Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations book cover
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At a Glance

  • Wealth & Money: Pip learns that being rich isn't as important as being true to yourself. Pip is an orphan who dreams of being a gentleman, only to realize in the end that money isn't as important as one's character. Dickens uses Pip's search for self to develop the theme of identity.
  • Loneliness: Four of the main characters, including Pip and Estella, are orphans, but each reacts differently to their alienation. Pip searches for love and friendship, whereas Estella pushes people away.
  • Justice: Oftentimes, the justice system fails to punish the guilty, but life has a way of forcing these people to atone for their crimes and seek forgiveness.

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The Importance of Character over Class

The biggest theme of Great Expectations is the ultimate insignificance of social class when judging character. For much of the novel, Pip assumes the upper classes are all-around superior to everyone else. He rejects people who love him—like Joe and Biddy—for snobby, coldhearted people like Estella and Miss Havisham, only because the latter are of a much higher social class and appear altogether glamorous in his eyes. By the end of the novel, Pip comes to learn that class is meaningless; character is what matters most. While Miss Havisham is part of the upper class, she is also vengeful and bitter. While Joe is a coarse blacksmith, he is kind, humble, and patient. While Magwitch is a convict, he is generous to Pip and helps him procure an education.

The Pros and Cons of Ambition

The title Great Expectations evokes Pip's desire to become a great man in the world. He comes to want more than just a simple existence as a blacksmith like his father figure, Joe; he wants to be a gentleman worthy of the beautiful, sophisticated Estella. Ambition is presented as double-edged. On one hand, Pip's ambition makes him better-read and more intelligent. Unfortunately, his ambition also makes him a spendthrift, as he seeks to purchase more goods so as to give himself the appearance of a gentleman. Ambition also makes Pip discontented with the simple things and good people in his life. He notices this long before he finally learns his lesson about class: when walking on the marshes with the plain but kind and intelligent Biddy, Pip knows she is a worthier person than the pretty but cruel Estella, and yet he wants Estella anyway.

Redemption Is Possible for All

While many characters in Great Expectations do bad things, Dickens also presents cases of redemption through kindness and generosity. Just as class does not ascertain one's goodness or badness, no matter how poor a character's conduct, they can still turn away from their former lives and become better. Magwitch is the best example, going from being the violent, almost animal-like criminal in the first chapter to a man willing to work to make Pip's life better out of a sense of gratitude. Other characters also achieve redemption. Pip himself is one of these characters, going from a snob who forgets his former loved ones to a mature...

(The entire section is 4,426 words.)