Charles Dickens was a social reformer. Like many of his novels, Great Expectations explores themes of social class, poverty, and crime. It's main character, Pip, starts out a lonely orphan and becomes a young gentleman. Along the way, however, he struggles to find himself, and he has many experiences that cause him to question his worldview. In the end, the central theme of Great Expectations may well be the search for one's identity.
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.