The Code of a Gentleman

The Code of a Gentleman
Great Expectations
Name _____________________________
Honors World Literature
Much of Pip’s “formal” education in the novel is centered on the prospect of becoming “a gentleman.” On the following pages, you’ll
find several points-of-view regarding what defines a gentleman. Read each one carefully; as you read, consider the ways in which
they apply to Great Expectations.
Directions: Highlight and underline key lines that match up with what you read in Great Expectations. In the margins, take notes on
the connections you see to the novel. You will need to go into the text to find good examples. Provide page numbers when you
The Gentleman
The concept of the nineteenth-century Gentleman is a complex one, though it is one which is,
as one recent critic has noted, "the necessary link in any analysis of mid-Victorian ways of
thinking and behaving." The Victorians themselves were not certain what a gentleman was, of
what his essential characteristics were, or of how long it took to become one. Why, then, were so
many of them so anxious to be recognized as one?
Members of the British aristocracy were gentlemen by right of birth (although it was also
emphasized, paradoxically enough, that birth alone could not make a man a gentleman), while the
new industrial and mercantile elites, in the face of opposition from the aristocracy, inevitably
attempted to have themselves designated as gentlemen as a natural consequence of their growing
wealth and influence. Other Victorians—clergy belonging to the Church of England, army
officers, members of Parliament—were recognized as gentlemen by virtue of their occupations,
while members of numerous other eminently respectable professions—for example—were not.
The concept of the gentleman was not merely a social or class designation. There was also a
moral component inherent in the concept which made it a difficult and an ambiguous thing for the
Victorians themselves to attempt to define, though there were innumerable attempts, many of them
predicated upon the revival in the nineteenth century of a chivalric moral code derived from the
feudal past. Sir Walter Scott defined this concept of the gentleman repeatedly in his enormously
influential Waverley Novels, and the code of the gentleman—and abuses of it—appear repeatedly
in Victorian fiction. "The essense of a gentleman," John Ruskin would write, "is what the word
says, that he comes from a pure gens, or is perfectly bred. After that, gentleness and sympathy, or
kind disposition and fine imagination." Ruskin also maintained that "Gentlemen have to learn that
it is no part of their duty of privilege to live on other people's toil," but many "gentlemen" did
precisely that.
Charles Dickens, like [fellow author] Kipling, was an author of relatively humble origins who
desired passionately to be recognized as a gentleman, and insisted, in consequence, upon the
essential dignity of his occupation. Great Expectations, which contains a great deal of disguised
self-analysis, is at once a portrait or a definition of Dickens's concept of the Gentleman and a
justification of his own claim to that title. [Fellow British author] Thackeray, on the other hand,
insisted (and the two old friends quarreled over this matter) that a writer of novels could not be a
gentleman. The debate over just what constituted a gentleman raged on in many contexts, but
nowhere was it contested so fiercely as within Victorian literature itself, appearing in works as
different as Tennyson's In Memoriam and the novels of Dickens and Thackeray.
Eventually, the Victorians settled on a compromise: by the latter part of the century, it was
almost universally accepted that the recipient of a traditional liberal education based largely on
Latin at one of the elite public schools—Eton, Harrow, Rugby, and so on—would be recognized
as a gentleman, no matter what his origins had been.
- David Cody, Associate Professor of English, Hartwick College (
“What is a gentleman? It is to be honest, to be gentle, to be generous, to be brave, to be wise; and
possessed of all these qualities to exercise them in the most graceful manner.”
– William Makepeace Thackeray
“Lady”—The terms “lady” and “woman” are often misused. The word “lady” is usually used only
by a person of inferior station to the woman in question. A secretary announcing a caller to her
boss would say, “There’s a lady here to see you.” A salesgirl referring a customer to another clerk
would say, “This lady would like to see our evening purses.” A man, speaking of his wife, refers
to her as a “woman”—he would, however, speak of her as a “lady” in front of servants or
salespeople. A woman, likewise, refers to herself as a “lady” only in front of persons of lower
stations; to her friends, she is a “woman.”
- Dictionary of Etiquette, 1890
Shaking Hands
Gentlemen always shake hands when they are introduced to each other. Ladies rarely do
so with gentlemen who are introduced to them; but they usually shake hands with other ladies, if
they are standing near together. All people who know each other, unless merely passing by, shake
hands when they meet.
A gentleman on the street never shakes hands with a lady without first removing his right
glove. But at the opera, or at a ball, or if he is usher at a wedding, he keeps his glove on.
Personality Of A Handshake
A handshake often creates a feeling of liking or of irritation between two strangers. Who
does not dislike a "boneless" hand extended as though it were a spray of sea-weed, or a miniature
boiled pudding? It is equally annoying to have one's hand clutched aloft in grotesque affectation
and shaken violently sideways, as though it were being used to clean a spot out of the atmosphere.
What woman does not wince at the viselike grasp that cuts her rings into her flesh and temporarily
paralyzes every finger?
The proper handshake is made briefly; but there should be a feeling of strength and
warmth in the clasp, and, as in bowing, one should at the same time look into the countenance of
the person whose hand one takes. In giving her hand to a foreigner, a married woman always
relaxes her arm and fingers, as it is customary for him to lift her hand to his lips. But by a relaxed
hand is not meant a wet rag; a hand should have life even though it be passive. A woman should
always allow a man who is only an acquaintance to shake her hand; she should never shake his. To
a very old friend she gives a much firmer clasp, but he shakes her hand more than she shakes his.
Younger women usually shake the hand of the older; or they both merely clasp hands, give them a
dropping movement rather than a shake, and let go.
Polite Greetings From Younger To Older
It is the height of rudeness for young people not to go and shake hands with an older lady
of their acquaintance when they meet her away from home, if she is a hostess to whose house they
have often gone. It is not at all necessary for either young women or young men to linger and enter
into a conversation, unless the older lady detains them, which she should not do beyond the
briefest minute.
Older ladies who are always dragging young men up to unprepossessing partners, are
studiously avoided and with reason; but otherwise it is inexcusable for any youth to fail in this
small exaction of polite behavior. If a young man is talking with some one when an older lady
enters the room, he bows formally from where he is, as it would be rude to leave a young girl
standing alone while he went up to speak to Mrs. Worldly or Mrs. Toplofty. But a young girl
passing near an older lady can easily stop for a moment, say "How do you do, Mrs. Jones!" and
pass on.
People do not cross a room to speak to any one unless—to show politeness to an
acquaintance who is a stranger there; to speak to an intimate friend; or to talk to some one about
something in particular.
- Emily Post, Etiquette, Chapter 3 “Greetings” (2004)
Decencies of Behavior
A gentleman does not, and man who aspires to be one must not, ever borrow money from a friend
except in unexpected circumstances, and money so borrowed must be returned promptly. All
money borrowed without security is a debt of honor which must be paid without fail and as
promptly as possible. The debts incurred by a deceased parent, brother, sister, or grown child are
assumed by honorable men and women as debts of honor.
One who is rich does not make a display of his money or possessions. Only a vulgarian talks
ceaselessly about how much this or that cost him.
A well-bred man intensely dislikes the mention of money and never speaks of it (out of business
hours) if he can avoid it.
A gentleman does not show a letter written by a lady, unless perhaps to a very intimate friend if
the letter is entirely impersonal and written by someone who is equally the friend of the one to
whom it is shown. But the occasions when the letter of a woman may be shown properly by a
man are so few that it is safest to make it a rule never to mention a woman’s letter.
A gentleman does not lose control of his temper. In fact, in his own self-control under difficult or
dangerous circumstances lies his chief ascendancy over others who impulsively betray every
emotion which animates them. Exhibitions of anger, fear, hatred, embarrassment, ardor, or
hilarity are all bad form in public. And bad form is merely an action which “jars” the sensibilities
of others.
A gentleman does not bow to a lady from a club window. According to the “code,” ladies are
never discussed in a gentleman’s club.
A gentleman’s manners are an integral part of him and are the same whether in his dressing room
or in a ballroom, whether talking to Mrs. Worldly or to the laundress bringing in his clothes. He
whose manners are only put on in company is a veneered gentleman, not a real one.
A man of breeding does not slap strangers on the back nor so much as lay his fingertips on a lady.
Nor does he punctuate his conversation by pushing or nudging or patting people, nor take his
conversation out of the drawing room! Not withstanding the advertisements in the most dignified
magazines, a discussion of underwear and toilet articles and their merit or their use is unpleasant
in polite conversation.
All thoroughbred people are considerate of the feelings of others no matter what the station of the
others may be. Thackeray’s climber, who “licks the boots of those above him and kicks the faces
of those below him on the social ladder,” is a very good illustration of what a gentleman is not.
A gentleman never takes advantage of another’s helplessness or ignorance and assumes that no
gentleman will take advantage of him. And lastly, a gentleman not only respects the reserves of
others, but demands that others respect those which are his.
- Emily Post, Etiquette (1945)
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