Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations book cover
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At a Glance

  • 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.

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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...

(The entire section is 8,023 words.)