Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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Teaching Approaches

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 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...

(The entire section is 2,744 words.)