at least one destitute child from the inevitable course of a life in the London of his working experience, Jaggers did what he could. He is discomforted by this exposure of humanity in his character. It is Pip’s enquiries that bring this to light, along with the further news that the father of Estella is none other than Magwitch. The omniscience of the Jaggers superego is challenged.

Wemmick, assistant to Jaggers, is also taken aback by evidence of a less than granite-like Jaggers. While faithfully observing the Jaggers ethos at work, he has managed to retain decency by splitting this from his values at home: hard and unyielding with the clientele, he is warm, generous and loving in his care of his father, ‘the aged parent’, and he literally pulls up a drawbridge on his return home.

Jaggers, who has known nothing of this, is shocked: ‘You with a pleasant home?’ He suggests Wemmick to be ‘the most cunning impostor in London’. Signifi cantly, Wemmick now stands up to Jaggers, ‘“Not a bit of it,” returned Wemmick, growing bolder, “I think you’re another.”’ (p. 424). Pip observes that ‘each of them seemed suspicious, not to say conscious, of having shown himself in a weak and unprofessional light to the other’ (p. 426). As Pip is fi nding the strength to begin to face his interdependence, his indebtedness, his sense of neither owning nor being owned by his object, Wemmick is able to ease his reliance on splitting, and Jaggers betrays an interest in preserving and fostering life. Both, though, quickly revert to the reassuring equation of concern with weakness when a familiar, importuning client makes an entry and, with relief, they are able to take their usual refuge in tough contempt.

Miss Havisham also shows a change of heart and begs for Pip’s forgiveness. Though clearly desolate, she also seems, with her frantic laments and selflacerations, to be defending herself from the extent of her responsibility and the depth of her bleakness. Pip recognizes ‘the vanity of sorrow which had become a master mania, like the vanity of penitence, the vanity of remorse, the vanity of unworthiness, and other monstrous vanities that have been curses in this world’ (p. 411). Pip’s own struggles are too alive for him to turn away from Miss Havisham’s entreaties; his forgiveness is not at issue. There is an absence of self-pity and fussiness in these responses which speaks of his lack of vanity. Miss Havisham’s life, however, has been consumed by bitterness and she is now destroyed by its trappings as her wedding dress catches fi re.

Pip’s trials continue; having suffered burns attempting to rescue Miss Havisham, he is now attacked and nearly killed by Orlick, the sullen, envious and murderously rivalrous former assistant to Joe. Orlick has murdered Mrs Joe and he is now intent on bringing down Pip. Orlick’s role in the novel is signifi cant. He is an out-and-out villain, a psychopath, but one who is energetic in his claims that it is Pip who is culpable for Mrs Joe’s death: ‘I tell you it was your doing—I tell you it was done through you’ (p. 437). The mad, literal logic of omnipotence that governs the archaic superego insists this to be true—Orlick’s weapon was the leg iron that Magwitch removed with the fi le brought by Pip. Pip is confronted with his worst fears about himself—the wish is the deed—and it is as if the superego, saturated in sadism and seeped in a nightmare of self-accusation, has set about fi nally trying to dispose of Pip. Truly, this is the melancholic superego raging ‘against the ego with merciless violence, as if it had taken possession of the whole of the sadism available in the person concerned’ (Freud, 1923, p. 53). Interestingly, it is ‘Trabb’s boy’, previously appearing as a cheeky young thorn in the side of Pip’s pretensions, who brings help and rescues Pip. Pip’s world is once again turned upside down and, as he re-evaluates his objects and emerges from the cover of his narcissistic structure, he is at his most vulnerable.

Pip’s attempt to rescue Magwitch is unsuccessful and in the course of the attempt Magwitch is mortally injured. The only unknown in respect of Magwitch’s fate is whether he will die from his wounds before he is hanged. Pip faithfully visits him in his condemned cell, meanwhile continuing to vigorously petition on his behalf. Stange refl ects that Pip ‘has learned to love the criminal and to accept his own implication in the common guilt’ (1965, p. 138, my italics). Pip has access to a superego that can bear the reality that both he and the other are instances of fl awed humanity, nonetheless capable of dedication and love.

The death of Magwitch is both challenge and opportunity to Pip. His fi rst path in life has been that of the melancholic, but the ‘shadow of the object’ (Freud, 1917, p. 246) now has substance and there is a palpable sense of Pip working through the painstaking processes of pining, taking responsibility for the feelings, reality testing and reparation that comprise mourning. Although Magwitch cannot be saved, he nonetheless allows Pip to believe in the possibility of a reparable object, and thus to face the pain of letting him die. Klein describes the failed mourner (but might also be describing the narcissistic personality) as avoiding manic-depressive or paranoid breakdown through recourse to ‘a severe restriction of their emotional life which impoverishes their whole the personality’. She nonetheless maintains that there can be other chances. The object has been destroyed, but mourning does allow for the possibility of the internal world being rebuilt: ‘early mourning is revived whenever grief is experienced in later life’ (1940, p. 126) and she broadens the mourning process to encompass the internal work required in ‘overcoming adversity of any kind’ (p. 144), thus the pivotal nature of Magwitch’s death in Pip’s development. Pip cannot omnipotently save Magwitch, nor is he omnipotently claiming responsibility for his death. His narcissistic identifi cation has lessened, his ambivalence has been acknowledged and he has a superego that can support some mourning.

New development

There has been an impression in the course of the novel so far that the narrator, Pip’s adult and tempered self, is never going to let his younger self off the hook. He is, as commented on earlier, remorseless in his investigations into the character of this precursor self. This rigour does not allow Pip to fi nd absolution or to retreat into expiation and, if it seems in the latter part of the novel that Pip is lurching from one depressive crisis to the next, we should take this as evidence of Dickens’s perceptive acerbity. Pip’s narcissistic structure cannot merely be shed, it requires repeated and continuing confrontation, it requires working through.

We now, for example, see Pip pursued by debtors and fallen from social grace and into a fever in which his thoughts are ‘teemed with anxiety and horror’ (Dickens, 1965, p. 470). Once again his life is threatened, but this time more directly from internal sources. It is Pip’s growing engagement and commitment to others, his realization of his indebtedness and the depth of his remorse and grief that burn from inside and provoke the fever from which he almost dies. It is Joe’s unsolicited care that saves Pip, and Joe’s savings that clear Pip’s debts. We are shown Joe’s resources, not merely his limitations. These are resources that have arrived not, as in the past, from some mysterious, unknown source; rather they are Joe’s to give and are recognized by Pip as such. Pip acknowledges them as the gift of a separate person and not as his entitlement and destiny; he feels deeply grateful and indebted but not humiliated or belittled, and determines to repay the money (and the love), though in the knowledge that this will take many years. Klein writes of the later, modifi ed superego, that, rather than

…being a threatening, despotic force issuing senseless and self-contradictory commands which the ego is totally unable to satisfy, [it] begins to exert a milder and more persuasive rule and to make requirements which are capable of being fulfi lled. (1933, p. 252)

It is such a superego that we can now recognize in Pip; a Pip who is increasingly his own agent.

Dickens, though, also shows us how Pip is capable of retreating from a full recognition that his objects have their own needs, wishes and agency. Again, I think that this is illustrative of Dickens’s understanding that narcissism does not resolve, it requires continuing vigilance and confrontation. Pip has decided to ask Biddy to marry him. Biddy is an orphan like himself, an unassuming teacher at Pip’s old village school. In her previous appearances in the novel she has epitomized modest good sense and the humble origins from which Pip has been desperate to escape; it is also clear that in the past she has quietly held hopes for herself and Pip. We felt Biddy’s hurt when, after meeting Estella, the lovelorn and self-absorbed Pip confi ded his longings and frustrations to Biddy. Now Pip intends to return and ‘tell her how I had lost all I had once hoped for … remind her of our old confi dences in my fi rst unhappy time’. He intends to ask that she receive him like ‘a forgiven child’, in need of ‘a hushing voice and a soothing hand’ (1965, p. 481).

Although he claims to approach the village and the forge with ‘a sense of leaving arrogance and untruthfulness further and further behind’ (p. 486), the uncomfortable fact is that Pip is taking Biddy for granted; he is indulging an easy assumption of timelessness, a sense of endless opportunities to return to an object both newly idealised and frozen in the past. It seems that, in important respects, Pip’s narcissism may remain intact and it could be that Pip’s experience of adversity has merely resulted in an adjustment in aspiration. It is a relief, then, that Dickens has no truck with this and we are spared a sentimental and unlikely union of Pip and Biddy. In fact, it is Biddy and Joe who are to be married—the ‘parents’ are united and Pip has to face his exclusion. He is thankful that at least ‘I had never breathed this last baffl ed hope to Joe’ (p. 487), and announces his plan to move abroad, work in the business of his friend Pocket and repay Joe.

The plot here is convincing. Earlier Pip has told us, ‘It is a miserable thing to feel ashamed of home. There may be black ingratitude in the thing, and the punishment may be retributive and well deserved; but, that it is a miserable thing, I can testify’ (p. 134). Pip’s social ambitions have taken him away and there is no going back, the not uncommon fate of the class-mobile aspirant, spiritually undermined by class advancement and the inevitable guilty dissociation from the working-class home. A scenario often amplifi ed by a devastating coalescence of social desire, maternal aspiration and fear of the jealous oedipal father [D. H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers (1977) similarly features a narcissistic hero nearly destroyed by a combination of intense ambivalence towards the women in his life and a superior detachment from his father].

The fi nal chapter is less convincing. In fact, the ending of the book is one of its most fi ercely debated critical issues. After 11 years abroad, Pip returns to visit Joe and Biddy and ‘little Pip’, their son. He decides to also visit the site of Satis House and there fi nds Estella, taking her farewells of her old home. Drummle, who had badly mistreated her, was killed in a riding accident some years earlier and she is alone. She is changed: ‘suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape’ (p. 493). Dickens makes a nod at ambiguity and there is fi rst a suggestion that Pip and Estella, though friends, ‘will continue friends apart’. The novel ends, however, ‘I saw no shadow of another parting from her’ (p. 493). It was in John Foster’s 1874 biography of Dickens that it emerged that Dickens had, shortly before publication, changed the ending. Dickens wrote to Foster, ‘I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could, and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration’ (p. 494). In the original ending, Estella, after Drummle’s death, has married, apparently contentedly, a Shropshire doctor, and when she and Pip chance on each other in London they look ‘sadly on each other’ (p. 496) and, after acknowledging their changes, they part.

Although opinion is split as to the relative merits of these endings, I think there is little doubt on which side psychoanalysis would place itself. The notion that having addressed the damage he has done—not least by his idealization of superior, cold objects and his contemptuous patronising of good objects—he can then take up with his (albeit changed) ideal object appears to suggest he can have it both ways. It seems that Dickens wishes to claim for Pip the sadness and wisdom of learning from experience while, via the most benign of coincidences, granting him the original desired and forbidden object—the advances that accrue from oedipal disillusion, simultaneous with the right of retreat into the gratifi cations of oedipal illusion. It is as if Dickens had retreated from the redemptive stringency and psychological honesty of his own novel and that the ego is attempting to wriggle free rather than face and integrate the superego.

It is diffi cult at this point to resist the well-documented perils of ‘psychobiography’ (Roazen, 1987). Why does Dickens compromise his emotional rigour by providing Pip and the reader with an ‘out’? Surely the tone and intent of the novel would have sustained the much more likely and demanding reality of continued struggle and absence of fi nal resolution? The conception of the book in the miserable debris of Dickens’s life in 1860 may help towards an understanding. Ackroyd, a recent biographer, tells us that ‘this is what it had come to … . His favourite daughter married and living away from home, his brother dead, his old house sold. In addition, his mother was now dying’ (2002, p. 457). Perhaps the most dismal aspect of his situation was the ugly separation from his wife Catherine, which was less than 2 years old. There was cruelty and hatred in his treatment of Catherine, entirely of a piece with the mix of idealization and contempt which plagued his relationships with woman throughout his life. The background to this is an experience with his mother of ‘guilt and rejection … combined with a kind of hopeless love’ (p. 6) and of an affable but feckless father, ‘the image of [whom] haunted him in some generalized and unspecifi ed way’ (p. 9).

An additional factor in this almost perfectly realized culture for the genesis of a malignant superego is the death of a brother, Arthur, at 6 months of age, some 2 years after Dickens’s own birth (we have seen that it was also Pip’s fate to lose parents and siblings). Dickens was tormented by guilt throughout his life, guilt kept at bay by dint of mania: arduous walks; preoccupation with resources; frantic, incessant overwork. We might speculate that, approaching 50 years of age and reeling from the aftermath of his separation and his affair with an actress, Ellen Ternan, Dickens’s manic defences were wearing thin. Great Expectations can be seen as a massively creative response to this crisis, but perhaps an emotionally exhausted Dickens could not forgo the temptations of an ‘acceptable’ ending.


For the most part I restrict myself to some observations on the relationship between the superego and the ego.

I have referred to Bion’s formulation of the ego-destructive superego, a superego that usurps the ego and divests it of its functions and qualities and substitutes ‘moral superiority’ for ‘any tendency to search for the truth, to establish contact with reality’; a superego the ‘most important characteristic’ of which ‘is its hatred of any new development in the personality’ (1962, p. 98). Britton argues that narcissism is rooted in the need to escape such a superego, that a ‘narcissistic organization is evolved using narcissistic object relationships—internal, external, or both—to evade the hostile superego’ (2003, p. 164). Both Britton and Caper (1999, pp. 36–44) go further, however, and argue that the goal of analysis is the ego’s emancipation from the superego’s colonization and that this goal encompasses the superego in any of its forms, hostile or positive: ‘we must not simply be judged by our conscience; we must subject conscience to judgement’ (Britton, 2003, p. 101). In large measure Pip’s history would appear to support this view—we have heard how Pip is constantly conducting ‘a singular kind of quarrel with himself’ and how he is ‘at himself’ in a way that is ego stripping, while instances of licence and apparent approval have been shown to be unhelpful or downright deceptive. We have also celebrated Pip’s achievement in not remaining obeisant to Jaggers, in challenging and resisting the superego’s claim to be the sole investigator and judge of reality.

Pip’s development from a narcissistic orientation towards his objects does not, though, coincide with an unwillingness to take himself to task. Indeed, Dickens seems to suggest that the experience of facing painful realities, of responsibility and guilt, is necessarily one of dissonance within the self; we are led and sometimes dragged towards such recognitions by an internal force that is felt to occupy a position somewhat independent of the self. Dickens’s evocation of Pip’s stuttering movements towards, and retreats from, searing regret is, I think, eloquent testimony to this: the mind is necessarily at odds with itself. This might also be seen as the Freudian dialectic; psychoanalysis is a model built on confl ict, to one extent or another mental structures are constantly engaged in a struggle for supremacy and, although Freud formulated the superego as ‘a precipitate in the ego’ (1923, p. 44) and a ‘function’ of the ego (p. 73), he also insisted on its role as a representative of other than the self. In An outline of psycho-analysis, he writes of both the dread of conscience and of the ‘precious acquisition’ that is the gain from feeling at terms with it: ‘In this way the super-ego continues to act the role of an external world for the ego, although it has become a portion of the internal world’ (1938, p. 205). As such it is ego constructive. This is a view taken by Klein, who suggests that the infl uence of the superego ‘is an important factor both in mental illness and in the development of normal personality’ (1933, p. 248) and, from a literary perspective, Leavis writes of Pip’s sense of guilt that ‘it is at once a source of psychological disorder and yet a creation of moral growth’ (1972, p. 384).

Finally, I think that any consideration of current thinking on the superego has to take into account the clinical and theoretical prominence (and I acknowledge that I am writing exclusively from an object-relations perspective) granted to movements between the paranoid–schizoid and depressive positions, particularly from the former to the latter. These are now seen by many as effectively the engine of emotional development, arguably having taken the place once occupied by the mature superego in our thinking. Klein herself, however, by no means dispenses with the superego, and continues to place a good deal of emphasis on the role of the later, modifi ed superego, ‘the wise and mitigated super-ego’ (1963, p. 279); a superego which she believes ‘strengthens the loving impulses and furthers the tendency towards reparation’ (p. 279). Schafer also emphasizes the importance of ‘the loving and beloved superego’ (1960, p. 163) and, although beyond the scope of this paper, I think the question as to what, if anything, is lost if we clinically and theoretically dispense with the developed superego might be further usefully investigated and discussed. In my view, it is the move from the archaic and cruel superego, as embodied in the early Magwitch, to the loving and beloved superego of his later manifestation, that is integral to Pip’s capacity to make realistic reparation and to develop. It is Pip’s careful and unexceptional acts of reparation, the piecemeal, painstaking, uncelebrated quality of these acts, and his tolerance of limited repair, that allow recovery of his good objects and mitigate his narcissism. To be sure, Dickens’s insight belongs to a tradition—before Dickens, Wordsworth wrote of ‘that best portion of a good man’s life/His little, nameless, unremembered acts/Of kindness and of love’ (1996, p. 206) and, after Dickens, George Eliot was to conclude Middlemarch by reminding us that ‘the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts’ (1980, p. 896). These understandings have, though, rarely been brought to such vivid life as in Great Expectations and I think we are strengthened by the knowledge that the fi ndings of psychoanalysis have such heritage.


I have suggested that in Great Expectations we are provided with an account of the aetiology and course of a narcissistic disorder. I have also argued that Dickens understands that his hero’s malaise is a sickness of conscience, that Pip suffers from a diseased superego. More than this, I think that Dickens grasps that there is a central relationship between the two—between Pip’s narcissism and the condition of his superego—and that development from the former requires development in the latter. The crucial role of realistic, limited reparation in providing hope and strength to further face the damage to the inner world has been stressed.

Translations of summary

Das Über-Ich, der Narzissmus und Große Erwartungen. Der Autor verweist auf den ursprünglichen

Zusammenhang zwischen dem Über-Ich- und dem Narzissmus-Konzept und erläutert, dass die ÜberIch-Pathologie als determinierender Faktor für die Entstehung narzisstischer Störungen zu betrachten sei; eine Untersuchung des Über-Ichs kann deshalb die Funktion einer „Biopsie“ erfüllen, welche den Zustand der gesamten Persönlichkeit zu erkennen gibt. Charles Dickens Roman Große Erwartungen [Great Expectations] wird als profunde Untersuchung dieser Themen vorgestellt. Der Autor vertritt die Ansicht, dass Dickens mit Pip, dem Protagonisten, eine tiefgründige Studie einer narzisstischen Störung vorlegte. Andere zentrale Charaktere des Buches werden als Über-Ich-Repräsentanten verstanden, die als solche für Pips Entwicklung unverzichtbar sind. Insbesondere wird Jaggers, der Anwalt, als Illustration von Bions (1962) Konzept des „ich-destruktiven Über-Ichs“ analysiert. Große Erwartungen, so eine These des vorliegenden Beitrags, bestätigt das psychoanalytische Verständnis, dass emotionale Entwicklung und damit verbunden auch eine gewisse Bewältigung narzisstischer Schwierigkeiten zwangsläufi g mit einer Modifi zierung des Über-Ichs einhergeht. Dies ermöglicht ein von Verantwortung getragenes Wissen um den Zustand des Objekts und eine realistische Wiedergutmachung.

El Super yo, el narcisismo y Grandes esperanzas de Dickens. El autor advierte que los conceptos de Super yo y narcisismo fueron concebidos entre sí y que la patología del Super yo puede ser considerada un factor determinante en la formación de un desorden narcisista, de manera que un examen del Super yo puede funcionar como una ‘biopsia’, que indica la condición de la personalidad como un todo. Se plantea la novela Grandes esperanzas de Charles Dickens como una exploración profunda de estos temas y el autor sostiene que Dickens aporta un estudio perceptivo de la historia de una condición narcisista en Pip, el personaje principal. Otros personajes claves del libro son entendidos como representaciones del Super yo y como tales son parte integral de las vicisitudes del desarrollo de Pip. En particular Jaggers, el abogado, es considerado una ilustración de la noción de Bion de ‘Super yo destructor del yo’ (1962). Se sugiere en el curso del trabajo que la obra Grandes esperanzas afi rma el punto de vista psicoanalítico según el cual el crecimiento emocional, y con ello la superación de las difi cultades narcisistas, se produce necesariamente junto a la modifi cación del Super yo, lo cual permite el conocimiento responsable del estado del objeto y la posibilidad de una reparación realista.

Surmoi, narcissisme, et Les grandes espérances. L’auteur constate que les concepts de surmoi et de narcissisme étaient liés dès leur conception et que la pathologie du surmoi peut être considérée comme un facteur déterminant dans la formation d’un trouble narcissique ; ainsi, un examen du surmoi peut remplir la même fonction qu’une « biopsie » : indiquer la condition de la personnalité comme un tout. Le roman de Dickens Les grandes espérances est présenté comme une exploration pertinente de ces thèmes. L’auteur considère que en Pip, le personnage central, Dickens fournit une étude clairvoyante de l’histoire de la condition narcissique. D’autres fi gures clés du livre sont comprises comme des représentations du surmoi et, en tant que telles, faisant partie des vicissitudes du développement de Pip. En particulier l’avocat, Jaggers, est considéré comme une illustration de la notion de Bion de « surmoi destructeur du moi » (1962). La suite de l’article suggère que Les grandes espérances confi rment la position psychanalytique, selon laquelle le développement émotionnel, et avec lui un degré de rémission des diffi cultés narcissiques, se met nécessairement en place en parallèle avec une modifi cation du surmoi, permettant une connaissance responsable du statut de l’objet et la possibilité de réparation dans la réalité.

SuperIo, narcisismo e Grandi Speranze di Dickens. L’autore constata che il concetto di SuperIo e quello di narcisismo erano all’inizio collegati e che le patologie del SuperIo possono essere viste come fattori determinanti nella formazione di disturbi narcisisti; quindi un esame del SuperIo può costituire una ‘biopsia’, in grado di indicare la condizione della personalità nel suo insieme. Il romanzo di Charles Dickens Grandi Speranze viene presentato come profonda esplorazione di questi temi. L’autore sostiene che il protagonista del romanzo, Pip, costituisce uno studio dettagliato della genesi della condizione narcisistica. Altre fi gure importanti del romanzo vegono viste come rappresentazioni del SuperIo, e, come tali, parte integrale del travagliato sviluppo di Pip. In particolare, l’avvocato Jaggers, viene considerato come una dimostrazione della nozione bioniana del ‘Super Io distruttore dell’Io’ (1962). Nell’articolo viene avanzata l’ipotesi che Grandi Speranze affermi il punto di vista psicoanalitico secondo il quale la crescita emotiva, e con essa il superamento di diffi cultà di natura narcisistica, non possa avvenire che in concomitanza con una modifi ca strutturale del Super Io, che consenta una conoscenza responsabile dello stato dell’oggetto e la possibilità di una riparazione realistica.


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Dear Tony, 

Thank you for posting this.  May we add it is an article for the Site library?  

Let me know.

Many thanks, 


Please do! Susan

Susan Maciver


I find myself full thoughts after our absorbing discussion - here's one of them, or rather a thread. Who is depressed, the father or the mother? What leads up to that shocking moment when Lady Bird opens the car door and throws herself out ? Mum and daughter are in harmony, listening to the "Grapes of Wrath" and LB says musingly "I wish I was living through something" and bang! mother attacks.This happens again and again : when LB is dreaming and goes on to articulate what is in her mind, her mother attacks her. Her mother just cannot bear to hear about imaginings, reveries,  perhaps because there is no room for this in her mind? It is  as though she can only manage to  live emotionally within narrow confines : any idea of a wider world is just far too painful. She is depressed and needs her patients ( as a psychiatric nurse) and her husband to carry her depression.