What is the major theme in Dickens' Great Expectations

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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There are essentially two major themes of all the themes that run through Great Expectations. The one is a social theme and the other is a personal theme. The social theme revolves around Newgate, which is a symbol of guilt and corruption, as all major characters are guilty and corrupt in their own way. The social theme is related to victims and victimization, which encompasses guilt and corruption. Miss Havisham victimizes and corrupts Pip and Estella, who victimize others in their turn: Estella victimizes Pip, as she was meant to do by Miss Havisham, and Pip victimizes Joe by rejecting him as Pip descends into gentlemanly corruption.

The personal theme relates to Pip's search for identity and self knowledge and to Estella's disintegration of self under Miss Havisham's tutelage. Both Pip and Estella find reclamation of self and knowledge of identity in the end. Pip starts out his search for identity and self being very susceptible to guilt, as evidenced by the imagined voices echoing behind him as he progresses through his original crime of robbing his sister's pantry:

every crack in every board calling after me, "Stop thief!" and "Get up, Mrs. Joe!" ... "A boy with Somebody's else's pork pie! Stop him!" ... "Halloa, young thief!"

In the end, Pip humbly comes home after eleven years abroad and comes face to face with the new Pip, a literal offspring of Joe and Biddy and a symbolic representation of the redeemed Pip. On the other hand, Estella is consumed with vanity and coldness that has no sentimental feeling. Her redemption comes through her own experiences of suffering and she says herself that suffering is the strongest teacher:

suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, .... I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape.

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