G. K. Chesterton once observed that all of Charles Dickens’s novels could be titled Great Expectations, for they are full of an unsubstantial yet ardent expectation of everything. Nevertheless, as Chesterton pointed out with irony, the only book to which Dickens actually gave the title was one in which most of the expectations are never realized. To the Victorians, the word “expectations” meant legacy as well as anticipations. In that closed society, one of the few means by which a person born of the lower or lower-middle class could rise to wealth and high status was through inheritance. A major theme of the Victorian social novel involved a hero’s passage through the class structure, and a major vehicle of that passage was money bestowed upon him, acquired through marriage, or inherited. Unlike many nineteenth century novels that rely upon the stale plot device of a surprise legacy to enrich the fortunate protagonists, Great Expectations probes deeply into the ethical and psychological dangers of advancing through the class system by means of wealth acquired from the toil of others.
Although the story of Pip’s expectations dominates the novel, he is not the only person who waits to benefit from the money of another. His beloved Estella, the ward of Miss Havisham, is wholly dependent upon the caprices of the unstable old woman. Moreover, other characters are the mysterious instrumentalities of legacies. The solicitor Jaggers,...
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