Illustration of Pip visiting a graveyard

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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River Thames

River Thames (tehmz) is a 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 is a 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 is a 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 is a 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.


The marshes are a 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 is the 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 is 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 is an 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.


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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 district, where Dickens roamed as a boy. The orphan Pip is a blacksmith's apprentice in a village in the marsh country. One afternoon Pip has a frightening adventure in the marshes when an escaped convict forces him to supply food and a file for his leg irons. The convict is captured the next day.

Shortly after this experience, Pip receives a summons from old Miss Havisham to visit her decaying mansion, a Gothic structure of mystery and gloom surrounded by high walls. She requests that Pip entertain her and her adopted daughter. Miss Havisham's real motive, however, is sinister: she plans for Estella to break the boy's heart. The old house symbolizes death, decay, and the inner desolation of its inhabitants, who change Pip's life forever.

Some months later, an unknown benefactor supplies Pip with a sum of money to be used for his education in London as an English gentleman of "great expectations." London now becomes the principal setting, richly described by Dickens in all its multiplicity: shop after shop, winding streets, an endless stream of traffic and movement, Gothic cathedrals, teeming slums, the fearsome Newgate Prison. In this mighty metropolis, Pip is transformed into a snobbish English gentleman. It is also in London that Pip again meets the convict, with fateful consequences for both.

Literary Qualities

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Dickens is a master of plot, characterization, humor, setting, and atmosphere. The blend of these elements in Great Expectations raises the novel to lofty narrative art. The author provides a three-dimensional portrait of Pip, skillfully using his words, gestures, thoughts, appearance, and actions to reveal his complex personality. Pip undergoes four distinct stages of physical and moral development. He is first a small child, relating his feelings and experiences in a rich, authentic picture of childhood; then an adolescent; next a young man; and finally an adult with a mature understanding of himself and society. Dickens also draws Estella in some depth. She is not the typical soft, sentimental heroine of romance. Although finally softened by adversity, she remains haughtily aloof and indifferent to Pip's ardor during most of the story. Dickens renders a fine portrait of Joe Gargery as the village blacksmith. Less successful is the portrait of Miss Havisham. She is too strange and eccentric, too weird and extreme to be convincing with her tattered satin bridal dress, moldering wedding cake, and stopped clocks. Like Miss Havisham, Dickens's minor characters sometimes verge on caricature.

One of the most perfectly plotted of Dickens's novels, Great Expectations stands beside David Copperfield as a masterpiece. The story is dramatic rather than episodic, with a clear causal connection linking most events. Dickens logically manipulates the plot to promote character development. Pip goes through a cycle of being initially attractive as a sensitive orphan boy, then unattractive as a London gentleman, and finally attractive again when he returns with chastened spirit to his friends. The structure of the novel, however, is not without its faults, mostly because Dickens worked under pressure to publish it in monthly installments. Serial publication had a number of repercussions on the artistry of Great Expectations as well as on Dickens's other novels. To meet deadlines, he had to write hastily, with little time for planning and almost no opportunity for revision. Since each installment ended on a high note, the plots often consist of a series of climaxes rather than of a single dramatic climax at the height of the story's rising action. Although this flaw is not prominent in Great Expectations, the public outcry for a happy ending subverted Dickens's artistic purpose. To satisfy public demand, Dickens had to revise the original ending in which Pip and Estella remain apart. Equally serious flaws are a few coincidences that make the plot seem contrived. Dickens strains the readers' credulity when the convict that Pip has helped in the marshes turns out to be Estella's father and when Compeyson, the convict's worst enemy, is revealed as the very man who deserted Miss Havisham.

Great Expectations sustains a marvelous atmosphere of suspense. The most memorable opening of all Dickens's novels is that first terrifying scene in which the orphaned Pip, alone in the cemetery, kneeling and weeping over his parents' graves, is frightened by a figure emerging from the mists. It is the runaway convict Magwitch. From this moment onward, the sinister note of criminality taints every major character. Indeed, the pervading mood of the entire novel is one of mystery, tension, and thrilling suspense. Part of the poetry of Dickens's work lies in its vitality, its supercharged emotional atmosphere. Yet Dickens knew the value of comic relief and amuses the reader with many fine touches of humor. Among the most amusing of the characters are the flirtatious Wemmick, the outlandish and grotesque Old Bill Barley, and the self-righteous, hypocritical Mr. Pumblechook. Even Joe Gargery and Mr. Jaggers take part in memorably comic scenes.

Literary Style

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Point of View

The first-person narrator of Dickens' Great Expectations is an adult Pip who tells the story in his own voice and from his own memory. What is distinctive about that voice is that it can so intimately recall the many small details of a little boy's fear and misery, as well as the voices and dialects of others—from the rough country speech of Magwitch and Orlick to the deaf Aged Parent's loud repetitions or the mechanically predictable things Jaggers says. Yet other details seem to be forgotten. Pip tells almost nothing of his beatings from Mrs. Joe, but a great deal about his fear of them, using adult vocabulary and concepts in these reflections. The opening scene with little Pip in the cemetery recalls the tombstones as looking like "lozenges," soothing the throat of this mature narrator. This way, the adult Pip not only evaluates events as he remembers them but also adds a deeper insight than he would have had as a child. The story unfolds chronologically from Pip's earliest memories to his most recent experiences. And while some critics justify Dickens' revised ending, Pip's development is most believable for modern readers if he parts from Estella with the final realization that he could never have been happy with her and her man-hating legacy from Miss Havisham.


In Great Expectations, Pip must not only work out his problems but also sort out reality from his childhood dreams. Realistically, the only way that he can do this is by trial and error and learning from his mistakes. First comes his education, demonstrating that becoming a gentleman means more than having material wealth. Pip may read as many fine books as he can, but the most important lessons come not from them (he does not quote from them) but from his analysis of real people and events in his society. While Drummle is financially wealthier than Herbert Pocket or Startop, among Pip's London friends, Drummle has no redeeming qualities nor does he value his friends, which Pip learns is the most important thing in his own life. In his development, Pip discovers that Miss Havisham has not been his kindly benefactor as he had assumed. Even so, he is able to both save her life and help her to find a little left of her soul before she dies. By helping someone who only appears to be better off than he is, he finds honor in his own name, as humble as that may be. It is ironic that the criminal Magwitch had insisted, as a condition of Pip's allowance, that he keep his boyhood name "Pip" rather than "Phillip." He finds that the requirements of maturity are taking responsibility for one's actions, and this is what Pip must do by the end of the novel. He admits that he has at times been ashamed of his country life and friends. Pip also reveals that while he once enjoyed being treated royally by Uncle Pumblechook and Tragg in town, he sees now that this was a false honor. The true nobility is in his homecoming, which is similar to the biblical prodigal son's return. Pip confesses to Joe and Biddy that he has been too proud to appreciate their unfailing love until he finally comes back to them with his new knowledge.

Comic Relief

With so many serious things to think about and the ever-present dangers that appear, Pip is always glad to slip away to Wemmick's miniature castle, complete with a tiny moat and cannon, where all good things seem possible again in this stronghold against the evil of the outer world. One of the best features of the place is the stereotypical character of Wemmick's father, the laughable Aged Parent. Good-natured, deaf, dependent, and weakened by age, the old man is no threat to Pip or to anyone. Instead, he requires the protection of those who have power in the world, that is to say Wemmick and Pip. Wemmick's devotion to his old father seems to Pip to be a wonderful thing, especially in a society that constantly seeks out the weak to take advantage of them. However, the fragility of the situation makes Wemmick's house seem all the more magical. As close as it is to the unforgiving city life of London, it is a world apart—something about which Wemmick constantly cautions Pip. It is not to be mentioned to Jaggers or to anyone outside of this rare and delightfully protected environment. Pip is rewarded for honoring Wemmick's trust and friendship by being allowed to cook and watch over the Aged Parent, as well as being honored as Wemmick's only wedding guest who is not kin. Pip soon becomes as fiercely protective as Wemmick is of this place where evil dare not enter.


The distinctions between the city, the town, and the country are the most apparent shifts in Pip's story. Although all of them harbor dangerous elements, all of them also carry the forces of good. The difference is that the marsh folk are more obvious in their desires. Orlick is the example of a man without a soul, and Pip recognizes this from the beginning. It is no surprise when it is revealed that he was Mrs. Joe's savage attacker. The fact that he would also kill Pip points out Orlick's lack of distinction between those who deserve his vengeance and those who do not. He readily attacks anyone who gets in his way. However, in town Tragg's boy makes Pip the laughingstock of all who have more in life than he will ever have, thus showing humor and a knowledge of the world that Orlick does not have. Even so, Orlick believes he has power over others who may be better off than he is, which he tries to prove. By contrast, along London's sooty streets are those who know Jaggers. They both fear and respect him as someone with the education and social power to help them. He is as impersonal as the buildings around him, but if he cannot save their lives they are certain that they could not have been saved by anyone. That kind of blind trust is not found in the village—where even Tragg's boy dares to mock Pip—or on the marshes where brute strength may mean survival. Of the three, the city is least likely to recognize individuality, which Pip indicates by noticing the overall dirtiness and decay of it as soon as he arrives there. A person may hide on the marshes or outside of the city, whereas the city has too many eyes to cover up anyone or any deed for long. Even Pip must escape to the suburbs (Wemmick's) for a time to avoid those eyes.

Themes Discussion

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Alienation and Loneliness

Beneath the Dickens' major theme of a great respect for wealth is an analysis of the fate of the outsider. At least four known orphans—Mrs. Joe, Magwitch, Estella, and Pip himself—have suffered loneliness, but each character reacts differently. Pip begins his story as a child standing in a gloomy cemetery at the grave site of his family, so pitifully alone that he can do no more than imagine his mother as the "wife of the above," which he can only interpret as directions to his mother's current address in heaven. Pip himself is often threatened with death by his sister and again by his convict, Magwitch. Even Orlick, the town lout, tries to kill an adult Pip. Joe Gargery is Pip's only friend on the marshes, and even after Pip is introduced to city life friends are few compared to the number of those who are coldly uncaring or dangerous. On the other hand, Estella's odd childhood, in the wrinkled hands of an old woman with a twisted mind, teaches her to reject all affection or friendships. Estella plays with Pip like a cat toys with a mouse, certainly not like an equal or playmate, for that is not Miss Havisham's intention. Likewise, as Magwitch confesses to Pip, his childhood on the streets of London was such a nightmare that he cannot even remember how he once learned his own name, and it is no wonder he has had to turn to a life of crime. Mrs. Joe is another character who is antisocial. She lives on the marshes among rough, working class men and has no friends but Joe and no female acquaintances whatever. Pip's guardian and Joe's wife, she is so rude, antagonistic, and violent that she drives away those who would otherwise love her. As Pip's sister, Mrs. Joe shares the same loss of their family, but her means of coping with loneliness is quite different from Pip's attempts to get along with people and to stay out of trouble. Indeed, Mrs. Joe causes most of the problems in her life and everyone else's at the forge. Aside from these obvious loners, each struggling to find his or her place in the world, Jaggers also stands alone, an upholder of the law but to an inhuman degree. He never lets down his guard, as though he were likely to be sued if he relaxed, misspoke, or reacted at all with emotion. No matter how openly Pip offers friendship, Jaggers maintains a distant attitude and instead admires the wealthy but evil Bentley Drummle for knowing what he wants and getting it. While Pip has the greatest number of friends of these alienated characters, even he is strangely hesitant to leave London to rejoin Joe and Biddy or to accept Herbert Pocket's offer of a position in his firm. Only when Pip has exhausted his expectations and has no other direction to turn does he realize that he is quite lucky to have two good friends who love him for himself and can forget about his social status. By doing this, Pip is the one character who works his way out of alienation and loneliness into a socially active life that is enriched by love shared with friends. Although this hard-earned knowledge was not one of his original "expectations," Pip finds that this is far greater wealth than any benefactor's inheritance.

Identity: Search for Self

As a child, Pip is small for his age and quite weak, physically and temperamentally. An orphan living with his sister in near poverty, he dreams of great wealth. Meanwhile, finding ways to avoid abuse from his sister becomes his daily lesson. He submits to the insults of Mrs. Joe, Uncle Pumblechook, Mr. Wopsle, Estella and Miss Havisham's relatives. Pip is terrified of Miss Havisham when she first orders him to play a game as she watches him and he realizes that he is too miserable to play at anything. Later, he is anxious and delighted to escape that life and go to the city where he can establish a new identity as a gentleman in his own right. Indeed, from his first day in London he is addressed as "Mr. Pip" and treated well. He finds, however, that he has little to back up that esteem except money that he has not earned and only squanders on expensive clothes, decorations for his apartment, and a servant boy he calls "The Avenger." What is Pip avenging but the poverty to which he was born? Yet when Joe comes to London, Pip is ashamed of him, embarrassed that Joe now calls him "Sir" yet distressed by Joe's lowbrow speech and country clothes. Pip is likewise mortified by Magwitch. Even after learning that the convict is responsible for Pip's rise in status and his great allowance, Pip does not want to be seen with the old man because Magwitch does not fit into Pip's new identity. That Magwitch has risked his life to come back to England to see Pip does not influence Pip's decision to get rid of Magwitch as soon as possible. Pip frequently returns to the village to visit Miss Havisham and Estella, and to enjoy a gentleman's treatment from the shopkeeper Trabb and Trabb's boy who once sneered at Pip. However, Pip neither returns to the humble forge to visit Joe nor sends any message to him. In time, Pip is ashamed of that and apologizes to both Magwitch and Joe. Also, he forgives Miss Havisham for her early cruelty with a kiss on her deathbed. But this cannot happen until he has endured greater suffering and pangs of conscience than he ever knew as a weakling boy on the marsh. Miss Havisham also rises above her reputation as a tight-fisted and heartless old woman by granting Pip's request for money to set up Herbert Pocket in a business, and by begging Pip's forgiveness before she dies. Once cruel, she ends by suffering from the realization that she has wasted her life on hatred and vengeance, yet it is too late for her to enjoy her change of heart. Pip adds this to his lessons on gaining respect and peace in his own life. Another good model comes from Wemmick, who adores his old father and shares care of the Aged Parent with Pip on at least one occasion when, ironically, Pip is avoiding contact with Magwitch. Nevertheless, Pip attends Magwitch in his last days as tenderly as Wemmick tends his own father and as lovingly as Joe nurses Pip back from death. When Pip finally returns to the marsh to propose marriage to Biddy and to thank Joe, he finds them already married. Pip asks Joe's forgiveness before he joins Herbert Pocket, Jr. to earn his way in the world and to repay Joe for covering some of his bills. Pip finally takes charge of his future and enjoys the love of his family and friends, realizing that they are his most precious wealth. Having been first a pauper, then a man of the leisure class, and finally a middle-class worker, Pip is finally certain of his place in the world by knowing true contentment and self-worth.

Victim and Victimization

In the endless struggle for power, the winners are the ruthless, thinks Jaggers. He has yet to learn that such power is not equal to the strength of being true to one's convictions, as Pip learns. Even though Jaggers deals with victims and victimizers daily, he is less informed than Pip is as a victim himself. Mrs. Joe Gargery prides herself on having brought up Pip "by hand," meaning with no help but also with the idea that sparing the rod spoils the child. Yet Pip has not been spared numerous encounters with "The Tickler," his sister's cane. But if one who lives by the cane dies by it, so does Mrs. Joe suffer a violent beating before her death. Similarly, other victimizers become victims before their final chance to repent Magwitch, once a thug on the streets of London, is stalked by his former accomplice. While his childhood in the underworld taught him to eat or be eaten, Magwitch risks all to return to England so that he can see for himself Pip's success and to settle his score with the villainous Compeyson. Also, Molly is "tamed" by Jaggers. A gypsy by birth, a criminal by necessity, and now bound to his household, she neither roams nor breaks the law anymore. But she is a powerless victim who never learns the fate of her daughter except that the child has been adopted into a wealthy household where she will receive the food and shelter Molly cannot provide. While Pip worries that Drummle will harm Estella, it is she who must endure a loveless marriage to outlive her cruel husband. A victim of Miss Havisham's icy character instead of enjoying the love of a mother, Estella is first the abused and then the abuser of both Pip and Miss Havisham. She then becomes the abused wife of the rotten Drummle. Yet, finally, at least in the original ending, Estella is a potentially better mother to her daughter than either her own mother or Miss Havisham ever were to her. Even in the revised ending, she breaks the abuse cycle by reconciling with Pip as his equal. And a lesser character, Trabb's boy, insults Pip and his first good suit of clothes. It is the only way that this poor fellow has of getting back at someone who has had better luck than he has had, for Trabb's boy was humiliated when his employer ordered him to be polite to the new young master Pip. In this way, Trabb's boy is both the victim of class distinction in his society and a victimizer of the upper class in the only way he can be. Through his unobserved and therefore unpunishable rudeness to Pip, he defends himself and strikes a blow at a social class that he has no hope of ever joining. Pip himself must realize that he has victimized people by treating them as lesser creatures. He realizes that he broke Joe's heart when he left the forge and again when he stayed out of contact for eleven years. He hurts Biddy by telling her that he could never love her, even though he returns intending to ask her to marry him after he has lost all of his money. Finding her already married to Joe is Pip's final lesson that power is not related to happiness and that one can only be a victim by permitting it. Trabb's boy is not Pip's only example. Jaggers is also feared by those who are not on his side. Yet Pip doubts that Jaggers has much to enjoy when he goes home at the end of the day. For all of these characters, the pleasure of power as victimizer is short-lived and/or unsatisfying.

Guilt and Innocence

With the law as a backdrop for much of the action, Pip finds that guilt and innocence are much more complex than he first thought. Having helped a convict to escape weighs heavily on his young mind, and he is sure that greater powers will catch up to punish him in time. When they do, they are much different than Pip first supposed, for he must first deal with his own conscience outside of the English courts. Underlying all of the characters' actions and outcomes is this theme: the guilty are punished by a power higher than any king's. Everyone who acts unjustly in the novel is made to either suffer and repent or to die without forgiveness. Likewise, those few who have nothing to regret are begged for mercy. While Pip is owed an apology by Mrs. Joe, her cruelty to him is avenged by her pitiful and helpless last days. The same could be said of Miss Havisham, who dies powerless, alone, and begging Pip's forgiveness. And while Pip owes Joe his life and feels great guilt for the times he wished not to know Joe, he has often abused their friendship. Pip pays for his carelessness by suffering and nearly dying, and by falling from great wealth back into poverty. His early innocence is the innocence to which he must return for forgiveness, a prodigal son who remembers the simple truth. Estella is too late to reconcile with Miss Havisham, but she finally treats Pip as an equal in both endings to the novel. Estella has also learned the truth about power. While the law is not kind to Magwitch, he accepts it. The fairness of that is left to the reader to decide since Magwitch has had few chances to be anything in life but a convict. That he is Pip's own convict is his redeeming quality, and in turn Magwitch has saved Pip's humility by revealing that a criminal, not a lady, is providing the money to fulfill Pip's grand expectations of joining the upper class. Magwitch has earned that money by the sweat of his brow, working as a common sheep rancher in Australia and not by any criminal activity. He could have easily spent the money on himself instead of Pip. These truths are Pip's salvation from a worthless, lazy, and arrogant life like Drummle. Less obvious are those who have never learned what Pip has found. Uncle Pumblechook and Miss Havisham's relatives will continue to curse others' luck and their own lack of fortune. Guilty of not listening to his heart, Jaggers will live out his days by guarding his words and emotions. While hopelessly self-involved characters such as Drummle and Compeyson are condemned to die without acknowledging their own guilt, others such as Magwitch, Molly, and Estella will be forgiven for misdeeds that are either justifiable or beyond their ability to avoid. Told through Pip's voice, the story shows that the power of forgiveness is great, for it is by mercy to others that one is forgiven. The law of the land that Pip once feared has little to do with real justice, for only by admitting his own guilt can he find happiness. As Pip concludes about himself by remembering Herbert Pocket, Jr., "I was one day enlightened by the reflection, that perhaps the inaptitude had never been in him at all, but had been in me." Or as Estella says to Pip upon meeting him again, "I am greatly changed. I wonder you know me."


Pip is the “poster child” for Victorian ambition, a will to rise above his station in life and become a member of the elite. However, his goal of continual self-improvement, while itself an ambition, makes his road to riches that much more complicated. In the beginning, “improvement” is a general concept that Pip believes he can apply to all aspects of his life; he wants to believe that every improvement is a good thing. As he becomes wiser to the world, though, Pip realizes that one’s own improvement effects other people, and that those effects are often negative, even destructive.

In the beginning of Great Expectations, Pip aspires to improved social status so he can be worthy of Estella, who he dearly loves. Mrs. Joe and Pumblechook encourage his fantasies of becoming a gentleman, allowing him to believe he can reach this goal. Dickens uses Pip’s exploration of the world of gentlemen and his climb to the top to satirize the class system of his era and to show how fickle the “upper crust” and its desires are. On becoming a gentleman Pip finds that this life is no more satisfying—and less moral—than his previous life.

In order to rise to gentlemanly status, Pip must become educated. Education becomes another ambition in his journey to adulthood. Pip works hard as he learns to read at Mr. Wopsle's aunt's school and in his lessons from Matthew Pocket. Ultimately, characters like Joe, Biddy, and Magwitch teach Pip by example that social and educational improvement are only a small part of what it takes to be a truly “improved” person. Pip can’t eliminate his final ambition in order to achieve the superficial requirements of the British upper class.

From the beginning of the novel, Pip is extremely hard on himself when he acts immorally; his ambition to be a moral and thoughtful individual is an undercurrent that runs through the novel. Pip feels guilty about the way he treats Joe and Biddy, and learns from Miss Havisham and Estella how ignoring the feelings of others leaves one hollow and cold. Pip’s desire to be a better person, indeed a better person than the “gentlemen” around him, allows him to see the bigger picture and get a little bit closer to the happiness he seeks.

Dickens’ attitude toward ambition is clear—ambition with no moral center is a dangerous thing. He seems to suggest that his society is falling farther and farther into ruin as superficial desires take the place of feeling and caring for others. For Dickens, Pip is a true individual, far more so than the wealthy who care nothing for the beggars and “little people” who exist outside their carefully-sheltered worlds. In seeing the big picture, Pip is not only a part of the world, but a useful, valuable part of it.

Class Stratification

Dickens provides a cross-section of Victorian England’s class system, from the most despicable criminals (Magwitch) to the poor peasants of the marsh country (Joe and Biddy) to the middle class (Pumblechook) to the very rich (Miss Havisham). The theme of social class is central to the novel's plot, and to the overarching theme that includes all the themes listed here—Pip's realization that wealth and class are less important than love, dependability, and self-respect. Pip reaches this realization when he is finally able to understand that social status has nothing to do with character. Estella’s surrender to her own sadness and the nobility of Magwitch show him the polar opposites of the class system and the inaccuracy of the assumptions made in English society.

Dickens’ treatment of class, which appears in many of his novels, was a fairly controversial idea in Victorian-era England, in which social status determined the direction of a person’s entire life. Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the novel's treatment of social class is that Dickens portrays the “movers and shakers” as simply those lucky enough to have inherited wealth, but who are left morally bankrupt. In contrast, those characters who work hard to get where they are in the hierarchy are portrayed as more enlightened. The message in Great Expectations in particular is that the notion that people in a higher class are somehow more deserving of their success is as much of a fiction as the novel itself.

Crime and Responsibility

Dickens explores the nature of crime in his world by exposing the guilt and innocence of those characters involved, and some who are victims. The imagery of crime—the handcuffs Joe repairs, repeated images of bars, the gallows of a London prison, even of Miss Havisham’s house as a sort of prison for Estella and later Pip—serves as a backdrop for the action. It seems as if everyone is guilty of something or a victim of someone else’s cruelty. A man we might assume would be a fine upstanding citizen—Jaggers, who as a lawyer knows the law and its consequences—is a heartless criminal. The images of crime also provide a symbol of Pip's struggle to resolve the conflict between his powerful conscience—his heart, his sense of morality—with the institutions of Victorian justice, which frequently fails in its stated goals. Just as social class is a meaningless, superficial measure of an individual’s worth, the institutions of England’s criminal justice system (police, courts, jails, even attitudes toward crime and punishment) are a superficial measure of morality. Pip finds that he must learn to look beyond both, trust in the conscience that continually nags him when he does something wrong to his fellow human being.

This conscience must be developed over the course of the novel, however; Dickens shows us how Pip grows stronger as he considers the consequences of past and present actions. Early in the novel, for example, Magwitch terrifies Pip just because he is a convict; Pip feels guilty for helping him out of fear of the police. By the end of the book, Pip recognizes and appreciates Magwitch's simple dignity and worthiness, and sees him as more than a fugitive from the justice system and helps him elude his pursuers. By learning to trust his conscience and seeing beyond the definitions of crime, guilt and innocence he has been taught, Pip learns that a man’s character is much more about his internal worth than his value in a corrupt society.


No one can accuse Charles Dickens of writing cheerful children’s stories; in many of his novels, the children are beset by illness or poverty, or they’re abused by the adults in their lives. Quite often all of these are the case. In Great Expectations, the parent/child (or in this case the surrogate parent/child) dynamic is imbalanced and guided by adults’ unrealistic views of the world and of the children they care for.

Magwitch can be considered a “Father figure” to Pip from behind the scenes; he leaves a fortune to the boy to enable him to become the gentleman Magwitch himself can never be. All of Pip’s “role models”—Magwitch, Joe, even Jaggers in a way—are negative, either too weak to make themselves known to the world or too damaged to live normal, happy lives. They all seem to be living vicariously through Pip’s attempts at launching a good life, perhaps hoping to become part of his success at a later time. Everyone who tries to “parent” Pip ends up causing further damage until he comes dangerously close to resembling Estella and her cold, calculating, uncaring nature. Only the boy’s own sense of fairness and resistance of authority allow him to rise above his “fathers” and become his own man.

Pip and Estella are parallels in the way they are “parented”; the difference lies in their response to the “parenting.” Dickens lets us know early on in the novel that Miss Havisham raises Estella to break men's hearts in revenge for her own heartbreak at the hands of Mr. Compeyson. She succeeds in a tragic way: Estella becomes so broken, so empty, so devoid of the spirit of life or love that in the end she is simply going through the motions. She could never love Pip, but so deep inside where even he can’t reach she loves him too much to ruin his life. She resigns herself to her loveless existence in exchange for isolating herself from other peoples’ feelings, protecting them from herself. Like Miss Havisham, who apologizes for her behavior on her deathbed, Estella will spend the rest of her life trying to make up for the hurt she has caused and to prevent any further hurt to anybody but herself.

Dickens’ opinion of Victorian-era parenting is clear in Great Expectations, if just beneath the surface; in an age where child labor is still being practiced and children are still given up to orphanages because their parents don’t want or can’t afford them, Pip and Estella are examples of what can happen to children both as they grow up and after they have grown. In both cases, the lack of a stable, positive parental role model prevents the children from knowing right from wrong—in learning “the hard way,” they do a great deal of damage to themselves and to each other.

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