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Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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

The purpose of Great Expectations is to demonstrate how expectations can set a person on the wrong course and cause them to ignore what really matters. Pip’s expectations lead him down the wrong path and keep him from discerning which people truly care about him, and he eventually learns not to rely on his expectations of others.

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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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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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What is the purpose of Great Expectations?

Great Expectations tells a story of characters who have ambitious and often unrealistic expectations for both themselves and the people in their lives. It could be argued that the purpose of this novel is to show how people's expectations in life are often unrealistic, uninformed, or unreasonable. Furthermore, expecting someone else to play a role in one's own personal development does not lead one to success, as Pip learns by the end of the novel.

The purpose of "great expectations" in the novel is to set characters on courses that might or might not be appropriate for them and to obfuscate the things that really matter. The book makes it clear that expectations are not synonymous with ambition and are certainly not synonymous with hard work. To attain one's expectations, or goals, one must propel oneself forward rather than relying on external assistance.

For instance, Estella’s expectations of her future and her sense of how to treat others, derived from being raised by Miss Havisham, lead to disastrous consequences for her when she marries Drummle. Pip’s expectations of his benefactor’s identity—he wrongly believes Miss Havisham is his benefactor—and about his future lead him to initially take the wrong path and rebuff the people who truly love him in favor of the superficial pursuit of the life of a gentleman.

Ultimately, when the truth is revealed to him, Pip learns that he spurned the people who truly cared about him and wasted time, money, and effort on achieving an empty ambition. He also learns that to attain something he wants and to reach his goals, he needs to do more than merely “expect” another person to gift him money or status. He needs to work hard and lift himself up rather than expect others to achieve his aspirations on his behalf.

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What is the significance of the title Great Expectations?

Nearly everyone has great expectations when they are young. They expect a lot of themselves, a lot of other people, and a lot of life. But they are usually disappointed in all three. This is expressed very succinctly in Ernest Hemingway's short story, "Hills Like White Elephants." While they are waiting outside a little cafe for the train to Madrid to arrive, the girl wants to try a drink called Anis del Toro. 

"It tastes like licorice," the girl said and put the glass down.

"That's the way with everything."

"Yes," said the girl. "Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you've waited so long for, like absinthe."

The pessimistic German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer expresses the same truth another way.

Of course, as Schiller says, we are all born in Arcadia; in other words, we come into the world full of claims to happiness and pleasure and cherish the foolish hope of making them good. In any case, experience after a time teaches us that happiness and pleasure are a fata Morgana which is visible only from a distance and vanishes when we approach it.  

The great English Romantic poet William Wordsworth begins his most famous poem, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" with the following stanza.

THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight, To me did seem Apparelled in celestial light, The glory and the freshness of a dream. It is not now as it hath been of yore;-- Turn wheresoe'er I may, By night or day, The things which I have seen I now can see no more. 

The title of Dickens' novel Great Expectations appears to have multiple meanings. It can apply simply to the hero Pip, who had "great expectations" in the form of a promised fortune and also had great expectations of his future life as a wealthy gentleman married to Estalla. It can apply to some of the other characters in the novel as well. It can be at least partly autobiographical, because Dickens own early life was similar to that of Pip, and Dickens also enjoyed good fortune for a period before he became disenchanted. But in a larger sense it can apply to humanity in general. Children are likely to have grandiose dreams they expect to see fulfilled at some time in the distant future. But they can be rudely disappointed either by failure or success. Macbeth thought he would be happy if only he could become king of Scotland, but he ended up reflecting that

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,And then is heard no more. It is a taleTold by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signifying nothing.

The Bible, of course, ought to have some words on the subject. We find some famous ones in Ecclesiastes 1:14:

I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.

Pretty pessimistic. It can't be that way for everybody. Or can it? Maybe Dickens was only suggesting that people shouldn't expect too much from life because they are bound to be disappointed with the way things turn out in reality. In the end Pip seems to realize that a simple life with modest expectations is the best kind of life. He uses Joe and Biddy as examples of people who are happy because they do not make themselves unhappy. 

Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman is a good example of disappointed expectations. So are the heroes of Henry James's stories "The Great Good Place," "The Lesson of the Master," and "The Beast in the Jungle." So is the hero of Voltaire's novel Candide, which ends with this sentence:

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”

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What is the significance of the title Great Expectations?

Great Expectations is a title that is simultaneously literal, figurative, and ironic, akin in some ways to the term "American Dream."  Let's look at all three meanings of the title.

The term at the time the book was written signified the expectations of an inheritance, what one in Dickens' England might expect from a wealthy family member who died, at a time at which, I believe, inheritance taxes were small or non-existent. Thus the accumulated wealth of a family might very well pass to one family member intact.  This was of course, an expectation of upper-class people only, a small percentage of the population, something that Pip would have no realistic reason to hope for in a literal sense.

In a figurative sense, the title reflects the hopes and dreams of Pip as well as others in the novel.  In Pip's case, his great expectations were to be wealthy, to be respected, to have the love of Estella, and to live the life of a "gentleman," which in those days meant not working at all.  Miss Havisham had great expectations, too, but, of course, was jilted by her lover, and Magwitch's great expectations are really to give Pip what he wants. 

The title is ironic in that when Pip's great expectations are realized, he learns the value of that time-honored warning, "Be careful what you wish for."  Simply having these great expectations fulfilled does not always make for happiness. No matter how much money one has, no matter how gentlemanly a live might be, life has ups and downs and nothing can insulate one from those ups and downs, so it is often best to have realistic expectations and rely on one's own character and skills for happiness.   

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What is the significance of Great Expectations?

For Charles Dickens, Great Expectations was significant because it was semi-autobiographical. It was his revision of his earlier semi-autobiographical novel David Copperfield. Besides the fact that both books are about young boys who have rough upbringings, they are pretty different. David Copperfield is idealized. Great Expectations is darker. Also, Great Expectations takes place in and around Rochester, where Dickens grew up. The places are based on his childhood haunts.

An example of this is the graveyard from the beginning of the book. This is actually based on a real graveyard outside a castle in Rochester which has the same headstones Dickens describes as being Pip’s siblings’ headstones. Dickens grew up looking at them, and incorporated them into Pip’s life.

To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine,—who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle,—I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence (Chapter 1).

Dickens even based Satis House on a real house, which you can still visit today. When he was a child, Dickens was enamored with another house called Gad’s Hill Place, and he returned to buy it once he was famous and could afford the house. He was creating his own arc, similar to, but different from, Pip’s. Unlike Pip, Dickens made his own success.

Some of Great Expectations's themes could definitely apply to Dickens's life. Dickens had trouble with relationships, especially when it came to love. He married, but fell out of love with his wife. He loved children and had many, but he was an exacting father. He had high expectations, and often as a result had rocky relationships with his own children. Life didn't turn out to be a fairy tale for Charles Dickens.

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What is the significance of Great Expectations?

"Great Expectations" is significant also as a Bildungsroman, or the "novel of maturation."  And it is for this reason, Dickens's novel is often included in school anthologies.  The moral lessons that Pip learns parallel closely the lessons that many young people must learn:

  1. Money cannot buy quality in a person.  After his first visit to Satis House, Pip becomes ashamed of his "coarse hands and [his]common boots."  He is ashamed of being "a common laboring boy....that was much more ignorant than [he] had considered [himself] ...and generally was in a low-lived bad way."  But, Pip later learns that the poorer characters are the more genuine and noble.  Mr. Jagger's clerk, Wemmick is a kind and loving man, Joe and Biddy are warm, decent people of strong moral character while many of the "gentlemen" such as Drummle are cruel and unethical.
  2. Being influenced by others can be detrimental. In his efforts to become a gentleman, Pip wishes to socialize with Estella and the other gentlemen; in so doing, he becomes snobbish.  He is embarrassed by Joe's visit to London, mortified as Joe clumsily drops his hat and does not know how to act in the presence of Herbert. Later on, when Pip visits the forge, Joe, notes the difference, "Diwisions among such must come and must be met as they come.  You and me is not two figures to be together."  In his realization of his cruelty to Joe, Pip calls himself "a swindler":  "and with such pretenses did I cheat myself."
  3. Appearances can often be deceiving. Many of the people that Pip has been impressed with are not what they have seemed to be.  Estella, for all her beauty, is cold and heartless.  Herbert, the gentleman on whom Pip wishes to model himself, is a failure in his business ventures, Mr. Jaggers, a lawyer, is actually a crude and heartless man, Miss Havisham is a pitiable, misdirected woman.  The convict, Magwitch, is really a good man who has simply had an unfortunate life, Joe and Biddy are the best people he has known.
  4. Spiritual/ethical values are what are most important inlife. From Joe, Biddy, and Magwitch, Pip learns the value of real love and friendship, the value of integrity in a person.

In addition to the important moral lessons, the title itself is significant in the suggested meanings of the often repeated phrase "great expectations."  Pip expects money to buy him happiness and social position as a gentleman, as well as love.  But, none of these qualities can be attained by his false expectations.  For, after Magwitch appears and Pip realizes the meaning of Mr. Jaggers phrase to take nothing on appearances--"Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence.  There's no better rule"--he remarks in Chapter 41 that he has "no expectations."

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What significance does the novel's title, Great Expectations, have for the story?

I have read "Great Expectations" countless times and thoroughly enjoyed the book.  The reason Charles Dickens titled it so was because Pip had had a hard life in so short a lifetime, and when he supposedly came into good fortune, he had high hopes of a better life--an education, a good home, plenty to eat, nice clothes to wear.  But the greatest hope of all was the love of Estella, who spurned him constantly.  It was always his greatest dream that she could love him and in the end, after much suffering, she finally did.

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