Discuss the significance of the title of the novel Great Expectations.

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The title of Charles Dickens's second-to-last work in which he writes with what critics term "extravagant didacticism" and stylistic decorations that "exceed all bounds" indicates the grand expectations he had for the novel. Perhaps, however, Dickens' efforts underscore the meaning of the lines of Sir Phillip Sidney in his Astrophil and Stella sonnets as he refers to

. . . that friendly foe,

Great Expectations . . .

since while many reviews were negative, readers were so eager for this novel that it had five printings.

Indeed, the novel is a "friendly foe" for many of the characters as well as for the author. That Mr. Jaggers is the first to utter this phrase at the Three Jolly Bargemen certainly points to its paradoxical meaning, for Jaggers, who knows the secret of his benefactor, is fully aware that Pip's expectations will exceed what is realistic:

"Very well,....And the communication I have got to make is that he has Great Expectations....He will come into handsome property....immediately removed from his present sphere of life and from this place and be brought up as a gentleman--in a word, as a young fellow of great expectations." 

And, it is these grand hopes, these "great expectations" that links so many of the characters in Dickens's grand effort of narrative:

  • Magwitch hopes to vicariously redeem his tragic life
  • Pip expects that in becoming a gentleman, he will become superior to others and worthy of Miss Havisham's respect and Estella's love. 
  • Herbert Matthews aspires to secure a respectable position and to marry
  • The orphaned Biddy hopes to find a meaningful position in life.
  • Mr. Wopsle parodies the expectations of Pip in his ridiculous hopes of becoming a serious actor.
  • So, too, does Pumblechook parody Pip's excessive expectations in his claim to having brought about Pip's success.
  • Mr. Wemmick's exaggerated home displays a lightly comical image of great expectations.
  • In a sinister form of expectations, Orlick hopes to destroy Pip who has always been his rival.
  • Miss Havisham, who has had great expectations of a happy life, seeks to regain some peace of conscience with Pip's forgiveness.
  • Estella's great expectations to break men's hearts become tragic as she marries a cruel husband and becomes aware of her limitations in receiving love.
  • Finally, the readers have "great expectations" as they hope to see Pip succeed and attain his only love, Estella. 

The novel clearly has an relevant title as paradoxically there is in its narrative the unfulfillment of many of the expectations of characters while at the same time, as critic Angus Calder notices, Pip attains the other "great expectations" of many readers as 

Pip does not merely see what has been there all the time; in the cases of Miss Havisham and Magwitch, he actively helps them to become better people near the end of their lives.

And so, the "friendly foe" of Sir Phillip Sidney, "Great Expectations" is, indeed, an appropriate title for the grand work of Charles Dickens.

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As you know the title of a work is important. In this case, the title, Great Expectations, refers to the protagonist's desires for his future. In particular, as the novel progresses, Pip desires greater things for himself and his future. He has great expectations about leaving poverty and becoming a gentleman. When he sees Satis House he is obsessed to be wealthy - partially to win the affections of Estella.

He has great expectations about shedding his ignorant country boy ways and becoming learned. This is why he learns to read at Mr. Wopsle's aunt's school. He even has great expectations about moral reform and becoming a better person. For example, he regrets his mistreatment of Joe and Biddy. In short, we can say that Pip has great expectations to rise above his social class. In a sense, this is his salvation.

The irony of all of Pip's desires is that whatever he achieves does not make him any happier. He is no happier than when he as an apprentice as a blacksmith. In this sense, we can say that these great expectations did not deliever.

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To fully understand the title of Great Expectations, you have to understand why Dickens wrote it.  Dickens wrote Great Expectations later in his life.  It is semiautobiographical, just as David Copperfield was, but it is much darker and more complex.  Dickens himself had great expectations for the novel.  It was to be his most masterful work yet, and fully demonstrate his view of the world.  In many ways, it is considered just that.  It is quintessential Dickens.

In the book, the title literally connects to Pip’s monetary inheritance, referred to throughout the novel as his expectations.  However, it also refers to the various expectations characters have for life.  Pip expects to become a gentleman and marry Estella.  Miss Havisham expected to marry Compeyson.  Estella expects to live the remainder of her life in misery.  Magwitch expects to make Pip a gentleman and show the world his worth.

Each character actually has expectations, of one kind or another.  Some, like Herbert Pocket, just cheerfully work their way toward what they want.  Others, like Wemmick, work in secret toward fulfilling their dreams, as his funny wedding demonstrates.  Jaggers always expects the worst from everyone, and is not surprised when he gets it.

Some characters are successful, and others are not.  Such it always is with great expectations.

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