At a Glance
- Philip "Pip" Pirrip: an orphan with aspirations of one day being a gentleman. He falls in love with the cruel Estella.
- Miss Havisham: a bitter old woman who was jilted at the altar on her wedding day. She teaches Estella to break men's hearts.
- Estella: a beautiful young orphan, raised by Miss Havisham to be cold and aloof. Initially, she rejects Pip's advances, but the two reconcile at the end of the novel.
- Abel Magwitch: a former convict whom Pip meets while visiting his parents' graves. Abel makes a fortune for himself in Australia and later returns to England to reveal himself as Pip's benefactor.
Great Expectations is a bildungsroman—the story of an individual's growth and development within a strict social order. Philip Pirrip (who shortens his own name to “Pip” as a child) is the focus of this growth in the novel. Pip is really two characters at once—the protagonist going through the trials of one life, and the grown narrator relating the story of his life. At times, adult Pip offers lighthearted observations on his childish behavior while illustrating the stresses that lead child Pip to react to his world.
One of Pip’s strongest characteristics (and, indeed, one of the central themes of the novel) is his desire for self-improvement. He analyzes the world around him for the best and worst examples of society and emulates the best. Unfortunately, the best examples of society aren’t always the best examples of humanity; Pip the narrator criticizes Pip the protagonist for his narrow-minded treatment of those around him. The young Pip’s desire for self-improvement infringes on the dignity of other characters like Joe and Biddy, although they are kind to him.
Pip is capable of kindness to those he loves, but the influence of Miss Havisham and especially Estella brings out the worst in him as his craving for advancement grows stronger. In effect, the women become the role models for the unhappy “middle” section of the story; the deeper Pip explores his own social standing, and more miserable he becomes. He seems to rally when he inherits a mysterious fortune, but when he discovers the money came from Magwitch and not Miss Havisham, his narrow view of the world and its rules crumbles. Magwitch is hardly the refined gentleman Pip has come to expect as a benefactor, but it is he who appreciated Pip’s kindness early on and rewards it in the end. Pip matures into the realization that status is meaningless without humanity. His behavior as a “gentleman” has caused pain to those he loved the most, and the now-mature Pip uses the novel to pay tribute to their undeserved respect of him.
Estella is as beautiful and cultured as she is cold and brutal, and Pip immediately falls in love with her at a tender age. The daughter of Magwitch the convict, she is taken in by Miss Havisham from the age of three and taught to hate and mistreat men of all kinds, Pip among them. The more Pip loves her, the more Estella seems to enjoy torturing and manipulating him. She is from even lower stock in the class system than he is, and one might think she resents his intrusion into the life she has found among the wealthy.
Dickens doesn’t leave Estella so one-dimensional—he shows us the inner life of this girl who has herself been so tortured and twisted by a desire to be more than her station at birth. We get a sense that Estella struggles against the cruelty and shame she is made to endure; as she and Pip get older, she continually tells him she has no heart to spare his feelings and keep him from being as dependent on her as she has been on the heartless Miss Havisham. In so doing, Estella proves that she does have a heart, albeit a damaged one. Her marriage to Drummle prolongs her own agony, but near the end of the novel she learns the same lesson as Pip: Feelings can’t be suppressed enough to prevent us from feeling, and holding emotions back cripples us, as evidenced by Miss Havisham and Magwitch, among...
(The entire section is 6,232 words.)