Great Expectations Questions and Answers

Charles Dickens

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Great Expectations questions.

When was Great Expectations published?

Great Expectations was published in 1860.

What does the story teach us about kindness?

The basic moral or thesis of Great Expectations is that one act of Christian kindness can change a man's character for the rest of his life. The whole story evolves from what happens in the first three chapters. Pip brings Magwitch a bottle of brandy and a generous assortment of food, consisting of mincemeat, meat-bone, bread, cheese, and pork pie. Pip is acting out of terror, but he also feels pity for this wretched, starving escaped convict.

Pitying his desolation, and watching him as he gradually settled down upon the pie, I made bold to say, "I am glad you enjoy it."

Magwitch is recaptured and transported to Australia, but Pip's act of Christian charity has renewed the embittered man's faith in human nature and given him something to live for. It is because of Pip that Magwitch grows rich through honest labor and enterprise in the far-off land. It is because of Magwitch's gratitude that Pip's life is so miraculously changed. He is able to fulfill his dream of becoming a gentleman--although the fulfillment turns out to be a disappointment. It is not until Chapter 39 that Pip learns the truth about the source of his great expectations. Magwitch visits him in his rooms on a dark and stormy night and tells him:

"Yes, Pip, dear boy. I've made a gentleman on you! It's me wot has done it! I swore that time, sure as ever I earned a guinea, that guinea should go to you. I swore arterwards, sure as ever I spec'lated and got rich, you should get rich. I lived rough, that you should live smooth. I worked hard that you should be above work. What odds, dear boy! Do I tell it fur you to feel a obligation? Not a bit. I tell it, for you to know as that there hunted dunghill dog wot you kep life in, got his head so high that he could make a gentleman--and, Pip, you're him!"

In addition to learning the truth about the source of his money, education, and even higher expectations, Pip learns the greater truth that all gentlemen and ladies owe their fine clothes, rich foods, polished manners, and inflated egos to the dunghill dogs of the world who labor and suffer to make them the meretricious and feckless parasites most of them are.

The moral or thesis that one act of Christian kindness can change a man's character for the rest of his life is also the guiding force in Victor Hugo's great novel Les Miserables. Hugo's Jean Valjean is in danger of being taken back to the galleys for stealing Bishop Bienvenu's silverware, but the saintly Bishop creates a transformation in Valjean's character by telling the arresting officers that the silver was a gift and even adding a pair of silver candlesticks to the bounty. Jean Valjean becomes an industrious, generous man who devotes the rest of his life to bringing happiness to others. 

Great Expectations was published in 1860 and Les Miserables in 1862, but neither author was indebted to the other for his thesis. Rather, both men were inspired by the teachings of Jesus and his followers recorded in the New Testament.

What makes Mr. Jaggers a pivotal character?

Mr. Jaggers is one of the most memorable characters in Great Expectations. He is the quintessential lawyer. He will represent anybody as long as he gets paid. In criminal cases he doesn't care whether the client is guilty or innocent. He only cares about getting his fee and being able to win the case. If he considers a case unwinnable, he won't take it. He is especially characteristic of the class of lawyers and especially funny in not wanting to know anything he shouldn't know. It takes a lawyer like Jaggers to represent a transported convict like Abel Magwitch. Jaggers assumes that Magwitch intends to return to England, which is a hanging offense; but as long as Jaggers hasn't been "informed" of that intention he is able to remain professionally ignorant. When Magwitch actually does return, Jaggers doesn't want to hear about it or know about it. As far as he is concerned, his client is still living in far-off New South Wales.

Jaggers is described as a very big and imposing-looking man. Pip first encounters him at Miss Havisham's house and describes him as follows:

He was a burly man of an exceedingly dark complexion, with an exceedingly large head and a corresponding large hand. He took my chin in his large hand and turned up my face to have a look at me by the light of the candle. He was prematurely bald on the top of his head, and had bushy black eyebrows that wouldn't lie down, but stood up bristling. His eyes were set very deep in his head, and were disagreeably sharp and suspicious. He had a large watchchain, and strong black dots where his beard and whiskers would have been if he had let them. He was nothing to me, and I could have had no foresight then, that he ever would be anything to me, but it happened that I had this opportunity of observing him well.

Dickens makes Jaggers physically imposing to fit his domineering manner and his amazing ability to hold all sorts of information in separate compartments inside his great head. He is a very important character in the novel because he is the sole connecting link between so many of the important characters. Only Jaggers could be a link between such people as Miss Havisham and Abel Magwitch. She knows nothing about Magwitch and he knows nothing about her. Yet she would never have gotten Estella as an adopted child if Jaggers had not been representing both her and Magwitch. In that case, Pip would never have met Estella and fallen in love with her. His whole life would have been different. He might not have been so strongly motivated to become a gentleman. Estella, too, would have had a very different life and a very different character. 

Who is Mrs. Joe Gargery?

Pip's sister, who raised him "by hand," is immediately introduced in Chapter 2 as a termagant, explosive, shrewish woman who abuses poor Pip verbally and physically. Dickens tries to make every chapter dramatic, and in order to have drama there must be conflict. Creating such a contentious, chronically dissatisfied character as Mrs. Joe assured Dickens that he could invent plenty of conflict up until the time she is nearly killed by a mysterious intruder. Some sort of conflict develops every time Mrs. Joe appears in the book. She has conflicts with Pip, Orlick, and her husband. It turns out that her quarrels with Orlick motivated that ill-tempered, vindictive man to try to murder her. (Orlick himself may have been created because such a man was bound to create scenes of conflict to enliven some of the chapters.) Dickens evidently planned to have Mrs. Joe die off somewhere in the novel so that the kindly, long-suffering blacksmith would be able to marry Biddy and finally have some well-deserved peace, love, and contentment in his life. There is a sharp contrast between Mrs. Joe and Biddy, which makes the modest, patient Biddy seem all the more charming. She is, in fact, one of the most likable characters in the book. It might be said that Pip's sister brings her own death upon herself with her bad temper. She makes Orlick hate her so much that he tries to kill her. She is permanently incapacitated by the assault and eventually dies as a result of the injuries received. Her condition as an invalid explains the need for Biddy to come and live in the Gargery household, and this is what ultimately leads to Joe and Biddy falling in love and getting married.

What does Pip learn about being a gentleman?

Pip is a poor orphan boy who knows nothing about the real world and certainly nothing about the world of the upper class. Miss Havisham is the second person of a higher class that he meets in his life, and her adopted daughter Estella is the first. Because of her beauty and superficial sophistication, the haughty girl becomes a symbol of everything desirable in the world--but Pip fails to realize that when he meets the haggard, forlorn Miss Havisham a few minutes later, he is also seeing what Estella will be like in the future.

By a miracle Pip finds himself chosen to become transformed from a blacksmith's apprentice into a real London gentleman. He does not realize that being a gentleman is not a real occupation. In fact, most gentlemen are incapable of work and despise work. They treat honest working men with contempt--an attitude which is a sure mark of a gentleman.

A good example of gentlemen is seen in Chapter 34 of Great Expectations, where Pip describes the behavior of the young members of the "club" called "The Finches of the Grove."

So now, as an infallible way of making little ease great ease, I began to contract a quantity of debt. I could hardly begin but Herbert must begin too, so he soon followed. At Startop's suggestion, we put ourselves down for election into a club called the Finches of the Grove: the object of which institution I have never divined, if it were not that the members should dine expensively once a fortnight, to quarrel among themselves as much as possible after dinner, and to cause six waiters to get drunk on the stairs. I know that these gratifying social ends were so invariably accomplished, that Herbert and I understood nothing else to be referred to in the first standing toast of the society: which ran, “Gentlemen, may the present promotion of good feeling ever reign predominant among the Finches of the Grove.”

These unfortunate gentlemen have nothing to do with their lives but fill up the time from morning to night. Pip has a big advantage over them because he has grown up in a household where a man works hard to produce things of value to society. It is appropriate that Pip's first role model was a blacksmith, doing the hardest kind of work. Pip's friend Herbert has a sort of negative advantage in seeing how his father Matthew's fecklessness has led him into a desperate situation. Herbert is a gentleman, but he knows that being a gentleman is not really an occupation. He wants a real occupation. In the end, Pip comes to respect people who work for their livings and are an asset to society rather than a burden and a bad example. Pip realizes that he should have made something of himself, something other than a "gentleman." A real gentleman does not allow himself to become a helpless dependent and a parasite. 

By the beginning of Chapter 34, Pip realizes he is on a slippery slope.

When I woke up in the night—like Camilla—I used to think, with a weariness on my spirits, that I should have been happier and better if I had never seen Miss Havisham's face, and had risen to manhood content to be partners with Joe in the honest old forge. 

Pip's greatest insight comes in Chapter 39 with the shocking appearance of Abel Magwitch out of the howling storm of reality, who reveals himself as Pip's secret benefactor. Pip realizes with horror that he has been made into a weak, improvident parasite and has satisfied Magwitch's idea and ideal of a "gentleman"--a loafer, a man-about-town, a clothes horse, a spendthrift.

Yes, Pip, dear boy, I've made a gentleman on you! It's me wot has done it! I swore that time, sure as ever I earned a guinea, that guinea should go to you. I swore arterwards, sure as ever I spec'lated and got rich, you should get rich. I lived rough, that you should live smooth; I worked hard that you should be above work. What odds, dear boy? Do I tell it fur you to feel a obligation? Not a bit. I tell it, fur you to know as that there hunted dunghill dog wot you kep life in, got his head so high that he could make a gentleman—and, Pip, you're him!

How does Georgiana Maria Gargary treat Pip?

Pip's sister is a thoroughly unpleasant character with her shrewish tongue, abuse of both Pip and her husband, incessant complaining, and deliberate troublemaking. Dickens evidently created her to serve as a contrast to her kind, patient husband Joe. She cannot appreciate what a good man she has. But the author undoubtedly had a deeper purpose than that. He wanted to avoid suggesting that all working-class people were good and all upper-class people were bad. Dickens was more religious than political, though he dealt with the sufferings of the poor and underprivileged in so many of his works. Mrs. Joe Gargary and the surly Orlick are examples of working-class people who are not kind and good, while Herbert Pocket and his father Matthew Pocket are examples of upper-class types who are not cold-hearted and parasitical.

What makes Dickens's characters so memorable?

Dickens's greatest talent was in having a seemingly inexhaustible ability to create striking and memorable characters. He does this in many of his novels, but nowhere as bountifully as in Great Expectations. Mr. Jaggers is a lawyer's lawyer. He cares nothing about the spirit of the law but only about the letter of the law and making money. Miss Havisham is the quintessential poor-old-lady who feels sorry for herself and blames everybody in the world for her unhappiness. Estella as a young girl is the quintessential spoiled, snobbish little rich girl who is proud of her grace and beauty. Joe Gargary is the honest working man who helps hold up one of the four corners of the world. His wife is the scold we have all known, a female bully who enjoys making trouble. Abel Magwitch is such a powerful figure that he has to be kept offstage much of the time in order to prevent him from overshadowing everybody else.

One feels that Dickens could invent many more characters to fit into any slots where they were needed, and that he could make all these characters equally credible and viable. The author's trick, it would seem, was to take common types, exaggerate certain of their traits, and present them as individuals. That way we feel we have known them all our lives. He could do this more easily by presenting them through the point of view of Pip, a very young man who knows nothing about the real world, and to whom everything and everyone is new.

With Pip, readers feel that his mind is like a fresh new photographic plate which can take in-depth pictures in a flash. He is not judgmental in his boyhood but becomes so with age and experience. We notice the sharp contrast between his impressions of Mr. Jaggers and Miss Havisham when he is a little boy and his impressions of the same people when he has reached maturity. They have grown smaller. They haven't changed, but he has.

How does Pip demonstrate generosity?

Pip brings the convict an unusually large amount of "vittles," including half a jar of mincemeat, a quantity of brandy, and a whole pork pie. The boy is taking a big risk by stealing so much from his sister, but his present concern is seeing that the convict is satisfied.

In Chapter 8 Pip writes:

My sister's bringing up had made me sensitive.

And he repeats this at the end of the same paragraph:

I was morally timid and very sensitive.

The convict does not realize what an impression he is making on Pip in Chapter 1 with all his terrible threats.

“You bring me, to-morrow morning early, that file and them wittles. You bring the lot to me, at that old Battery over yonder. You do it, and you never dare to say a word or dare to make a sign concerning your having seen such a person as me, or any person sumever, and you shall be let to live. You fail, or you go from my words in any partickler, no matter how small it is, and your heart and your liver shall be tore out, roasted, and ate." 

The fugitive must be impressed with the feast Pip has brought him, which seems like more than even a man as hungry as himself could consume. It is because of Pip's bounty that Abel Magwitch will remember him for so many years. When he encounters Pip again in Chapter 39:

“You acted nobly, my boy,” said he. “Noble Pip! And I have never forgot it!”

Pip knows full well he wasn't acting nobly but acting out of terror enhanced by his timidity and sensitivity. So his sister's mistreatment ended up inspiring Magwitch to devote his life to making Pip a gentleman. His sister made Pip timid and hypersensitive. Thus he was especially susceptible to the convict's threats. This induced Pip to bring an exceptionally large assortment of vittles to the hunted man, to whom it seemed even more magnanimous because of his terrible hunger. And he remembered it as a noble deed which he sought to repay commensurately. 

What are the similarities between Great Expectations and Les Miserables?

Magwitch, the escaped convict in Great Expectations is so moved by Pip's compassion and bountiful gift of "wittles," including brandy and a whole pork pie, that he remembers it for the rest of his life and vows to reward the boy by making him a gentleman.

Yes, Pip, dear boy, I've made a gentleman on you! It's me wot has done it! I swore that time, sure as ever I earned a guinea, that guinea should go to you. I swore arterwards, sure as ever I spec'lated and got rich, you should get rich. I lived rough, that you should live smooth; I worked hard that you should be above work. What odds, dear boy? Do I tell it fur you to feel a obligation? Not a bit. I tell it, fur you to know as that there hunted dunghill dog wot you kep life in, got his head so high that he could make a gentleman—and, Pip, you're him! (Chapter 39)

This illustrates one of the major themes in the novel, which is: A simple act of Christian charity can change a man's character for the rest of his life. This same theme is central to Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables (1862). Bishop Bienvenu's kindness and generosity to the convict Jean Valjean changes him from a hardened criminal to an industrious and prosperous citizen who devotes the remainder of his life to helping other people.