I like to discuss the title of the novel by comparing it to another Dickens work, David Copperfield.
Every character in the novel has great expectations, but the title has a deeper meaning. When Dickens wrote the book, he was a very different person than when he wrote David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. In those stories, love is bright and blooming with possibility. In Great Expectations, a darkness has settled in. Dickens had been deeply disappointed by love, and by life.
Both Great Expectations and David Copperfield are considered Dickens’s autobiographies, but they were written at very different points of his career. When he wrote David Copperfield, Dickens was a promising young author very much in love and with the world before him. The book demonstrates that optimism, with the character of Dora and David, but recognizes Dickens’s settling for comfort instead of passion because Dora dies and David ends up with Agnes.
The passion of young love is represented by Estella, whom Pip desperately loves to the point of obsession. From a young age, Miss Havisham manipulates him into loving her.
Miss Havisham watched us all the time, directed my attention to Estella's beauty, and made me notice it the more by trying her jewels on Estella's breast and hair. (ch 9, enotes pdf p. 62)
Unfortunately, Dickens’s Agnes did not work out. Dickens married Catherine Hogart and they had many children together, but he wasn’t happy with her. Just as Miss Havisham was disappointed by love, the promise of young love turned to decay for Dickens.
The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An épergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus…. (Ch 9, p. 59)
Just as Dickens’s great expectations for love and life not realized, those of Pip, Estella and Miss Havisham crumble and decay. Yet even near the end of his life, Dickens maintained some optimism. Herbert Pocket and Wemmick both find love, but it is the comfortable love and not the passionate, as is Joe and Biddy’s love. Estella, Pip, and Miss Havisham, the passionate ones, all suffer. Similarly, Magwitch, who also had great expectations, lives only just to see them realized before he too is destroyed.
Read more about David Copperfield here: http://www.enotes.com/david-copperfield/summary
You can learn something of the significance of the title by understanding Dickens’ own upbringing. Refer to the biographical section of e notes. Go to the Study Guide section and skip to the biography.
Some of Pip’s experiences mirror those of Dickens. Dickens resented the life he had working in a factory (especially as he had had designs on being an actor) and he knew he deserved something better. Pip when he was young and working at the forge, dreamed of his fortune and how it would be to be a ‘gentleman.’
In the novel itself, Pip’s “expectations” go in stages. First he fantasizes about how it would be to be a gentleman. Little does he know that a good deed will earn him an inheritance that will set him on his way to realizing his dream.
Unfortunately for Pip, in the second instance he actually abandons his ‘real’ friends in the pursuit of this life and the new set of expectations it brings with it.
Then there’s London and all the expectations that that creates. Even the other characters consistently try to match their own expectations. Miss Havisham, bent on avenging her damaged honor, raises Estella for the specific purpose of making men feel her own pain. Her expectations can never truly be met. Magwitch (Pip’s benefactor) is intent on making Pip ‘great’. Ironically, Pip imagines how life would have been back at the forge.
The readers’ expectations change as the plot twists thereby drawing everyone in to the conflict between expectations and the realization that each step in the process to attaining that which you strive towards only creates its own new set of expectations.