The main themes in Charles Dickens's popular 1861 novel Great Expectations are class differences, crime and injustice, and dreams and aspirations.
One of the main themes in the novel is social class, or rather class differences. Dickens explores the sociopolitical structure and climate in Victorian England and showcases the obvious differences between the lifestyles of the rich and the poor. In fact, the theme of class differences is connected to the main message of the novel, as Dickens's main idea was to help the readers understand that riches and wealth pale in comparison to love, kindness, and generosity.
The novel portrays the experiences of the poorest of the poor, such as the orphans and beggars; the lower class and the struggling workers, such as Joe Gargery; the middle class and those who can afford to live a comfortable life, such as Mr. Pumblechook; and the wealthy and the richest of the rich, such as Miss Havisham. The protagonist, Pip, essentially goes from rags to riches and becomes a fine and educated gentleman; however, he learns a very important lesson on his journey: money cannot buy happiness nor affection.
In this context, the true meaning of family is a secondary theme, as Dickens uncovers that the most important family values are love, respect, kindness, compassion, and loyalty.
Crime and injustice
Dickens openly criticizes the British legal system and deems it unjust, corrupt, and unscrupulous. The criminals and the prisoners, such as Magwitch, are treated horribly, and the death penalty is overused. Dickens's intention was to paint a realistic picture of the legal situation in the British Empire, which was far from ideal.
Pip comes to the realization that he owes most of his wealth and social status to Magwitch, a lowly criminal, and begins to see how his ignorance and selfishness have blinded him and forced him to forget his humanity and disregard Magwitch's worth and virtue.
Dreams and aspirations
Great Expectations is essentially a bildungsroman; it follows the story of Pip, beginning from his childhood and education and progressing to his maturity. As he grows up, Pip gradually transforms into a man of great expectations; someone who aspires to become a gentleman, educated and well-mannered, so that he can ask Estella to marry him without any second thoughts or hesitation. Ultimately, Pip realizes that emotional maturity is equally as important as mental and physical maturity; in order to be a decent human being, one must first determine their own morals and see both their virtues and vices. Aspiring to be a good person is much more honorable and noble than aspiring to be a respected gentleman.
As a social reformer, Charles Dickens was very critical of Victorian society, and because of his wish to improve his society, the narrative of Great Expectations is rife with injustice, which, through his extravagant didacticism, Dickens hopes to rectify. His main themes, then, touch upon the ills of Victorian society.
- Social class has no connection to moral merit or deficiency
Certainly, Pip begins to go wrong when he feels inferior to Estella because she has called him "coarse and common." It is then that he views his loving friend and father-figure Joe with a different perspective. He becomes ashamed of him when he goes to Miss Havisham's, and later when Joe comes to London to visit Pip because he has missed him. Rejecting his love and affection, Pip seeks love and emotional satisfaction from the more socially elite Estella, who is incapable of returning any affection.
Dickens satirizes the aspirations of the Victorians' rising middle class toward acceptance by a shallow and frivolous aristocracy represented by the likes of the eccentric Miss Havisham and her greedy family, the fatuous Herbert Pocket, and his mother, who is forever reading books on family titles and coats of arms. Another character who is the object of this satire is Uncle Pumblechook, whose worship of the aristocracy is evidenced by his fawning demeanor in the presence of Estella when he brings Pip to Satis House. Especially humorous are his congratulations to Pip on his newfound wealth as he wishes him the "happiness of money." In the final part of the novel Pumblechook takes credit in a local publication for being responsible for Pip's having risen to a gentleman.
Even Pip feels a certain superiority since he has risen in society. But, when he learns that his benefactor is not Miss Havisham but the old convict Magwitch, his dreams of prestige are shattered as he discovers that his lofty attitude was founded on nothing. Moreover, Pip ironically learns that Estella is Magwitch's and a poor woman who is also a former convict's daughter.
Dickens uses Pip's rise to a gentleman to satirize his society. In the end it is Joe and Biddy who demonstrate the most virtue, as does Magwitch whose noble actions toward Pip are inspiring and certainly in contradiction to the ideas held about English society.
- Victims and Victimization exist throughout society
As in his other works such as Oliver Twist and David Copperfield in which little boys are victimized as foundlings or by relatives or stepfathers, Pip, too, is abused as is Biddy, the orphan. Even Estella is mistreated as she is psychologically exploited by Miss Havisham.
Magwitch is also a victim, a victim of the justice system that affords Compeyson a lighter sentence than Magwitch solely because he looks like a gentleman. His wife Molly is also victimized as she does not know the fate of her daughter, who is Estella, but Mr. Jaggers never reveals to her the girl's whereabouts.
- Crime and Personal Responsibility
Pip finds himself confused about the penal system as he observes Jaggers who only defends those who can pay him. He himself is criminal and manipulates people as he pleases. With Wemmick as a model, Pip learns to use his own judgment about people and from his recklessness in managing their affairs with Herbert Pocket he also realizes that he must be responsible for his own decisions and actions. After rejecting Joe because he is "common," Pip learns the importance of a man is inside him, not his social class or his money, which can pervert virtue. Like the Prodigal son, he returns to the Forge and begs Joe's forgiveness. Even Miss Havisham learns the wrong that she has done in raising Estella to be heartless and to be cruel to Pip. She begs Pip to write on her notepad that he forgives her.