Illustration of Pip visiting a graveyard

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Great Expectations blends elements of the bildungsroman, gothic novels, and social critique in its story of Pip and his desire to become a gentleman. The novel's multifaceted sense of genre helps to create a complex portrait of the Victorian class system and human psychology.

Pip's tale is a coming-of-age narrative which follows him from his boyhood to his troubled adolescence, young adulthood, and final maturity. As in most bildungsromans, Pip must leave home to find his fortune in the world and broaden his horizons. However, in Great Expectations, Pip comes to discover the people and origins he so deplored as coarse and common were not necessarily any baser than the corrupt, coldhearted members of the upper classes whom he encounters in his quest to become a gentleman.

The gothic elements most famously emerge in the character of Miss Havisham and her decaying residence, Satis House. The gothic always deals with how the tragedies of the past haunt the present, an idea embodied in Havisham's stopping all the clocks in her home to the hour and minute of her greatest humiliation and her leaving the wedding feast on the table to rot. Unable to move on from her pain, Miss Havisham obsesses over it, languishing in her loneliness and grooming Estella to become her tool of vengeance against men.

The gothic emerges in subtler ways as well. The early scenes on the marshes, where Pip encounters the frightening Magwitch, evoke ghost stories or the atmosphere of classic gothic novels like The Castle of Otranto with their descriptions of mist and tombstones in the dark. Horrific violence also intrudes upon the lives of the characters, from the attack that makes Mrs. Joe an invalid to Miss Havisham being immolated in her wedding gown. This is a classic trait of gothic literature, which thrives on horror and suspense.

The bildungsroman and gothic elements both complement Dickens's social criticism, which largely deals with class, injustice, and morality. Pip's quest to become a gentleman is presented as one doomed to fail from the start. Pip is aware that he is wronging good people in his race to become worthy of Estella, yet he is so filled with self-loathing that he acts against his own personal happiness to become the sort of man Estella allegedly deserves.

The motif of social imprisonment emerges again and again, not just in the legal imprisonment of convicts like Magwitch but also in the ostensibly free characters like Pip and Miss Havisham, who become prisoners of their own illusions and heartaches. London itself is presented as a prison, dominated by materialism, emptiness, and snobbery. Pip becomes alienated from the people he encounters while working there, showing that his quest only led to spiritual degeneration.

Of course, Dickens does not end the novel on a note of spiritual defeat. Pip becomes wiser through his disappointments and is redeemed. Much the same happens with Magwitch and Miss Havisham, two characters also wronged by the world and still suffering from the past who nevertheless achieve moral redemption through compassionate acts. Love and kindness—not class, wealth, or good breeding—emerge as the chief virtues which make a person truly great.

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