Illustration of Pip visiting a graveyard

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

Start Free Trial

Teaching Approaches

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2744

Pip and Herbert as Foils: Compare and contrast the character traits of Pip and Herbert Pocket. Though both men are ambitious, Pip’s ambition seems to be driven by greed and unrealistic ideals. Herbert’s ambition, by contrast, seems driven by a more sensible wish for financial stability and the desire to do right by others. 

  • For discussion: Follow Pip’s and Herbert’s predominant character traits throughout the novel, especially in the context of their personal and professional priorities. How does each character treat others? How does each character value wealth, class, and status? 
  • For discussion: Though Pip initially uses his wealth to help Herbert enter the mercantile trade, it is Herbert who saves Pip from destitution by offering him a job at the end of the novel. Why does Dickens ultimately position Herbert as Pip’s advocate? 
  • For discussion: Pip and Herbert are opposites in many ways, but both characters eventually enter the merchant trade as equals. What does their shared professional fate suggest about the novel’s stance on industriousness? What would be the impact if Pip returns to his original low class or is imprisoned again for not paying his debts? 

Criminality and Criminal Justice as a Theme: Much of the conflict and plot development in Great Expectations is driven by crime and how criminality relates to broader questions of morality and justice. Furthermore, Pip’s character development is shaped by his evolving perception of how society’s one-dimensional codes of morality—represented by stereotypical images of jails, handcuffs, leg irons, and police officers—contrast with an individual’s subjective circumstances and inner capacity for goodness. 

  • For discussion: Magwitch, who comes from a very low socioeconomic class, tells Pip that his first memory was of “a’thieving turnips for [his] living.” He was further entrapped in a life of crime by Compeyson, who comes from a higher class and uses his gentlemanly manners to manipulate and victimize people. Why does Dickens portray Magwitch, who society treats as innately inferior because of his class and criminal past, as such a complicated character? What do Magwitch’s difficult circumstances, many of which drove him to commit crime in order to survive, suggest about class and criminal justice during the time of Great Expectations
  • For discussion: Pip is horrified to learn that Magwitch is his benefactor, both because Magwitch is a convict and because he is from such a low class. However, Pip eventually feels very loyal to Magwitch and even tries to help him escape. Why does Pip become so fond of Magwitch? What does Pip’s changing view of Magwitch imply about the novel’s stance on how society defines morality, especially a person’s capacity for goodness versus malevolence? 
  • For discussion: Though Magwitch is a convict, he is so moved by Pip’s kindness that he selflessly uses his wealth to make Pip a gentleman. However, Pip becomes selfish, unkind, and arrogant as he ascends the social hierarchy. Why might Dickens have portrayed Magwitch as selfless and Pip as selfish? What does Dickens imply about his society’s stereotypes about criminals? What does he imply about the relevance of social class and wealth? 

Satis House as a Symbol of Social Hierarchy: For Pip, Satis House represents the lavish splendor of the upper class and the possibility of elevating his own station in life. It is after his first visit to Satis House that he becomes conscious of his family’s social inferiority and begins his first attempts at ascending the social hierarchy. 

  • For discussion: What does Dickens suggest about wealth and the power of the upper class by portraying Satis House as a dark, deteriorating, and unwelcoming mansion? Why is it significant that the...

(This entire section contains 2744 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
  • house is not bright and inviting? 
  • For discussion: Satis House seems to be a place where dreams are formed and then shattered, from Miss Havisham’s heartbreak to Pip’s inability to become a gentleman. What do these failed dreams and aspirations have in common? Why is it telling that these particular dreams are established in the old mansion? 
  • For discussion: When Pip returns after 11 years of modest success in the merchant trade, he discovers that Satis House is gone. However, he is finally able to walk with Estella as an equal in the garden where they first met. Why is it significant that Satis House is destroyed? 

Pip’s Identity Quest: Great Expectations is a bildungsroman—a “coming-of-age” story that focuses on the protagonist’s moral and psychological development from childhood to adulthood. Identify key moments in Pip’s character development, especially in relation to themes of ambition, greed, and class ascension, and discuss why they are significant. 

  • For discussion: How does Pip change from the novel’s beginning when he is attacked by Magwitch to his final conversation with Estella in the garden at Satis House? In what ways does he remain the same? In what ways does he mature? What lessons does he learn about the importance of ambition versus selflessness along the way? 
  • For discussion: By the end of the novel, Pip has learned to appreciate Joe and Magwitch—people he almost exclusively looked down upon for their coarseness and unrefined manners—for the quality of their characters. What does Pip need to learn in order to appreciate Joe and Magwitch? Why isn’t he convinced that they are worthy of his love and loyalty until the end of the novel? 

Miss Havisham and Magwitch as Character Foils: Compare and contrast the character traits of Miss Havisham and Magwitch. Though they come from very different backgrounds, Miss Havisham and Magwitch share two key similarities: they are the novel’s major benefactors and are obsessed with seeking revenge after being wronged by Compeyson. 

  • For discussion: Follow Miss Havisham’s and Magwitch’s predominant character traits throughout the novel, especially in the context of revenge and justice. How does each character respond to being wronged? How does each character value loyalty? 
  • For discussion: Both Miss Havisham and Magwitch hurt their protégés in the long run. Miss Havisham inculcates a quality of coldness in Estella. Magwitch’s money makes Pip nearly lose everyone who loves him. However, Miss Havisham and Magwitch seem to have different reasons for being benefactors. What motivates Miss Havisham to adopt Estella? What motivates Magwitch to make Pip into a gentleman? Why is it important that both Estella and Pip end up being worse off, regardless of the intentions of their benefactors? 
  • For discussion: Why can’t Miss Havisham or Magwitch move on from being wronged by Compeyson? Do you think either character is right to remain stuck in the past? Why or why not? 

Gender Roles in Victorian England: Great Expectations features ambitious men who are mostly in control of their lives. However, every female character functions exclusively as a vessel of action or education for men. Women with any degree of power, such as Miss Havisham and Mrs. Joe, are portrayed as cruel because they use their power to control, confront, or victimize men—and both become disabled and eventually die. 

  • For discussion: Both Miss Havisham and Mrs. Joe are extreme representations of women’s confinement within the domestic sphere; Miss Havisham seems imprisoned in Satis House, and Mrs. Joe never leaves the forge. However, both women contrast sharply with traditional Victorian depictions of women as passive, submissive, and virtuous because both women are aggressive, powerful, and even cruel. What does Dickens suggest about gender roles by never portraying the novel’s most powerful female characters in the public sphere? Why is it important that both Miss Havisham and Mrs. Joe die? What would it mean for the two women to retain their power and control their lives? 
  • For discussion: Estella suffers an unhappy childhood and an abusive marriage, but Dickens focuses more on her beauty—a source of power—and her ability to use it against men who desire her. Why is Estella’s beauty so important in the novel? Why does Pip feel entitled to marry her when she clearly does not reciprocate his feelings? What does Estella’s eventual marriage to an abusive husband suggest about the novel’s stance on a woman’s right to choose her husband? 
  • For discussion: Overall, Charles Dickens depicts women in an unflattering light. Why do think he represents women as the submissive gender in Great Expectations? Do you think he truly views women as inferior, or do his depictions of sexism reflect the realities of the Victorian world? Might Dickens’s depictions of sexism even function as subtle social commentary? 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Victorian Prose Style: Though Dickens’s language is relatively easy to understand, many students might find Victorian literature to be more verbose than they are used to. Great Expectations is long and contains many dense paragraphs. 

  • What to do: Consider having students keep a rough outline of major events and new characters that emerge. Before delving into each lesson, have students share and discuss the events and characters they identified. 
  • What to do: As the class progresses through the novel, have students keep a journal of unfamiliar vocabulary words. Instruct them to look up and write out definitions for these words, and then make a class-generated vocabulary list for future quizzes and lessons. 

Depictions of Violence: The novel occasionally describes physical abuse, beginning with Magwitch attacking Pip in a graveyard. This may be upsetting and confusing for some students. 

  • What to do: Give students an advance warning that there will be violent scenes throughout the novel. Then, discuss Dickens’s reasons for including them. 
  • What to do: Have students trace each act of violence back to the novel’s overarching themes. Why do Magwitch and Compeyson battle each other? Why is it important that Orlick kills Mrs. Joe in order to punish Pip? Why does Dickens include violence— especially murder—at all? 

Depictions of Sexism: Great Expectations often features women being abused, ranging from Miss Havisham’s horrible treatment by Compeyson to Mrs. Joe’s murder by Orlick. Furthermore, none of the novel’s women have real agency; actions and events happen to them. This may be confusing and upsetting for students. 

  • What to do: Give students advance warning that Dickens frequently portrays subjugated women in the novel. Then, discuss explanations as to why Dickens portrays women in such states of powerlessness. 
  • What to do: Two of the novel’s most powerful women—Miss Havisham and Mrs. Joe—suffer horrific, disabling injuries that strip them of power and agency. Why does Dickens use violence in this way? Why is it significant that Miss Havisham and Mrs. Joe are disempowered? What would the impact be if Dickens allowed them to keep their power and agency? 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching Great Expectations

While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving Great Expectations, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel. 

Magwitch as Frankenstein’s Creature: In Great Expectations, Dickens explores the same creator-creature relationship posed by Mary Shelley in her iconic gothic novel, Frankenstein (1818). Both Shelley and Dickens question the extent to which a creator has a responsibility to provide for the being he or she creates. For Shelley, this relationship is represented in the characters of scientist Victor Frankenstein and his tragic Creature. For Dickens, however, the creator is Victorian society in general, represented primarily by Pip the gentleman, and the creature is any disenfranchised or alienated individual, represented by Magwitch the convict. Magwitch is explicitly compared to Frankenstein’s creature by Pip, who claims to be even more miserable than Frankenstein when he learns that Magwitch is his benefactor. Though Pip also identifies with the Creature—his status as a gentleman, with all of its complications, was created by Magwitch—it is Magwitch, like Frankenstein’s Creature, who is ostracized and dies under a system of inequality. 

  • For discussion: Magwitch has been a criminal most of his life. Why did he begin a life of crime? How did his life circumstances make it necessary for him to start stealing? How might society have provided for him differently? Do you think Magwitch might have avoided becoming a convict if he was given other opportunities in life? Why or why not? 
  • For discussion: Why does Pip compare Magwitch to Victor Frankenstein’s Creature? Do you think Magwitch is a figurative monster in society because he is a criminal? Why or why not? 

Ableism and the Subjugation of Powerful Women: Miss Havisham and Mrs. Joe are the only powerful women in Great Expectations; both suffer grave injuries and die by the end of the novel. Though Miss Havisham is powerful because of her wealth, she is primarily preoccupied with avenging her lover’s betrayal. She does this by coaching Estella to become a heartbreaker. Mrs. Joe’s power rests in her similar ability to emasculate; she runs the Gargery household so assertively that she seems to dominate Pip and Joe. Both women are eventually stripped of their power by disablement; Miss Havisham suffers severe burns after her wedding dress catches on fire, and Mrs. Joe suffers severe brain injury after being beaten by Orlick. 

  • For discussion: Why is it significant that Dickens uses disability to disempower the novel’s only assertive women? What would have been the impact if Miss Havisham and Mrs. Joe had died suddenly instead of being disabled first? Or what if they had suffered injuries but recovered, as Pip does when he also suffers burns when Miss Havisham catches on fire? 
  • For discussion: What does Dickens’s incorporation of disability into Great Expectations suggest about society’s treatment of people with disabilities during the Victorian era? 
  • For discussion: After suffering brain injuries from Orlick’s attack, Mrs. Joe becomes docile and accommodating, especially towards Orlick. Why does Dickens portray the once-assertive, dominating Mrs. Joe as a submissive woman who seeks the approval of the man who disabled her? 

Magwitch and Pip as Character Foils: Though Herbert Pocket is most often considered to be Pip’s character foil, Magwitch contrasts with Pip’s character in ways that emphasize Pip’s selfishness and arrogance. While Magwitch dedicates his life to repaying Pip’s kindness by helping him become a gentleman, Pip abandons his friends and family—most notably, Joe—because he feels that they are unworthy of his company. Furthermore, he is repulsed by Magwitch, even after learning that Magwitch used his fortune as a sheep-farmer to change Pip’s life. Discuss with students the possibility that Magwitch, alienated from society because he was forced into a life of crime for survival, is not villainous but is in fact a foil who ultimately exposes Pip as his own antagonist. 

  • For discussion: From a Victorian-societal standpoint, Magwitch is inferior—and even villainous—because he is a convict and Pip is superior because he is a wealthy gentleman. However, Magwitch’s actions suggest that he is kind and selfless, while Pip’s actions suggest that he is insensitive and self-absorbed. Whom do you sympathize with the most? Why? Use examples from the text, especially those that reveal Pip’s or Magwitch’s character traits, to explain your answer. 
  • For discussion: Though Pip is initially horrified when Magwitch reveals that he is Pip’s benefactor, he eventually grows fond of the convict and wants to help him escape. Why is it significant that Pip changes his mind about Magwitch? What lesson has Pip learned? Be sure to include specific examples from the text to support your answers. 
  • For discussion: Magwitch, who is an innately good if deeply flawed person, never receives a chance for social rehabilitation at any point during the novel. Because he is a convict, he will always be excluded from society. Pip, however, is given multiple chances at a better life, despite wasting the fortune Magwitch worked so hard for and treating his loved ones terribly. Why is it important that Magwitch dies? What does his death suggest about Dickens’s stance on society’s treatment of criminals, especially in the context of a rigid class system? Do you think Pip and Magwitch deserve their fates? Why or why not? 

Significant Allusions


Ideas for Reports and Papers