Summary of the Novel
Great Expectations can be divided into three stages in the life of Pip. The first stage presents Pip as an orphan being raised by an unkind sister who resents him, and her husband, who offers him kindness and love. While visiting the tombstones of his parents in the cemetery, Pip encounters a convict and is made to bring him food and a file the next day. Pip’s convict and a second convict are caught by soldiers of the Crown and returned to the prison ships (the Hulks).
Uncle Pumblechook arranges for Pip to go to Miss Havisham’s house to play, and there he meets and falls in love with Estella. Pip returns to Miss Havisham’s house to walk her around the decayed banquet table every other day for nearly 10 months. Miss Havisham rewards Pip for his service by paying for his apprenticeship to become a blacksmith with Joe.
Pip is unhappy with his position and longs to become a gentleman in order that he may eventually win Estella’s affection. One day a lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, comes to tell Pip that a beneficiary has left him great fortunes. Pip is to go to London to become a gentleman. Pip believes that the benefactor is Miss Havisham.
The second stage of Pip’s life takes place in London where he becomes friends with Herbert Pocket. The two young men live beyond their means and fall deeply in debt. Pip makes friends with Mr. Jaggers’ clerk, Mr. Wemmick, and enjoys visiting him at his Castle. Pip is told the background of Miss Havisham and her ill-fated wedding day. He also is embarrassed by a visit from Joe. An unexpected visit from his convict reveals that the convict, not Miss Havisham, is his benefactor. The man’s name is Magwitch; he is the one to whom Pip had brought food in the churchyard. This knowledge begins the change in Pip from ungrateful snobbery to the humility associated with Joe and home.
The third stage in Pip’s life solves all the remaining mysteries of the novel. Compeyson, the second convict who was Magwitch’s enemy, is drowned when Pip tries to aid Magwitch in his escape from London. Pip finds out who Estella’s mother and father are. Pip is rescued from Orlick. Magwitch dies in prison, and Pip becomes a clerk in Cairo with Herbert. He returns 11 years later and finds Estella at the site of Satis House. The more popular ending indicated that they stayed together.
Estimated Reading Time
Four weeks should be allowed for the study of Great Expectations. Three weeks will be required to read the novel, reading four chapters at a sitting. The student should read every day from Monday through Friday. After reading the chapters, the student should answer all study questions in this book to ensure understanding and comprehension. The essay questions may be used if needed. The fourth week is set aside for reports, projects, and testing as deemed necessary by the teacher.
Not one of Dickens’s child characters enjoys a happy and uncomplicated relationship with two living parents. In his fiction, Dickens found it necessary not only to orphan himself of the parents who shamed him but also to re-create them in ideal shapes—and sometimes, too, to be fair to them. That is what happens in Great Expectations. What strikes one most powerfully about this compact and streamlined narrative—technically, perhaps Dickens’s best—is the excessive and apparently unmotivated guilt of its hero: guilt, perhaps, for the terrible snobbery into which he falls as he tries to climb the social ladder,guilt at his rejection of his parents, or the guilt of the human condition.
Pip is a village orphan brought up roughly by his unmotherly sister (her bosom bristles with pins), the wife of gentle blacksmith Joe Gargery. In the first chapter of the novel, on the memorable day when he becomes aware for the first time of his identity and his place in a hostile world, Pip meets, in the graveyard where his parents lie buried, a shivering, ravenous, and monstrous man, an escapee from the prison ships across the marshes, who terrorizes Pip into stealing food and drink for him. The convict is eventually recaptured, but not before Pip (and Joe) has come to pity him or before he has lied that it was he who stole a pie and brandy from the Gargery larder.
Next, Pip also meets the rich, weird recluse Miss Havisham, who lives in a darkened and dusty room where time has stood still, dressed always in a yellowing wedding dress. He falls in love with her petulant and beautiful ward, Estella, whom the old woman is training to break men’s hearts as vengeance for her own abandonment at the altar.
Some years later, a lawyer named Jaggers appears at the smithy with the news that Pip, now Joe’s apprentice, has been left a fortune and is to become a gentleman. Pip leaves for London, and inevitably a wedge is driven between him and his best friend, illiterate Joe, of whom Pip sinks so low as to become ashamed. Miss Havisham (the wordplay on “sham” is appropriate) lets Pip believe that it is she who is his benefactor, but the real benefactor is actually the least likely person imaginable: Magwitch, the monstrous convict, who has made good in Australia and now returns to England (thereby breaking the rules of his sentence) in hopes that the boy he has “made” will return his devoted affection. Pip is horrified and disgusted: His money is contaminated. The lesson of love and human decency that he must learn comes very hard indeed. Yet he learns it: By the time poor Magwitch is reclaimed by justice, Pip is prepared to stand holding his hand in the public court. Thankfully, Magwitch dies in prison before he can be hanged. Pip himself now falls seriously ill and is nursed back to life by Joe. No one, however, can turn back the clock: The moment Pip is better, Joe (calling him “sir”) retreats to the village. Pip’s loneliness at the end of the novel seems mediated only by a vague promise that a chastened Estella may some day be his—a modification of the harsher original ending Dickens had intended.
Great Expectations is psychologically Dickens’s most mature and realistic novel, although it works through his usual system of displacements and dark doublings. Loutish Orlick, Joe’s other apprentice, for example, seems to function as Pip’s alter ego when he attacks his uncaring sister, Mrs. Joe. It is also a novel that depicts the powerful influence of environment as well as of heredity: Magwitch, the convict, and bitter Miss Havisham were themselves both abused and lonely as children. For all of its somber coloring, however, the novel is also riotously funny in the characteristically Dickensian mode of excess: Pontificating Uncle Pumblechook, a seed merchant who subjected the boy Pip to humiliation over Christmas dinner, gets his poetic comeuppance, Joe reports, when Orlick robs him, “stuff[ing] his mouth full of flowering annuals to perwent his crying out.”