What is the significance of "Great Expectations?"
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Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations" (1861) is significant for the following reasons:
1.The autobiographical element: Dickens had explored his own childhood and youth in "David Copperfield" (1850) which is an explicitly autobiographical novel. "Great Expectations" is also autobiographical but with this important difference: while "David Copperfield" is a success story with its dominant mood being pathetic, "Great Expectations" reveals the illusion that success is with its dominant mood being ironic. David climbs to success and marries Agnes the ideal woman, whereas Pip finally parts from Estella as a friend: "and will continue friends apart" said Estella. Ch.59. Was Dickens already weary of 'success' when he came to write "Great Expectations"? and more important his domestic life was in a shambles because of his infatuation with the actress Ellen Ternan (the Estella of the novel) which eventually resulted in his separation from his wife.
2. The theme: The central theme of the novel is found in Ch.22 namely, 'who is a true gentleman?'
It is a principle of his that no man who was not a true gentleman at heart, ever was, since the world began, a true gentleman in manner. He says no varnish can hide the grain of the wood."
Charles Dickens became an international celebrity by sheer hard work and he had contempt for the Compeysons and Arthur Havishams of his time. More significantly, Dickens was famous for his philanthropic acts and had a large and generous heart like Joe the true gentleman in the novel.
3. The social background of the novel: Charles Dickens graphically documents the seamy side of Victorian England in "Great Expectations." The chapters dealing with the description of the Thames river and Magwitch's escape reveal Dickens at his descriptive best.
"Great Expectations" is significant also as a Bildungsroman, or the "novel of maturation." And it is for this reason, Dickens's novel is often included in school anthologies. The moral lessons that Pip learns parallel closely the lessons that many young people must learn:
- Money cannot buy quality in a person. After his first visit to Satis House, Pip becomes ashamed of his "coarse hands and [his]common boots." He is ashamed of being "a common laboring boy....that was much more ignorant than [he] had considered [himself] ...and generally was in a low-lived bad way." But, Pip later learns that the poorer characters are the more genuine and noble. Mr. Jagger's clerk, Wemmick is a kind and loving man, Joe and Biddy are warm, decent people of strong moral character while many of the "gentlemen" such as Drummle are cruel and unethical.
- Being influenced by others can be detrimental. In his efforts to become a gentleman, Pip wishes to socialize with Estella and the other gentlemen; in so doing, he becomes snobbish. He is embarrassed by Joe's visit to London, mortified as Joe clumsily drops his hat and does not know how to act in the presence of Herbert. Later on, when Pip visits the forge, Joe, notes the difference, "Diwisions among such must come and must be met as they come. You and me is not two figures to be together." In his realization of his cruelty to Joe, Pip calls himself "a swindler": "and with such pretenses did I cheat myself."
- Appearances can often be deceiving. Many of the people that Pip has been impressed with are not what they have seemed to be. Estella, for all her beauty, is cold and heartless. Herbert, the gentleman on whom Pip wishes to model himself, is a failure in his business ventures, Mr. Jaggers, a lawyer, is actually a crude and heartless man, Miss Havisham is a pitiable, misdirected woman. The convict, Magwitch, is really a good man who has simply had an unfortunate life, Joe and Biddy are the best people he has known.
- Spiritual/ethical values are what are most important in life. From Joe, Biddy, and Magwitch, Pip learns the value of real love and friendship, the value of integrity in a person.
In addition to the important moral lessons, the title itself is significant in the suggested meanings of the often repeated phrase "great expectations." Pip expects money to buy him happiness and social position as a gentleman, as well as love. But, none of these qualities can be attained by his false expectations. For, after Magwitch appears and Pip realizes the meaning of Mr. Jaggers phrase to take nothing on appearances--"Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There's no better rule"--he remarks in Chapter 41 that he has "no expectations."
The views shared on this question have aptly answered your query, but one thing which must be put forth as a major significanse of 'Great Expectations' is its Buildungsroman vien. This feature encompasses the nuanced yet discernible changes the protagonist encounters in the travails of his life.
The main premise of a Buildungsroman is that it traces the development of the protagonist from childhood to adulthood or from naiveté to maturity.
In the novel, Pip the protagonist experiences a variety of events which shape his aspirations and outlook towards life. As a child, he keeps himself alienated from his termagant and discursive sister, who treats him-‘as if I had insisted on being born in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion and morality’. But Pip has an affectionate eye for her husband, Mr Joe-‘perhaps for no better reason than because the dear fellow let me love him’.
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