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.