Study Guide

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations Essay - Great Expectations

Great Expectations

Blinded by love, Pip rejects his family and background, believing that he is being groomed to be Estella’s husband by the eccentric Miss Havisham, Estella’s guardian. Clinging firmly to his great expectations, Pip snobbishly rejects those who genuinely love him, Joe and Biddy, and aligns himself with such morally questionable characters as the lawyer Jaggers, the hulking Drummle, and the half-crazed Miss Havisham. In spite of his many blunders, however, Pip remains basically good and has the good sense to make provision for the future of his best friend, Herbert Pocket.

When Pip learns that his unknown benefactor is not Miss Havisham but Abel Magwitch, a convict, who intends to claim Pip as his own, Pip recoils in distaste, and his pride suffers a severe blow. But Pip and Herbert rally themselves to try to save Magwitch, who has reentered London under threat of death. In his futile attempts to save both Miss Havisham and the convict, Pip goes through a ritualistic cleansing by fire and water and is able to make atonement for his sins. Pip’s consequent illness, which causes him to fall into a coma, is a symbolic death that makes redemption and metaphoric rebirth possible. Nursed back to health by Joe, Pip experiences new growth toward greater maturity.

Not many novels have two endings, but Great Expectations does. The original ending found Pip eleven years older, sadder and wiser, alone, but adjusted to his new life. However, Dickens changed his mind and wrote a happier conclusion in which Estella, herself greatly chastened after eleven years of suffering, comes back as a possible wife for Pip. The romantically happy ending is not farfetched. On one level, the novel is a projection of a fantasy wherein Pip envisions himself as a young prince destined to save an enchanted princess and inherit the kingdom. Fairy-tale elements in the novel foreshadow happiness for Pip just as surely as recurring elements of the nightmare world suggest that Pip will be haunted by past experiences throughout his life. Only the presence of “another” Pip, son of Joe and Biddy, intimates that a life without pain and suffering could be possible at some future time when criminality is not a condition of life and where the search for wealth without regard for others is not a commonly accepted mode of behavior.

Bibliography:

Hornback, Bert G. “Great Expectations”: A Novel of Friendship. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Helpful introduction to the novel’s historical context, guilt theme, point of view, and symbols and images. Includes chapters on Pip and Magwitch that focus on Pip’s moral education. Argues that the novel’s significance lies in its thesis that evil in society can be fought only by confronting it in the self. Includes an annotated bibliography.

Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952. A standard biography that includes a chapter on Great Expectations, which provides a succinct discussion of characters and of Dickens’ opinion that money and materialism are corrupting forces. Pip’s fortunes are related to key events in Dickens’ own life.

Miller, J. Hillis. Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958. Includes an essay that explores the themes of identity and self-discovery in Great Expectations and traces Pip’s development from childhood isolation and alienation to moral descent and eventual transformation through love.

Sadrin, Anny. “Great Expectations.” Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988. A comprehensive handbook with good chapters on the composition, historical background, setting, and biographical elements in the story. Presents a psychological interpretation of characters that mainly conforms to standard views while drawing on some critical perspectives and language. Includes an extensive bibliography.

Van Ghent, Dorothy. “On Great Expectations.” In The English Novel: Form and Function. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1953. A groundbreaking essay that studies the themes of guilt and atonement in the context of a dehumanizing society.