"What Do You Play, Boy?": Card Games in Great Expectations

By Parkinson, Kirsten L. | Dickens Quarterly, June 2010 | Go to article overview

"What Do You Play, Boy?": Card Games in Great Expectations


Parkinson, Kirsten L., Dickens Quarterly


Early in Great Expectations (1860--61), the elderly and eccentric Miss Havisham hires young Pip to attend her weekly at Satis House. On his first visit, Miss Havisham, dressed in her decrepit bridal dress, commands Pip to "play, play, play!" (72; ch.8). Overwhelmed by the strange sights in the gloomy home, he is stymied at how to respond. Eventually he agrees to play cards with Miss Havisham's adopted daughter Estella, who beats him every time. This scene is the first of several in which Pip plays card games with Estella and other characters, games that he always seems to lose. Dickens's choice of card games in the novel is significant. As David Parlett argues in The Oxford Guide to Card Games, "Every game has a character of its own appropriate to the company it keeps and the place where it is played" (4). From a simple children's game to the popular nineteenth-century pastime of whist, games in Great Expectations are intertwined with the novel's themes of class and social mobility. (1)

As Pip becomes a gentleman, he learns to play more games, both card games and psychological games. He becomes sophisticated in his manners and in the polite amusements he knows, but at the same time he repeatedly doubts himself. Even as he makes acquaintances in the higher echelons of society, he feels more and more alone. Thus, Pip's relationship to his newfound status is profoundly ambivalent, as his wealth and position fail to bring him the happiness and acceptance he expects. As Beth F. Herst argues, "for Pip gentility is itself the source of alienation" (117). Only when he rejects game-playing and the surface trappings of gentility and embraces the moral behavior of a gentleman does he find a sense of contentment. By the end of the novel, Pip accepts the middle-class Victorian values of loyalty, hard work, and honesty and finds that they trump the games of trickery and chance played by many of the novel's other characters.

Dickens's negative representation of game-playing in his later career marks a departure from his early novels, where games and play are redemptive and life-affirming, according to Mark M. Hennelly ("Games" 187). For instance, Hennelly traces how Pickwick and his companions must learn to embrace the sometimes chaotic rituals of play in Pickwick Papers (1836-37) ("Dickens's Praise" 27, 34-36). By Little Dorrit (1855--57), however, "the old sense of rural, if not ritualistic, play celebrated in the spontaneous daydream of Pickwick Papers . seems completely betrayed" (Hennelly, "Games" 188). When Great Expectations appears three years later, games, particularly card games, are associated with the physically and morally decayed gentility of Satis House and the corrupt legality of Mr. Jaggers. Even gentlemanliness comes to seem nothing but an empty game. We can only speculate at the reasons for this change in Dickens's portrayal. For one thing, the rising middle class and the influence of evangelicalism, among other social developments, precipitated a Victorian earnestness in which game-playing--especially cards, which were associated with gambling--was not always seen as respectable.

At the first meeting in Satis House, the card game that Pip and Estella play is beggar-my-neighbor:

"Let me see you play cards with this boy" [says Miss Havisham].

"With this boy! Why he is a common labouring-boy!"

I thought I overheard Miss Havisham answer--only it seemed so unlikely--"Well? You can break his heart."

"What do you play, boy?" asked Estella of myself, with the greatest disdain.

"Nothing but beggar my neighbour, miss."

"Beggar him," said Miss Havisham to Estella. So we sat down to cards. (73; ch. 8)

Beggar-my-neighbor first appears in the Oxford English Dictionary in an entry from 1734 for Charles Cotton's The Compleat Gamester, but Parlett speculates it may have evolved from an earlier game, Knave Out of Doors, mentioned as early as 1607 in Thomas Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness (Oxford 75). …

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