In what way does Dickens complicate the conventional "Improvement Plot" in Great Expectations?
An "improvement plot" novel is often called a bildungsroman or coming-of-age story and Great Expectations clearly falls into that category. However, Dickens complicates the standard bildungsroman: what Pip achieves is not the outward success that comes from self-knowledge and maturity gained from difficulties on the journey to adulthood. If a typical bildungsroman hero in the end achieves material and career goals and gains the affection of the woman he loves, Pip's maturation is all internal. He ends up without money, fame or Estella (in the original ending she remarries another). What he gains instead is the knowledge of the true worth of people, separated from their class and separated from the labels applied to them by society. All through most of the novel, he is caught up in his culture's snobbery, valuing people by their place on the class ladder. It is only at the end that he truly values Joe, his brother-in-law and guardian, who though a simple blacksmith, is a truly good-hearted and gentle person though not a gentleman. At first, too, Pip recoils in utter horror and feels stained that the fortune that makes him a gentleman comes from the toil of the convict Magwitch, but later comes to appreciate the true worth of this man, who, to repay Pip for saving his life, lives rough so that Pip can live in finery.
While modern U.S. readers can sometimes be bemused, it is important to understand how ingrained class prejudice was when Dickens wrote. Many believed that class was inborn and the upper-class people were genetically or naturally superior to lower-class people: Dickens radically questions that assumption in Great Expectations.
Although Pip comes from crude people, like Joe and Mrs. Joe, his sister, Pip is turned into a gentleman, not by Miss Havisham, as he suspects, but by the money of a convict.
The source of Pip's money and rise to the status of gentleman comes from Magwitch, a man who has spent most of his life in prison. He is not a model member of society, instead, he is a fearful man, who lives on the wrong side of the law. Magwitch, at times, seems more like a victim of the brutal English criminal justice system, than a real criminal.
Magwitch is really a good man. It is ironic that Pip, who comes to love and appreciate Magwitch, is turned into a gentleman, and does not become a snob, and is able to have the best of both worlds. His status as a gentleman and a kind and tender heart, which he learned from Magwitch.
It is also ironic, that Estella, the girl that Pip falls in love with, and who treats him with great condescension, is the daughter of a convict, Magwitch, and a murderer, Molly. Yet she puts on airs as if she were too good for Pip. She has learned this behavior from Miss Havisham. She marries a man of means, and turns out to be terribly unhappy. In the end, she comes back looking for Pip.