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Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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Discuss the Pip-Estella relationship in Great Expectations. What bearing does it have on the theme of the novel?

Pip and Estella have a fractured relationship in Great Expectations, but Pip builds a fantasy in which they marry and live happily ever after. This reflects an important theme of the novel, which is Pip's growth from illusion and self-deception into a mature understanding of reality.

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The relationship between Pip and Estella in Great Expectations is incredibly complex and goes through many different stages. When they first meet as children, Estella treats Pip with scorn, regarding him as nothing more than a “common labouring boy.” For his part, Pip soon develops a massive crush on Estella, whose sharp tongue is matched only by her extraordinary beauty.

Over time, both Pip and Estella play at being members of the upper-classes. Estella marries the unspeakable Bentley Drummle. Drummle may be an oaf, but he's an upper-class oaf, and that's all that matters to the class-conscious Estella.

For his part, Pip leads the life of a young gentleman about town in London, thanks to the largesse of Abel Magwitch (though Pip mistakenly believes that Miss Havisham is his benefactor). As with Estella, Pip has entered a world in which he doesn't really belong. But like her, he has this snobbish idea in this head that he can only be happy by emulating the lifestyle of the upper-classes.

When the cold, hard truth finally hits home, however, Pip and Estella are forced to abandon their illusions. The gap between appearance and reality, one of the main themes of the novel, has been closed, and Pip and Estella will have to live authentically. The truth has come as a great shock to both of them, but at least now that they've found themselves, they have also found each other.

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From the beginning, Pip and Estella have a fractured relationship. Estella scorns Pip, and Pip suffers from unrequited love. However, Pip builds up in his mind a fantasy of how he would like life to be. In his version of reality, Miss Havisham is his secret benefactor, raising him to the status of a rich gentleman so that he can be a suitable husband to Estella. In Pip's mind, he and Estella will marry, she will learn to love him, and they will live happily every after.

This false idea bears on an important theme of the novel, which is illusion and self-deception. Once he comes into his great expectations, Pip deceives himself about what is important and how the world operates. While there is only the flimsiest bit of evidence that Miss Havisham might be his benefactor—she invited him to play at her home as a child—this version of events flatters Pip's ego and fits with his deepest desires, so he invests it with truth. Likewise, he begins to believe that his money, clothing, education, and new status as higher up the class ladder make him better than people like the simple blacksmith Joe.

Pip's growth comes as he abandons his illusions about what it means to have great expectations. This includes the realization that Miss Havisham is not his benefactor, that, in fact, Joe is a far better person than he is, and that Estella is incapable of loving him or anybody because of how Miss Havisham has raised her. As he adjusts to reality, Pip becomes a sadder but wiser and more truly good human being.

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In Great Expectations, Mr. Jaggers advises Pip, "Take nothing on appearances."  Certainly, the Pip-Estella relationship is an example of the Appearances vs. Reality  theme that prevails thoughout Charles Dickens's classic novel.

From the first meeting of Pip with Estella, Pip falls victim to believing in appearances.  The beautiful, haughty girl whose name means "star" is elevated in Pip's esteem simply because she lives with the rich Miss Havisham and is dressed in lovely clothes and speaks in a deprecating way to him, calling him "common."  Immediately, because this vision of superior loveliness who speaks properly has termed him "common," Pip experiences a humiliation.  But, despite her cruel ways, Pip falls hopelessly in love with the beautiful Estella, perhaps even because she is unattainable.  He perpetuates his delusions by hoping that if he becomes a gentleman, Estella will accept him as an equal and requite his love.

Of course, the truth is that from the beginning, Pip's birth has more legitimacy than that of Estella's.  For, his parents were married and, albeit poor, they were certainly not criminals as are the parents of Estella, whose birth came out of the streets of London.

In addition to the theme of Appearance vs. Reality, the relationship of Pip and Estella also points to a salient theme in the works of Dickens:  Class Stratification.  The theme of social class is central to Great Expectations as it acts as extends into the other themes such as the Appearance theme.  Pip's angst over being "common," as Estella has labeled him, is his driving force to become a gentleman and entertain the "great expectations" of having bettered himself sufficiently so that he will become worthy of Estella.  But, of course the class structure is a false one in Great Expectations, thus paralleling the Appearance vs. Reality theme, as Pip later learns; rather, it is what one is as a person that is truly of value.  Estella, for all her beauty and daintiness is but common in her heart; she is incapable of noble thoughts and acts while Joe, the humble blacksmith is truly a good and noble man. 

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To me, one of the major themes of the novel is the idea that suppressed emotions can make a person into something of a cripple.  We see this most clearly in the character of Miss Havisham.

But we also see this theme some in the relationship between Pip and Estella.  Estella is something of a cripple herself because she cannot act according to her true feelings.  Miss Havisham has raised her in such a way that she can't get past hating men.   But this is not how she truly feels.  We see this in the fact that she keeps trying to spare Pip from harm even as she is harming him.

The relationship between the two of them is a very dysfunctional one, with Pip loving her and her trying to hurt him.  Dickens is trying to show us (through this relationship) how much suppressed emotions can hurt people.

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