I need help with the summary of the novel Great Expectations: What approach can I take?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In composing a summary of a novel, it is often helpful to focus upon motifs that unify that work as well as a controlling theme. With regard to Great Expectations, this is a bildungsroman that follows the progression of Pip, who searches for a father throughout the novel from the time that he is an orphan standing lonely and cold before the graves of his parents until he returns home to the forge like the prodigal son.  This progression of Pip from boy to man is divided into three Stages:

  • Stage I

Pip lives with his termagent sister and her kind, loving husband, Joe Gargery, who acts as a friend to the boy, providing him love and shielding him from his sister's wrath. While Pip is at the graveyard one day, a convict all in grey appears and frightens the child into returning with "wittles" for him. However, he and another convict are caught and returned to the prison ship. Later, Pip is taken to Satis House to play with a haughty, but beautiful girl named Estella. There, too, he meets a most melancholy woman, strangely attired in a yellowed wedding dress, who encourages Estella to "break his heart."

This day proves memorable for Pip as, after having been to the strange, decaying mansion, he yearns to become a gentleman and be worthy of Estella.  Then, one night a burly man named Mr. Jaggers appears and announces to Pip that he has "great expectations" as he is to go to London and become a gentleman.

  • Stage II

Pip arrives in London alone, having rejected Joe's offer to accompany him to even the stagecoach station. Once in the city, Pip is shocked at the grime and conditions of the city with its unsightly and criminal people who await Mr. Jaggers. While he waits, Pip meets Mr. Wemmick, who later invites Pip to his home proving to be a loving son to his aged parent. In Wemmick, Pip finds a near-father substitute who exemplifies honorable traits; however, Wemmick often distances himself, so he does not fulfill Pip's needs. Still, Wemmick proves himself a loyal friend.

Believing Miss Havisham, the eccentric woman at Satis House, to be his benefactor, Pip entertains hopes of eventually marrying Estella. However, he finds that he has competition for her attentions from Bentley Drummle, whom he meets at a dinner held in Mr. Jaggers's house. Jaggers, too, fails as a father-figure because he is associated with people and things that are dismal, dark, and doleful such as the character of Drummle, an upper-class lout, and the prisoners of Newgate.

While he rooms with Herbert Pocket, Pip meets Matthew Pocket, Herbert's father, and his ridiculous wife, who constantly reads a book about titles. She and the other Pockets are relatives of Miss Havisham and desire her fortune. Soon, Joe visits Pip, but Pip is embarrassed at Joe's rustic ways and Joe departs quickly. Then, one night Pip has a midnight caller: the old convict Magwitch, who, to Pip's horror, reveals he is Pip's real benefactor.

  • Stage III

Pip attains moral regeneration as he changes his feelings toward Magwitch trying to get him out of England until Compeyson, the man who caused Miss Havisham's abandonment at the altar. Having vied for Estella's love against Drummle, Pip visits Miss Havisham, where he talks to Estella and later pulls Miss Havisham from the fire, being burned in the process. Joe comes and nurses Pip, who begs his forgiveness. Like the prodigal son, Pip later returns home where he learns that Biddy and Joe are married and Estella has suffered as Drummle's wife.


Payal Khullar eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is the story of a young boy named Pip, who is an orphan raised by his sister and her husband Joe Gargery. Pip’s sister is a rude and unkind lady. In Joe, however, Pip finds an affectionate companion and father-like figure.

The story starts as Pip sits and reflects near the gravestones of his parents. He is caught by an escaped convict who demands Pip to bring him some food to eat and a file to break his shackles and Pip does the same. But when the convict gets caught by the police, Pip gets afraid of being exposed of helping a convict, but confusingly, the convict takes the blame of steeling those items himself.

A few days later, Pip is taken at Satis House by his uncle, where he meets a crazy yet very wealthy lady Miss Havisham as well as a beautiful girl Estella who lives with her. Pip falls in love with Estella immediately and wants to become worthy of her, but Estella is cold and insensitive towards him. Pip now wishes to become a rich gentleman but has to work with Joe as a blacksmith.

All of a sudden, a lawyer named Jaggers enters the scene and informs that someone has left Pip a lot of money, and that he has to come to London, get educated and become a gentleman. Pip thinks this secret helper is no one else but Miss Havisham, and that she has plans for his marriage with Estella also. In his quest for becoming a gentleman, Pip distances himself from his closest pal Joe amongst others. Pip turns old enough to start receiving money.

Pip’s expectations of becoming worthy of Estella and a fine gentleman are broken when he realizes that a convict is his real benefactor and not Miss Havisham, and also that Estella is marrying someone else. There was no great plan by Miss Havisham of helping him, and all his achievements have a root in a convict’s money. Magwitch is the same convict he helped by giving food earlier in the novel. He is shattered by this news but decides anyways to help Magwitch in escaping. There’s another character, Compeyson, who is Magwitch’s former partner in crime, and as the story unfolds we come to know that he is the same person who made Miss Havisham mad by leaving her on their wedding day. He also realizes that Estella is Magwitch’s daughter, and Miss Havisham raised her to take revenge with men. Compeyson is the real bad guy who tricked Magwitch. In a fight between them, Compeyson drowns in the river and dies. Magwitch is, then, caught by the police and given a death sentence. Pip has no money now. Years later when Pip is back, he comes to know that the guy Estella married- Drummle- tortured her immensely and left. Pip and Estella unite in the end.

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Great Expectations

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