Great Expectations is the product of a time period when traditional values had been seriously declining and an extensive dehumanization of the multitudes had been ongoing. Mid-Victorian England was a land of extremely fixed social divisions. This is Charles Dickens’ greatest novel. It was written with a sense of mastery, contains a superbly constructed plot, has a host of memorable characters, and is full of good scenes. It is more complicated than most of Dickens’ novels, but not difficult to read. A commentary on the superficiality of middle-class attitudes during an era when an Englishman’s achievements were esteemed enormously, Great Expectations depicts the self-seeking and self-destroying fantasies of the nineteenth century and contends that the decent but impoverished individual has greater worth than the idle yet affluent socialite.
Dickens redefines for his times the status of a true gentleman and emphasizes how money can change people and create class distinctions. Pip dreams of living on money that he has done nothing to earn. An attack of brain fever that sends him into a deathlike coma late in the novel leads to his rebirth. Joe Gargery helps him regain his health, and Magwitch helps him to learn the importance of humility.
The first half of Great Expectations contains one of the finest portraits of the frustrations of childhood in English literature. Dickens adapts several motifs from folklore. Miss Havisham, Estella, and Magwitch might be regarded as the fairy godmother, beautiful princess, and terrible ogre of this Dickensian fairy tale. Young Pip and Estella are victimized by an adult world that treats them as things rather than as persons. Both are manipulated by forces beyond their control. Pip’s love for Estella is associated with the snobbery that makes him wretched; it is never reciprocated.
Snobbery is a facet of the theme of social injustice in the novel. What Dickens commends throughout are the simple, benevolent impulses of human nature—those possessed by Joe Gargery. What he condemns is the love of money—an obsession that motivates many of the other characters. The novel closes with an emphasis on forgiveness.
Great Expectations is a forerunner of the twentieth century development novel, a tale of lost illusions that describes the progress of a young man who travels from the country to the city, climbs the social ladder, and loses his innocence.