This novel is particularly noted for being one of the maturer works of Dickens, very different in tone, style and theme from earlier works such as Oliver Twist. One reason for this is the very mature treatment of the development of the central character and the way in which the novel is a great example of a bildungsroman. This is a German word refering to a novel of education, which follows the life of one protagonist as they move from childhood, encountering various difficulties and trials, and then into adulthood when finally they are able to find their place in society and develop a sense of self. This is the journey that Pip takes, and the reader is privileged in following his journey through childhood, and then through his self-absorbed and selfish early years with wealth, finally tracking his progress to a happy close when he has a job and works for his living.
Key to this is the narrative choice that Dickens uses to convey this growth in character. This novel is written in the first person retrospective point of view, which means the main character is looking back on his youthful self. What makes this narrative perspective so fascinating is the way in which this allows the older narrator's views and thoughts on his youthful indiscretions and actions to become commingled with his younger self's views and thoughts. Consider how this occurs in the following quote, taken from Pip's account of the evening after finding out about his great expectations:
I put my light out, and crept into bed; and it was an uneasy bed now, and I never slept the old sound sleep in it any more.
The younger Pip only recognises this feeling of unease and does not explore it, but it is clear that the older Pip, looking back at this experience, links the newfound wealth of Pip with this sense of unease and the loss of his carefree self. This is just one element that gives this novel a "strong and sober texture."
Renowned as a social reformer in his day, Charles Dickens was an advocate for the poor, downtrodden, and orphaned. In the last of his most worthy novels, Great Expectations, Dickens, indeed, writes a strong narrative against the injustices of his England.
- The plight of orphans and abused children
Having personally experienced misfortune himself when his father was sent to debtors' prison, as a boy Dickens was forced to work in a blacking house and lived more or less as an orphan. His main character, Pip, is a virtual orphan as is Biddy, Estella, and Abel Magwitch. Both Pip and Biddy are subjected to neglect and physical abuse. In Biddy's case, for instance, Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt keeps her as a servant really, having her handle all her little general shop transactions. In addition, Biddy does most of the instruction in the great-aunt's school. While much is lavished upon Estella, Miss Havisham certainly does not exemplify what a mother should be.
- The dehumanizing effects of society
With the Industrial Revolution, there began a rising middle class, merchants, bankers, and others who acquired money. These people aspired to what Dickens perceived as a frivolous aristocracy who felt superior simply because of their social class and wealthy and who showed no concern for those beneath them. Certainly, Miss Havisham and her relatives exemplify this attitude as does Mr. Jaggers, who refuses to aid anyone who cannot pay his fees.
Because of the growth of industry and business in London, people migrated from rural areas, seeking work. Often they lived in the most sordid of conditions; moreover, when they could not find work, they felt forced into crime. The character Magwitch exemplifies such a person; he was born into poverty--"a gamin" of the streets--and lived and ate as he could. When he comes to visit Pip in Stage III, he relates his poignant history of not knowing where he came from or when he was born. "A ragged little creetur" who was "said to live in jails," he was accused of stealing, but knew no other way to find food. When he was older, Compeyson, purportedly a gentleman, hired Magwitch as his man and exploited him by having him swindle, pass bad checks, and such for him. Of Compeyson, Magwitch tells Pip,
"He'd no more heart than a iron file, he was as cold as death, and he had the head of the Devil."
- The corruption of the judicial system
Dickens declared society itself a "prison," for it was nearly impossible for the poor to rise above their station, and, like Magwitch, they were always suspect and condemned more harshly for a crime than someone of a higher class. When, for instance, Magwitch and Compeyson go on trial for Compeyson's swindling crimes, Magwitch, who in truth is the minor criminal, is given a harsher and longer sentence.
And when the verdict come... Compeyson...was recommended to mercy on account of good character and bad company, and giving up all the information he could agen me, and...me as got never a word but Guilty?
Dickens further illustrates the corrupt criminal justice system with Mr. Jaggers, whose constant washing of hands indicates his attempts to wash away his unethical dealings and tinges of guilt.
- The foolishness of envy
Dickens satirizes envy of the wealthy through ridiculous characters such as Pumblechook, who hypocritically flatters Pip only after he is a gentleman, and Mrs. Pocket who ignores her children, instead spending her time reading a book on social titles.