Dickens and the right to be loved

It’s a philosopher’s cliché that every right implies a “correlative duty.” If I have a right to live, you have a duty not to kill me. If my kid has a right to an education, someone has a duty to pay for it–whether that’s me or the people of my town, state, or nation.

One of our greatest needs as human beings is to be especially loved by someone else: first as a child, then as a partner or a close friend. The need for partial or exclusive love may vary somewhat, but it is strong and widespread.

Alas, in many cases, no one has a duty to love a particular person. If you have a serious need but no one is required to meet it, you do not have a right. When people have unmet needs without rights, that is a genuine tragedy. It is an example of a problem that may not be solvable politically, i.e., that might still trouble an ideal society.

Dickens’ Great Expectations (which I just finished reading to my aforementioned child) provides an extraordinary number of cases in which it is debatable or problematic whether A has a duty to love B. For instance:

  • Pip is orphaned and raised by his sister, who does not love him and perhaps resents the obligation. But her husband loves Pip–despite having a questionable obligation to do so–and later Pip fails to reciprocate. Presumably, Mrs. Joe acquired a duty to love Pip against her inclination, and Pip is obliged to love Joe just because Joe loved him beyond duty.
  • Compeyson has an obligation to Mrs. Havisham to love her because he wooed and promised to marry her, but he has no intention of fulfilling his duty.
  • Estella is orphaned as a baby and given (with her assent) to Mrs. Havisham, who does not love her and who teaches her to be unable to give love.
  • Magwitch loves Pip (or the idea of Pip as a gentleman) in a way that puts Pip under a most unwelcome obligation. But Pip comes to love Magwitch because of the latter’s need.
  • Pip loves Estella, and she acknowledges a kind of right to be loved in return, but she insists she cannot give it.
  • Mrs. Havisham’s family becomes Pip and Estella, yet she does not love either until late in the novel.
  • Pip and Herbert love one another (Platonically) as friends, even though they begin by physically fighting over Estella. Pip secretly assists Herbert in order to love him without conferring an obligation.
  • Pip assumes that Biddy will love him as a wife once he settles for her, but he has no right to marriage. His willingness to accept her friendship indicates his moral progress.

In Dickens’ original ending, harmony was restored among Pip, Joe, Biddy, and Herbert, but Estella and Pip were never united. I assume that was because they had no right to each others’ love, having acted badly. Bulwer-Lytton persuaded Dickens to change the ending so that they were united, although the last sentence is slightly ambiguous as to their future. Presumably, Dickens was persuaded that they deserved each other. But even with its more conventional happy ending, the novel still makes one wonder: Who has a right to the love of whom?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.