Great Expectations Themes

The main themes in Great Expectations are character versus class, the consequences of ambition, and the possibility of redemption.

  • Character versus class: Pip is a poor orphan who dreams of being a gentleman, only to realize that wealth and status aren’t as important in determining happiness as one’s character.
  • The consequences of ambition: Pip’s ambition to become a gentleman worthy of Estella’s love leads him to abandon his former friends and fall into debt.
  • The possibility of redemption: Several of the novel’s characters, including Pip and Magwitch, come to repent of their past actions, be forgiven, and change their lives.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1065

Character Versus Class

A major theme of Great Expectations is the ultimate insignificance of social class when compared to one's character—a truth Pip comes to understand through his experiences as a young man with rising expectations. For much of the novel, Pip naively assumes the upper classes are inherently superior to everyone else, a belief that may partly stem from his own modest beginnings as a blacksmith’s apprentice in the marshes of Kent. His sincere youthful desire to improve himself is corrupted, leading the adult Pip to reject people who truly love him—like Joe and Biddy—in favor of snobby, coldhearted individuals like Estella and Miss Havisham, only because the latter are of a much higher social class and appear altogether more glamorous in his eyes. However, Pip’s expectations are eventually turned on their head by the realization that the mysterious and wealthy benefactor who has financed his social rise is not Miss Havisham, as he had presumed, but the lowly and unrefined convict Magwitch.

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By the end of the novel, Pip comes to learn that class has little relationship to one’s true worth and that character is what matters most. Joe may be a coarse blacksmith, but he is kind, humble, and patient, and Pip recognizes him as a worthier husband for Biddy than himself. Similarly, Pip’s friend Herbert Pocket, a poor relation of Miss Havisham’s, proves to be a humble, hardworking young man who finds happiness with Clara, the modest, kindhearted daughter of a sailor. By contrast, Miss Havisham is a member of the upper class, but she is also vengeful, bitter, and alone in her dark and decaying house. Ultimately, Miss Havisham and Estella’s hollow and unfulfilling lives illustrate that wealth and status alone don’t lead to personal happiness. Furthermore, wealth and status themselves are not always what they seem to be, as Pip is forced to realize when he learns that his own wealth originates not with the upper-class Miss Havisham, but with Magwitch, and that Estella is in fact Magwitch’s daughter.

The Consequences of Ambition

The very title Great Expectations evokes Pip's desire to become a great man in the world. Inspired by his interactions with the upper classes at Satis house, the impressionable young Pip comes to yearn for more than just a simple existence as a blacksmith like his father figure, Joe. Instead, Pip wants to be a gentleman worthy of the beautiful, sophisticated Estella, who denigrates him as a “common labouring-boy” and mocks his “coarse hands” and “thick boots.” Ambition is presented throughout the story as double-edged: On one hand, Pip's ambition pushes him to become more experienced and intelligent, prompting him to move to London, where his relationships with the Pockets, Mr. Jaggers, Wemmick, and others broaden his understanding of the world. Unfortunately, his ambition also makes him a spendthrift, as he seeks to purchase goods that will give him the appearance of a traditional gentleman; by the time Magwitch reveals himself as his benefactor, Pip is deep in debt.

Ambition also leaves Pip discontented with the simple things and good people in his life. He notices this long before he finally learns his lesson about class, as demonstrated when he walks on the marshes with the plain but kind and intelligent Biddy. During this interaction, Pip is fully aware that Biddy is a worthier person than the cruel yet beautiful and sophisticated Estella, and yet he wants Estella anyway. When Estella has rejected him and he decides to ask Biddy to marry him instead, Pip learns that Biddy is already married to Joe. This realization, along with the revelation of his benefactor’s true identity, is profoundly humbling. Casting aside all his prior ambitions and expectations, Pip accepts a job working for Herbert’s company abroad, where he dedicates himself to paying off his debts and living a simple life.

The Possibility of Redemption

While many characters in Great Expectations behave unethically, illegally, or simply unkindly, Dickens also demonstrates that redemption can be achieved through kindness, generosity, and honest remorse. Just as class does not ascertain the quality of one’s character, no matter how poor a person’s conduct, they can still turn away from their former lives and become better. Magwitch is one example, transforming from a violent, almost animalistic criminal in the first chapter into a man willing to work hard and sacrifice in order to make Pip's life better—all out of a sense of gratitude. Pip himself achieves redemption as he evolves from a snob who forgets his former loved ones—in particular Joe and Biddy—into a mature adult who realizes that a person’s true worth has nothing to do with titles or money. When Magwitch dies in his prison cell, Pip’s remorse is such that his prayer for Magwitch of “O Lord, be merciful to him a sinner!” could as easily apply to himself as to the convict. Pip falls ill after Magwitch’s death, and when Joe visits, Pip finds himself overwhelmed by regret for the way he disdained and abandoned Joe during his brief tenure as a gentleman. Echoing his prayer at Magwitch’s bedside—as well as his outburst of “O God bless you, God forgive you!” when Estella coldly dismisses his feelings for her—he “penitently” begs God to bless Joe.

Even Miss Havisham eventually repents for her sadistic desire to have Estella break Pip’s heart as a way of getting recompense for the way her own heart was broken by her one-time fiancé, Compeyson, decades past. Realizing the pain she has inflicted upon both Pip and Estella, she begs Pip to forgive her, and it is a mark both of Pip’s newfound maturity and of his remorse for his own mistakes that he is able to do so. Estella, too, is afforded a measure of redemption through the suffering she is forced to endure at the hands of her cruel husband, Bentley Drummle. When she unexpectedly meets with Pip in the ruins of Satis house eleven years after Pip’s departure for Cairo, all of Estella’s former pride and aloofness is gone, and her only hope is that Pip will continue to extend her forgiveness. In words befitting the terms of Pip’s own redemption, she tells him, “I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape.”

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