Great Expectations Analysis

  • In Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, Pip's life is defined by tragedy. Raised an orphan by his abusive older sister, Pip is beaten, ridiculed, and unwanted for much of his life. His love of Estella goes unrequited until the end of the novel, after the deaths of Miss Havisham and Able Magwitch, two important figures in Pip's life.
  • Great Expectations is a bildungsroman, a coming of age novel that follows the main character from childhood to adulthood. When readers first meet Pip, he's an orphan living in the Kent marshes. At the end of the novel, he's a grown man walking with the woman he loves. His moral and psychological development are the focus of the novel.
  • Great Expectations was originally published in serial form. Installments appeared weekly in Dickens' periodical All the Year Round from December of 1860 to August of 1861. The novel was later collected into book form and released by Chapman and Hall.

Analysis

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.

Critical Analysis

Great Expectations is an account of a young boy’s moral education. A study in human weakness, it depicts the rise in social status of the seven-year-old orphan Pip, the novel’s narrator and chief character and a kind of Everyman. On Christmas Eve in a cemetery, Pip meets Abel Magwitch, an escaped convict who makes him steal some food and a file from the forge where he lives with his sister and her husband, Joe Gargery, a blacksmith. Shortly thereafter, Pip is hired by a wealthy old woman named Miss Havisham to be a playmate for her beautiful adopted daughter, Estella.

Jilted years ago on her wedding day, Miss Havisham is a recluse. She lives in a world of the past at desolate Satis House, a home whose name means “enough”; the ancestor who built it believed that whoever lived there could never want more. During his frequent visits to Miss Havisham’s home, Pip begins to believe erroneously that her fortune will make him a gentleman, will bring him the love of Estella, and will provide him with prosperity. These are his great expectations.

Miss Havisham, however, has no hopes for happiness and no intention of leaving a legacy of happiness to anyone. Rather, she is a schemer who enjoys making nearly everyone around her miserable. She teaches Estella to hate men, exploits Pip, and vexes her ever-hopeful relatives. Although Pip eventually receives money from another source, Estella continues to scorn him and to be as coldly distant as a star. What Miss Havisham does is turn Estella and Pip into snobs.

In London, Pip matures while dealing with many strange situations. From Mr. Jaggers, a criminal lawyer who becomes his guardian, Pip discovers that he does indeed have a benefactor and great expectations. Jaggers gives Pip some money, and his clerk John Wemmick helps him. Pip takes up lodgings with Herbert Pocket, a relative of Miss Havisham from whom he learns her story and the manners of a gentleman. Soon, Pip feels superior to others, neglects his friends back home, and falls into debt. Proud and selfish, he feels ashamed to have the patient and polite but unpolished Joe Gargery visit him. When Magwitch drops by unexpectedly, Pip finds out that he is his benefactor. The felon tells him that the money he has been sending to Jaggers is part of a fortune he has made as a sheep farmer in Australia. Although aghast, Pip resolves to protect the escaped convict.

As Pip learns more about Magwitch, he begins to redeem himself. He finds out that Molly, Jaggers’ housekeeper, was Magwitch’s lover. Wemmick tells him that Molly strangled a rival in a fit of jealousy over Magwitch. Jaggers gained her release, and she has been working for him since then. Estella, ironically, is the daughter of Molly and Magwitch—not the genteel maiden of Pip’s fantasies. During one of Pip’s visits to Satis House, Miss Havisham promises to procure nine hundred pounds for Pip so that he can purchase a business partnership for Pocket at Clarriker’s. Shortly thereafter, Miss Havisham dies in a fire at Satis House. With his act of generosity toward Herbert and an excursion to smuggle Magwitch out of England, Pip overcomes his selfishness. The latter, however, is unsuccessful. Wounded in a scuffle with the convict Compeyson, Miss Havisham’s former lover and his former partner in crime, Magwitch is captured and taken to a prison infirmary. Pip visits the dying convict there and tells him that he has a beautiful daughter, a lady whom Pip loves. He is referring to Estella.

Although she does not care for him, Estella marries a sulky oaf named Bentley Drummle. When he returns from an eight-year sojourn in India, Pip hears that Drummle has died from an accident involving the ill-treatment of a horse and that Estella has remarried a Shropshire doctor with whom she is living prosperously on the fortune that she inherited from Miss Havisham. One day, Pip sees Estella in Piccadilly. Her carriage stops and the two talk briefly, shake hands, and part. The novel originally ends with Pip estranged from all who were associated with his great expectations.

When Great Expectations was published in book form, Dickens rewrote the ending, offering some hope for his main character. Pip visits Satis House and finds Estella still a widow; she is kinder to him, and Pip again envisions a future together.

Places Discussed

*River Thames

*River Thames (tehmz). River in southern England that runs through London to the North Sea. Several places that figure in the novel stand along the river. Some eight miles to the west of London lies Richmond, on the river’s south bank, a stylish town in Surrey. After her “finishing school,” Estella comes to live here in Mrs. Brandley’s house on Richmond Green, to be introduced into fashionable London society, to continue to break men’s hearts. It is thus an extension of Satis House as a locus for Miss Havisham’s revenge.

*Hammersmith

*Hammersmith. Town on the northern bank of the Thames, west of London. There the Pockets have a small riverside house, in which Pip is tutored together with Bentley Drummle and Startopp.

*The Temple

*The Temple. Central London district in which Pip and Herbert take rooms overlooking the river. Although this place symbolizes the pretentiousness of Pip’s life of expectations, it also marks the point where he enables Magwitch to escape, thereby bringing his false expectations to an end.

*Chinks Basin

*Chinks Basin. District in London, downriver from the Temple, in the dock area below London Bridge, where Magwitch is secreted at the home of the father of Clara, Herbert’s girlfriend, at Mill Pond Bank.

*Marshes

*Marshes. Region along the lower reaches of the River Thames in which Pip grows up. The region is featured ambiguously as a place of childhood innocence and adult menace. Here Pip’s life is threatened by Magwitch and then Orlick; however, it is also where the warmth of Joe Gargery’s forge lies. Dickens seems to collapse notions of innocence, safety, and corruption at the same time he extends motifs of imprisonment and entrapment in the symbolic Hulks, dismasted naval ships used as floating prisons near the marshes. Ironically, the Thames reaches from the pretensions of Estella Havisham in the west to the sordid reality of her paternal origin in the east. The novel refocuses these two places by seeing the river’s flow, not as time, but as inevitable moral process. Estella and Pip’s frequent coach journeys from one end of this space to the other are like the shuttle of a web, broken only by the last thwarted journey downriver of Magwitch, where full revelation of the moral failures of the past is made.

Satis House

Satis House. Decaying mansion home of Miss Havisham, standing along the edge of an unnamed town next to the marshes. Within its grounds once stood a brewery, which was the source of Miss Havisham’s inherited wealth. While satis is the Latin word for “enough,” within this novel the name represents the opposite: unfulfilled desire and expectation. Within the Satis House, Estella is raised to use her charms to entrap men. In the end, everyone in the house is entrapped, and Miss Havisham is burned to death purgatorially. Finally, the contents are auctioned off and the house sold as scrap, again symbolically signifying the end of all the unreal expectations of Pip and Estella.

*London

*London. Great Britain’s capital city, a different version of which Dickens presents in each of his novels. In Great Expectations, the reality of London is particularly symbolized by Newgate Prison, a notorious institution in which violent prisoners were kept along with those awaiting execution. Dickens made a close study of prison conditions, perhaps because of his own parents’ imprisonment for debt. Here, the nearness of Jaggers’s chambers in Little Britain to the prison symbolizes how near criminality is to the sinister order of the law as practiced by so-called respectable practitioners such as Jaggers.

Jaggers himself lives in Soho, a mile to the west of Newgate; his clerk, Wemmick, lives in Walworth. In the early nineteenth century this was a disorganized northern suburb of London. His small wooden house is built like a miniature castle, with a moat and drawbridge round it, symbolizing his attempts to cut himself off from the sordid legal activities he is engaged in. His aging father lives with him, and they celebrate Sunday, their day off, by raising the Union Jack on a flagstaff.

Another site of pretentiousness is Pip’s own dining club, the Finches of the Grove, which meets at Covent Garden, an area of central London famous for its great flower and vegetable market, as well as London’s main opera house. Thus, low-life and fashionable society share the same space, though pretending not to, just as Jaggers’s office is situated near Smithfield, the London meat market.

*Barnard’s Inn

*Barnard’s Inn. Apartment block to which Pip is assigned when he first comes to London to live up to his expectations of a fortune, and which he shares with his friend Herbert Pocket. Confusingly, the term inn in London has a legal significance, often being the place where a group of lawyers may have or may have had their offices (or chambers). Barnard’s Inn, though not presently being used by lawyers, does lie in the legal district round Holborn Hill. Pip’s first impression of it is its dinginess, rottenness, and dilapidation, again symbolizing the quality of life he is destined to live there. Later on, he and Herbert move to the Temple, another inn.

Historical Context

Industrialization
Nineteenth century England had flourishing cities and emerging industries. Machines made it possible...

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Setting

The story begins in England during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The setting in the early part of the story is the Chaptham...

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Literary Style

Point of View
The first-person narrator of Dickens' Great Expectations is an adult Pip who tells the story in...

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Literary Qualities

Dickens is a master of plot, characterization, humor, setting, and atmosphere. The blend of these elements in Great Expectations...

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Social Sensitivity

Dickens treats a variety of social issues in Great Expectations—prejudice, materialism, social status, and class— in a sensible...

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Compare and Contrast

  • Early 1800s: Workhouses were set up so that the poor and those who owed money had an alternative to debtors' prison...

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Topics for Discussion

1. Pip is an orphan boy, a blacksmith's assistant living with his sister and her husband in a small English village. How does Pip visualize...

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Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Dickens has been called the "novelist of childhood." How well does he portray the child's mind and imagination in the figure of Pip?

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Topics for Further Study

  • Research the history and 1850-60 social climate of Australia as an English penal colony, where Magwitch had been living, when Queensland...

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Related Titles / Adaptations

Great Expectations was first made into a motion picture in 1934 by Universal Pictures. Directed by Stuart Walker and starring Jane...

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Media Adaptations

  • Great Expectations was first adapted by film in the silent movie version in 1917, released by Paramount Pictures, on five...

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What Do I Read Next?

  • Dickens' Oliver Twist is the story of an orphan who overcomes his humble beginnings to prove himself...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Bradbury, Nicola. Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations." New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

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Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Hornback, Bert G. “Great Expectations”: A Novel of Friendship. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Helpful introduction to the novel’s historical context, guilt theme, point of view, and symbols and images. Includes chapters on Pip and Magwitch that focus on Pip’s moral education. Argues that the novel’s significance lies in its thesis that evil in society can be fought only by confronting it in the self. Includes an annotated bibliography.

Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952. A standard biography that includes a chapter on Great Expectations, which provides a succinct discussion of characters and of Dickens’ opinion that money and materialism are corrupting forces. Pip’s fortunes are related to key events in Dickens’ own life.

Miller, J. Hillis. Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958. Includes an essay that explores the themes of identity and self-discovery in Great Expectations and traces Pip’s development from childhood isolation and alienation to moral descent and eventual transformation through love.

Sadrin, Anny. “Great Expectations.” Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988. A comprehensive handbook with good chapters on the composition, historical background, setting, and biographical elements in the story. Presents a psychological interpretation of characters that mainly conforms to standard views while drawing on some critical perspectives and language. Includes an extensive bibliography.

Van Ghent, Dorothy. “On Great Expectations.” In The English Novel: Form and Function. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1953. A groundbreaking essay that studies the themes of guilt and atonement in the context of a dehumanizing society.

For Further Reference

Baker, Ernest A. The History of the English Novel. Vol. 7. London: Wetherby, 1968. This is the most notable history of the English...

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