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, who acts as the legal agent for both Miss Havisham and Abel Magwitch, richly benefits from his services. Even his lackey Mr. Wemmick, a mild soul who changes his personality from lamb to wolf to please his employer, earns his living from the legal machinery of the courts. Just as the source of Pip’s money is revealed at last to be socially corrupted, so the uses of tainted wealth inevitably bring about corruption.
In Bleak House (1852-1853), Dickens had already explored with great skill the ruthless precincts of the law courts. His next three novels—Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1855-1857), and A Tale of Two Cities (1859)—were not so well sustained and were, despite memorable scenes, less popular with the critics and public alike. Great Expectations (1860-1861, first published serially in All the Year Round) restored Dickens’s supremacy with his vast reading audience. Serious, controlled, and nearly as complex structurally as Bleak House, the novel also reminded Victorian readers of David Copperfield (1849-1850). Both are apprenticeship novels that treat the life education of a hero. Great Expectations is somewhat less autobiographical than David Copperfield, but it repeats the basic formula of the genre: that of an honest, rather ingenuous but surely likable young man who, through a series of often painful experiences, learns important lessons about life and himself. These lessons are always designed to reveal the hero’s limitations. As he casts off his own weaknesses and better understands the dangers of the world, he succeeds by advancing through the class system and ends up less brash, a chastened but wiser man.
Great Expectations differs from David Copperfield, however, in the ways that the hero matures to self-knowledge. In the beginning, both David and Pip are young snobs (Pip more than David). Both suffer the traumas of a shattered childhood and troubled adolescence, but David’s childhood suffering is fully motivated on the basis of his separation from loved ones. An innocent, he is the victim of evil that he does not cause. Pip, on the other hand, suffers from a childhood nightmare that forms a pattern of his later experience. An orphan like David, he lives with his brutal sister and her husband, the gentle blacksmith Joe Gargery. The abuse he endures from Mrs. Joe is more than compensated for by the brotherly affection of this simple, generous man. He also wins the loving sympathy of Biddy, another loyal friend. Nevertheless, he is not satisfied, and when he comes upon the convicts in the fog and is terrified, he feels a sense of guilt—misplaced but psychologically necessary—as much for his crimes against his protectors as for the theft of a pork pie. Thereafter, his motives, cloudy as the scene of his childhood terror, are weighted with secret apprehension and guilt. To regain his lost innocence, he must purge himself of the causes of this guilt.
Pip’s life apprenticeship, therefore, involves his gaining a full understanding of his “crimes” against loved ones and of the ways to redeem himself. The causes of his guilt are, in order of severity, snobbish pride, his betrayal of friends and protectors, and finally his participation in the machinery of corruption.
As a snob, he not only breaks the social mold into which he has been cast but lords it over the underlings and unfortunates of the class system. Because of his presumed great expectations, he believes himself to be superior to the humbler Joe and Biddy. He makes such a pompous fool of himself that Trabb’s boy—that brilliant comic invention, at once naughty boy and honest philosopher—parodies his absurd airs and pretensions. His snobbery, however, costs him a dearer price than humiliation by an urchin. He falls in love with Estella, like himself a pretender to high social class, only to be rejected in favor of a worthless cad, Bentley Drummle. His fanciful dreams of social distinction are shattered forever when he learns the bitter truth about his benefactor, who is not the highborn Miss Havisham but the escaped convict Magwitch, the wretched stranger of his terror in the fog.
As Pip comes to understand the rotten foundations for his social position, he also learns terrible truths about his own weaknesses. Out of foolish pride, he betrays his most loyal friends, Joe and Biddy. In a sense, he even betrays Miss Havisham. He mistakes her insanity for mere eccentricity and allows her to act out her fantasies of romantic revenge. When he tries to confront her with the reality of her life, he is too late, for she expires in flames. He is almost too late to come to the service of his real benefactor, Magwitch. He is so disturbed with the realization of the convict’s sacrifice that he nearly flees from the old man when he is in danger. At best, he can repay Magwitch with gratitude, not love, and his sense of guilt grows from his understanding that he cannot ever repay his debt to a man he secretly loathes.
Pip’s final lesson is that, no matter how pure might be his motives, he is one of the instruments of social corruption. In a sense, he is the counterpart to the malcontent Dolge Orlick. Like Orlick, he was as a youth an apprentice at the forge, but he was fortunate in having moved upward into society, Orlick, consumed by hatred, fails in every enterprise. In chapter 53, a climactic scene of the novel, Orlick confronts his enemy and blames Pip for all of his failures. He even accuses Pip of responsibility for the death of Mrs. Joe. The charge is paranoiac and false: Orlick is the murderer. In his almost hallucinatory terror, however, Pip psychologically accepts Orlick’s reasoning. As a child, Pip hated his sister. If he is not the active instrument of her death, he nevertheless profits from it. Similarly, Pip profits from the hard-earned toil of Magwitch. Indeed, most of the success he enjoys, thanks to the astute protection of Mr. Jaggers, comes not as his due but for a price, the payment of corrupted money. Since he is the ignorant recipient of the fruits of corruption, his psychological guilt is all the greater.
Nevertheless, Pip, though chastened, is not destroyed by guilt. During the course of his apprenticeship to life, he learns valuable truths about himself and about his limitations. By the end of his career, when his apprenticeship is over and he is a responsible, mature being, he has cast off petty pride, snobbery, and the vexations of corrupted wealth. Although he loses his innocence forever, he can truly appreciate Herbert, Joe, and Biddy, all of whom retain their integrity. When he turns to Estella, also chastened by her wretched marriage to the sadistic Bentley, he has at least the hope of beginning a new life with her, one founded on an accurate understanding of himself and the dangers of the world.