What is the significance of the title Great Expectations?

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Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Great Expectations is a title that is simultaneously literal, figurative, and ironic, akin in some ways to the term "American Dream."  Let's look at all three meanings of the title.

The term at the time the book was written signified the expectations of an inheritance, what one in Dickens' England might expect from a wealthy family member who died, at a time at which, I believe, inheritance taxes were small or non-existent. Thus the accumulated wealth of a family might very well pass to one family member intact.  This was of course, an expectation of upper-class people only, a small percentage of the population, something that Pip would have no realistic reason to hope for in a literal sense.

In a figurative sense, the title reflects the hopes and dreams of Pip as well as others in the novel.  In Pip's case, his great expectations were to be wealthy, to be respected, to have the love of Estella, and to live the life of a "gentleman," which in those days meant not working at all.  Miss Havisham had great expectations, too, but, of course, was jilted by her lover, and Magwitch's great expectations are really to give Pip what he wants. 

The title is ironic in that when Pip's great expectations are realized, he learns the value of that time-honored warning, "Be careful what you wish for."  Simply having these great expectations fulfilled does not always make for happiness. No matter how much money one has, no matter how gentlemanly a live might be, life has ups and downs and nothing can insulate one from those ups and downs, so it is often best to have realistic expectations and rely on one's own character and skills for happiness.   

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Nearly everyone has great expectations when they are young. They expect a lot of themselves, a lot of other people, and a lot of life. But they are usually disappointed in all three. This is expressed very succinctly in Ernest Hemingway's short story, "Hills Like White Elephants." While they are waiting outside a little cafe for the train to Madrid to arrive, the girl wants to try a drink called Anis del Toro. 

"It tastes like licorice," the girl said and put the glass down.

"That's the way with everything."

"Yes," said the girl. "Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you've waited so long for, like absinthe."

The pessimistic German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer expresses the same truth another way.

Of course, as Schiller says, we are all born in Arcadia; in other words, we come into the world full of claims to happiness and pleasure and cherish the foolish hope of making them good. In any case, experience after a time teaches us that happiness and pleasure are a fata Morgana which is visible only from a distance and vanishes when we approach it.  

The great English Romantic poet William Wordsworth begins his most famous poem, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" with the following stanza.

THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, 
The earth, and every common sight, 
To me did seem 
Apparelled in celestial light, 
The glory and the freshness of a dream. 
It is not now as it hath been of yore;-- 
Turn wheresoe'er I may, 
By night or day, 
The things which I have seen I now can see no more. 

The title of Dickens' novel Great Expectations appears to have multiple meanings. It can apply simply to the hero Pip, who had "great expectations" in the form of a promised fortune and also had great expectations of his future life as a wealthy gentleman married to Estalla. It can apply to some of the other characters in the novel as well. It can be at least partly autobiographical, because Dickens own early life was similar to that of Pip, and Dickens also enjoyed good fortune for a period before he became disenchanted. But in a larger sense it can apply to humanity in general. Children are likely to have grandiose dreams they expect to see fulfilled at some time in the distant future. But they can be rudely disappointed either by failure or success. Macbeth thought he would be happy if only he could become king of Scotland, but he ended up reflecting that

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

The Bible, of course, ought to have some words on the subject. We find some famous ones in Ecclesiastes 1:14:

I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.

Pretty pessimistic. It can't be that way for everybody. Or can it? Maybe Dickens was only suggesting that people shouldn't expect too much from life because they are bound to be disappointed with the way things turn out in reality. In the end Pip seems to realize that a simple life with modest expectations is the best kind of life. He uses Joe and Biddy as examples of people who are happy because they do not make themselves unhappy. 

Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman is a good example of disappointed expectations. So are the heroes of Henry James's stories "The Great Good Place," "The Lesson of the Master," and "The Beast in the Jungle." So is the hero of Voltaire's novel Candide, which ends with this sentence:

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”

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zikoelghayate's profile picture

zikoelghayate | eNotes Newbie

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The title of the novel Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is a very significant one. The titlecan be evaluated by different aspects. The title is ironic and it also has the autobiographicalaspect of Charles dickens prominent in it. The title itself suggests that different characters in thenovel are going to have different expectations. The expectations of the readers are also taken intoaccount. Along all these aspects expectations of Pip; the protagonist are emphasized in aremarkable way.Most importantly Charles dickens own expectations are reflected through the novel‟s title. Hissuppressed desires and expectations are expressed especially through the personality of the maincharacter Pip.

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