Great Expectations Characters
The main characters in Great Expectations are Pip, Miss Havisham, Estella, and Abel Magwitch.
- Philip "Pip" Pirrip is an orphan with aspirations of one day being a gentleman. He falls in love with Estella.
- Miss Havisham is 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.
- Abel Magwitch is a former convict whom Pip meets while visiting his parents' graves. Abel secretly becomes Pip's benefactor as thanks for Pip's assistance in aiding Magwitch's escape.
Last Updated on May 6, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1929
Philip Pirrip (who shortens his own name to “Pip” as a child) is the narrator and protagonist of the story, an orphan who grows up in humble circumstances with his sister and brother-in-law, only to find himself suddenly endowed with a large sum of money, the “great expectations” of the title. Great Expectations is a bildungsroman—the story of an individual's growth and development within a strict social order, and Pip 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, and the deeper Pip explores his own social standing, the more miserable he becomes. He seems to rally when he inherits a mysterious fortune, but when he discovers the money came from the convict 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.
Ultimately, Pip is a sympathetic character and a fairly reliable narrator, with whom the reader usually identifies. His sensitivity and romantic nature often lead him astray, and in allowing Miss Havisham and Estella to shape his attitudes to those around him, Pip's earnest desire for self-improvement sometimes takes the form of snobbery. However, Pip gains self-knowledge and a sense of proportion over the course of the novel, maturing 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 cold, cruel, beautiful, and deeply untrustworthy. 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 reader sees her through the eyes of Pip, who falls in love with her and never quite separates her attractiveness from her social superiority and poise. Estella varies in her attitude to Pip, sometimes seeming friendly in a guarded way, but always able to distance herself again at a moment’s notice. 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.
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 others.
Although Estella is an unlikeable character to anyone not infatuated with her, she is best understood as an abused child, one who has been cynically manipulated by Miss Havisham to remove all kindness and natural feeling from her nature, leaving her permanently unhappy and probably incapable of bringing happiness to anyone else. At the novel’s end, Estella experiences her own kind of evolution, bent into what she hopes is a better shape that will allow her to undo some of the damage she has caused. Estella’s gradual change over the course of the novel has caused some critics to call her Dickens’ first truly developed female character.
Miss Havisham initially appears as an eccentric, imperious old woman. At first, it is unclear whether there is a kind heart behind this forbidding exterior, but, as the novel progresses, it is evident that Miss Havisham is actually much worse than she seems, a thoroughly embittered, cynical character motivated entirely by hatred and vanity. As a young woman she was spoiled and selfish, and the shock of being jilted at the altar unhinged her mind to the point where intense, narcissistic self-pity has become the source of an apparently inexhaustible supply of spite.
Miss Havisham begins and ends Great Expectations as a victim, but hardly the sympathetic kind. Externally, she is the wealthy, eccentric old woman who lives in a manor called Satis House near Pip's village, and who took in Estella as a toddler to raise as her own. Behind closed doors she is manic, if not insane—she wears an old tattered wedding dress, keeps a decomposing banquet on her table, and surrounds herself with clocks stopped at twenty minutes to nine.
Miss Havisham was jilted by her fiancé, Compeyson, at twenty minutes to nine many years before, and she is determined to grieve forever. Estella is the tool for her revenge on all men, a beautiful, cultured monster. She trains Estella to be as cruel and heartless as she feels Compeyson was to her, ensuring that no man will ever be happy if she has anything to say about it.
Dickens uses Miss Havisham as an example of single-minded vengeance pursued purely for destruction: both Miss Havisham and the people in her life suffer greatly from her quest for vengeance. Miss Havisham is blind to the pain her obsessions cause Pip and Estella, being so focused on her own pain.
A victim of a different sort, Miss Havisham is redeemed at the end of the novel when she realizes that she has broken Pip's heart in the same way her own was broken, just more slowly; rather than achieving any kind of revenge, she has only caused more pain. Miss Havisham immediately begs for Pip’s forgiveness, reinforcing the novel's theme that bad behavior can be redeemed by repentance and compassion.
Abel Magwitch, also known simply as "The Convict," is a career criminal at the beginning of the novel, with what seem like no redeeming qualities. He stalks Pip in the cemetery after escaping from prison as the novel opens; however, Pip’s resulting kindness melts his icy heart, and he becomes determined to emulate the self-improvement that tiny boy has devoted his own life to. Magwitch endures years of hard, backbreaking work to repay his fairly minor debt to Pip and fulfill his great fantasy of creating and sponsoring a “gentleman,” secretly using his money to finance Pip’s education and lifestyle through Jaggers and thus elevating the boy into increasingly higher social circles. Magwitch possesses a strong streak of idealism and even innocence. He is a rough, uncouth man and is well aware of it. He does not think of setting himself up as a gentleman in a fine house with good clothes and food. Instead, he sacrifices himself entirely for his ideal of what a gentleman ought to be. At the end of the novel, however, his crimes catch up to him and he is caught; like his daughter Estella, Magwitch has to come to terms with the damage he has caused.
Joe is a blacksmith who, unfortunately for him, married Pip’s cruel sister. He is perhaps the most entirely admirable character in the novel: kindly, thoughtful, generous, and humble. He genuinely loves Pip and endures the vicious treatment of Mrs. Joe for his sake. When Pip treats him in a cold and snobbish manner, he is saddened but understanding and unreproachful. Pip eventually comes to realize and appreciate Joe’s true goodness, which is evident to the reader throughout the novel.
Mrs. Joe is Pip’s older sister and Joe Gargery’s wife. She is an excellent housewife, keeping everything perfectly clean and tidy, but this appears to be her only virtue. She is mean-spirited, harsh, cruel, and hectoring in her behavior to both Joe and Pip.
Compeyson is a minor character but plays two key roles in the story as the man who jilted Miss Havisham and as Magwitch’s former partner in crime, who is responsible for his capture. In contrast to Magwitch, Compeyson, appears gentlemanly and refined; however, he is entirely without the quixotic idealism of his former associate.
Biddy is a friend of Pip’s from school. She acts as a foil to Estella and, to some extent, Mrs. Joe, as she is simple, kind-hearted, and good.
Pip first encounters Herbert Pocket, a pale young gentleman, as an antagonist, whom he fights in the grounds of Satis House, Miss Havisham’s home. Poor relations and hangers-on of Miss Havisham, the Pockets are a rather unattractive, feeble family of whom Herbert is one of the better specimens. He later becomes friends with Pip and is his “tutor” in becoming a gentleman. Though rather ineffectual, Herbert is good-natured and cheerful.
Mr. Jaggers, a lawyer, is an overbearing figure. A leader in his profession, with a tendency to carry his forensic cross-examinations into life outside the courtroom, he inspires fear and respect among London’s criminal classes and is an exceedingly effective and ruthless man of business. In his dealings with Pip, he is fair and ethical and sometimes seems to be trying to protect him.
Mr. Wemmick is the clerk at Jaggers’s law office and is charged with taking care of Pip. In business, he affects a harsh demeanor, which he seems to feel is demanded by the nature of his work, but in private life, he is kindly, and particularly affectionate towards the “Aged Parent” of whom he takes care at home.
Bentley Drummle is a minor member of the aristocracy who is acutely aware of his status and not particularly aware of anything else. He is arrogant and stupid, and his attraction to Estella, whom he marries, seems superficial. Unsurprisingly, his marriage to Estella is not a happy one.
Uncle Pumblechook is a stingy, avaricious tradesman, notable mainly for his pomposity and mendacity. He pretends to great intimacy with Miss Havisham and other important people, but Pip quickly realizes that all these pretensions are false.
Orlick is a laborer who works for Joe Gargery in his forge. Whereas Miss Havisham represents subtle malice, Orlick is a symbol of evil at its most basic and bestial, motivated by a violent nature and a love of causing harm.
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