Pick a theme from Great Expectations and describe how Dickens shows this theme by using characters and/or eventsGreat Expectations by Charles Dickens

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Having been a lonely child himself who was made to work in a blackinghouse as a boy while his father was cast into debtors' prison, Dickens often wrote about orphans and their feelings of loneliness and alienation.  In his novel, Great Expectations, there are five known orphans:  Pip, Mrs. Joe, Biddy, Magwitch, and Estella. As orphans, Pip, Biddy, Magwitch, and Estella are all victimized by those who control them.  But, each of these characters deals with this victimization in different ways. 

  • Pip, alone in the cemetery with the coarse man in grey, expresses human commiseration to this man despite the man's turning him upside down and issuing threatening oaths.  When he goes to Satis House to act as a playmate for Estella, Pip feels great melancholy as he looks at the ravaged woman and her closed, dark house even though she exploits him as the boy with whom Estella can practice as Miss Havisham whispers to her, "You can break his heart."  The pompous "swindler," Pumblechook, browbeats Pip when he stays with the corn chandler before going to Miss Havisham's.  Later, when Pip is a young man, Pumblechook takes credit as Pip's mentor who has led him to being a gentleman.  For a brief period, while he aspires to be a gentleman, Pip acts as the victimizer as he is cruel to Biddy and Joe; Pip stays away from home for eleven years, and when he first became a gentleman, Pip is cruel to Biddy.  But, later Pip learns that having power is very unsatisfying and he returns home, the prodigal son, who is penitent.
  • Estella reacts to her victimization by becoming very coldhearted and cruel, so cruel that she has no feelings for Miss Havisham, who has loved her in her own perverse way.  "You made me," Estella tells the pitiable woman who cries as she realizes that she has made Estella absolutely heartless.  Fortunately, however, Estella breaks the abuse cycle as she is victimized further by her husband Bentley Drummle by being a good mother to her child and by reconciling with Pip in the ending.
  • Magwitch, also, ends the abuse cycle of his victimized/victimizer life as he risks his death to see his "dear boy" Pip, whom he has supported in his efforts to become a gentleman. Having been a gamin in the streets of London, living by theft,  Magwitch chases his victimizer Compeyson until he finally wrestles with him in the Thames when Pip and Herbert try to get him aboard a ship. Before he dies, Pip tells this poor man who has suffered from the corrupt criminal justice system that his daughter he believed to be lost still lives.
  • Perhaps the greatest example of a person who harbors no ill feelings for her victimization is Biddy.  Whenever she is criticized by Pip, Biddy repays him with kindness.  When Pip chides Biddy that Joe has not learned to read and write, Biddy counters that Joe has not had the heart to learn.  Always she defends Joe whenever Pip criticizes him.  After all that happens, Pip returns to the forge and Biddy is as gracious as ever to him.
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Great Expectations

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