Critically discuss the theme of Great Expectations.
The most important theme in Great Expectations is that reality is more important than appearance. For instance, Pip wants to become a gentleman, but over the course of the book, he comes to realize that having a good heart is much more important.
The importance of reality as opposed to mere appearance is arguably the most significant theme in Great Expectations. Most of the characters on display are not quite what they seem, their true characters being radically at odds with their appearances. For instance, when we first encounter Abel Magwitch—along with Pip—we immediately take him for a violent, psychopathic convict—a dangerous, scary man who looks like he could do some serious harm. In actual fact, however, it turns out that old Abel has a real heart of gold, as can be seen in his generous patronage of Pip.
Then there’s Estella, who devotes herself to the shallow world of high society, with its obsession with how people act, dress, and behave. Yet despite her superior airs and graces, Estella is in fact the daughter of two criminals, one of whom, as we will discover in due course, is none other than Abel Magwitch. Once we are apprised of the particulars of Estella’s lowly background we gain a much more rounded portrait of her than the cruel, snobby young lady who greeted young Pip with such cold contempt when he used to come round to Satis House to play.
But no discussion of the theme of reality’s superiority over appearance would be complete without mentioning the story’s protagonist, Pip. He’s spent most of his life trying to be someone he isn’t. He wants to escape from the humble blacksmith’s cottage on the bleak Romney Marshes and head off to London to establish himself as a gentleman.
In due course, and thanks to Magwitch’s largesse, that’s precisely what he does. But in the process he becomes separated from his true self, a humble, decent young man possessed of deep love and loyalty for the people he cares about. Pip comes to realize that his single-minded obsession with becoming a gentleman turned him into a crashing snob towards Joe, the person who means more to him than anyone else in the world. And he feels truly ashamed of himself for it.
But thankfully he eventually comes to his senses and realizes that what he really is, deep down inside him, cannot be captured by any amount of wealth, fine clothing, or high social status.
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