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Great Expectations is like a fairy tale without a fairy tale ending, reinforcing the idea that we need to make our own way in life, and can’t expect it to be given to us.
A poor orphan is granted riches by a secret benefactor. It sounds like the plot of a fairy tale. Great Expectations may start out as a fairy tale, but in the end the poor orphan is left not much better off than he started--except that he’s wiser for it.
Like most fairy tales, Great Expectations intends to teach a lesson. You get what you work for. Pip becomes a gentleman almost by accident. He earns the role by being kind to Magwitch in his hour of need. Yet that young Pip who gave the convict a helping hand is not the same one Magwitch returns to in London. The unassuming orphan boy is replaced with an arrogant and selfish “gentleman.”
Dickens is trying to tell us that being a gentleman comes not from your rank and social status, but from your character. As Herbert Pocket points out, a true gentleman is a gentleman and heart and in manner.
He says, no varnish can hide the grain of the wood; and that the more varnish you put on, the more the grain will express itself. (Chapter XXII, p. 214)
Pip is the varnished wood. He becomes less and less of a gentleman as he goes on, until he shows himself to be nothing but selfish. When Magwitch returns, Pip is tested. He turns out to have some gentleman in him after all, but he does not find it until he loses everything.
Pip finally accepts that true wealth is in friends and loved ones. At the end, he cares about Magwitch—not his money. He is interested only in his safety, and sees him as a father. He is also grateful to Joe and Biddy for bailing him out of trouble, and vows to go overseas and work off the debt. He is a changed man.
And Joe and Biddy both, as you have been to church to-day and are in charity and love with all mankind, receive my humble thanks for all you have done for me, and all I have so ill repaid! (Chapter LVIII, p. 322)
Magwitch and Miss Havisham both desired to get revenge on the upper class by taking orphans and turning them into a gentleman and a lady respectively. In the end, both cases where disastrous. They did prove their points though. You cannot make someone a lady or a gentleman with money alone.
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