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Great Expectations

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English Literature

Great Expectations (1860) is now considered a defining coming-of-age novel that has left a lasting impact on English literature. Great Expectations was written by Charles Dickens (1812–1870). It first appeared as a series of periodicals in the magazine All the Year Around and was later published as a series of three volumes by the publishing company Chapman and Hall in 1861.

The Historical Context of Great Expectations

Great Expectations is set during England’s Victorian Era (1837–1901), which began and ended with the rule of Queen Victoria. The Victorian era was a time of great change in England as the Industrial Revolution began to transform the landscape both physically and socially. Agricultural areas were replaced with industrial factories and coal mines, sending droves of people into cities looking for economic opportunities to rise in social class.

Social class divides remained significant as a new upper-middle-class began to rise and become wealthy from the increasing amount of industry and capital while the working class remained quite poor. Those belonging to the upper and upper-middle classes had to follow strict rules of decorum, education, and appropriate behaviors in different social situations.

This is the world Charles Dickens set Great Expectations in. Pip, the protagonist in the novel, leaves his country laborer status to learn how to become a gentleman, exposing himself not only to the ways of the upper-middle class but also to the effects of industrialization on the class divide, the environment, and the individual.

Charles Dickens knew firsthand the effects of poverty and industrialization. When he was a teenager, he was forced to start working in order to get his father out of debtor’s jail. The struggles Pip faces throughout the novel Great Expectations are influenced by Charles Dickens’s own childhood.

Summary of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations

Great Expectations, Books/ charles dickens great expectations, StudySmarterGreat Expectations by Charles Dickens, Pixabay

Great Expectations follows the story of Pip, an orphan who lives with his sister and her husband in Kent, England. The story begins with Pip looking at the tombstones of his parents when an escaped convict grabs Pip and orders him to get a file and food. Pip does as he is told, but the convict is captured anyway.

A few days later, Uncle Pumblechook takes Pip to play at Satis House where the dowager Miss Havisham lives. She is wealthy and a bit odd. She always wears an old wedding dress and all the clocks in her home are stopped. While visiting Miss Havisham, Pip meets Estella, who is cold towards him. Pip finds her extraordinarily beautiful and falls in love with her. He dreams of becoming a wealthy gentleman so he can marry Estella with Miss Havisham’s help. Rather, she helps him become a laborer at his family’s business.

Pip is now an apprentice to his brother-in-law Joe, a blacksmith. Pip does not enjoy working in the forge and tries to educate himself with the help of Biddy. One day, Orlick, Joe’s mean laborer, attacks Mrs. Joe (Pip’s sister) and she is left mute and invalid.

One day, Jaggers, a lawyer, comes to tell Pip he has been given a large fortune from a secret benefactor. Pip must go to London immediately and begin his gentleman’s education. Pip believes Miss Havisham is the benefactor and that Miss Havisham is planning to marry Pip and Estella.

While in London, Pip becomes friends with Herbert Pocket, a gentleman, and Wemmick, Jaggers’s law clerk. Pip shows disdain toward everyone in his previous life except for Estella. Herbert’s father, Matthew Pocket, begins to help Pip act more like a gentleman. Pip has decided that as soon as he turns twenty-one and receives an income, he will aid Herbert in entering into business.

Pip and Herbert live freely in London without caution. Orlick, the laborer who attacked Pip’s sister, appears once more as Miss Havisham’s porter but is quickly fired by Jaggers once Jaggers learns about Orlick’s past. Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe, dies. When Pip returns home he feels grief. One night back in London, Magwitch, the convict from the beginning of the story, appears in Pip’s room. He reveals to Pip that he made a fortune in Australia and has decided to dedicate the money towards Pip’s education to become a gentleman.

Pip is not pleased but feels he must help Magwitch escape once more as he is being pursued by his former partner in crime, Compeyson, and the police. Compeyson, it turns out, was the man who left Miss Havisham at the altar. It becomes more complicated for Pip when he learns that Estella is Magwitch’s daughter. Estella, who was raised by Miss Havisham, was taught by Havisham how to break the hearts of men as revenge. Pip was Estella’s first victim.

Pip begins to care for Magwitch as Estella marries Bentley Drummle, an upperclassman. Miss Havisham begs Pip for forgiveness when he comes to visit her at Satis House. Later on in the day, Miss Havisham leans over the lit fireplace and catches on fire. She does not die but becomes invalid. During her remaining time alive, she continues to beg Pip for forgiveness.

It is finally time for Magwitch’s escape. Pip, before the escape, is mysteriously lured to the marshes for a meeting, which is where Orlick tries to kill Pip. Herbert and friends arrive to save Pip and they continue on their journey to help Magwitch flee. Magwitch is to sneak downriver on a small boat, but he is discovered by the police and Compeyson. Compeyson and Magwitch fight, and Magwitch manages to drown Compeyson. For his crime, Magwitch is sentenced to death, leaving Pip without a fortune. Magwitch dies peacefully knowing that his death sentence is God’s way of showing him forgiveness.

Pip becomes ill, so Joe comes to care for him. They are reconciled and Joe has a lot of news for Pip. Orlick is in jail for robbing Uncle Pumblechook, Miss Havisham is dead and left her fortune to the Pocket family, and Joe has learned how to read and write from Biddy and has married her. Pip had planned to marry Biddy, so his plans were ruined.

Pip and Herbert go abroad to work as merchants and only return many years later. Estella is sitting in the garden of the Satis House. She is a widow and was not treated nicely by her late husband. Estella, Pip discovers, is no longer cold but sad and kind. They walk out of the garden hand in hand with Pip vowing never to leave her side.

The original ending that Charles Dickens wrote for Great Expectations is quite different. In the original ending, Estella remarries after the death of her aggressive husband. Pip remains alone and leads an unhappy life, which fits into the unhappy tone found throughout the novel.

Important Characters in Great Expectations

Below is a table summarising the main characters.

CharacterDescriptionQuote
PipThe protagonist of the novel. He is an orphan living with his sister and her husband. He is a romantic and a dreamer who wishes to improve himself both socially and morally. “The felicitous idea occurred to me a morning or two later when I woke, that the best step I could take towards making myself uncommon was to get out of Biddy everything she knew” (Chapter 11).
Miss HavishamA wealthy old woman who lives in Satis House. She was left waiting at the altar, which left her traumatized. She always wears her wedding dress, keeps the clocks still, and leaves a spoiled feast on her table. She is quite eccentric and has a vendetta against men. “‘Look at me,’ said Miss Havisham, ‘You are not afraid of a woman who has never seen the sun since you were born?’” (Chapter 8).
Joe GargeryThe husband of Pip’s sister. He is the village blacksmith who loves Pip. He does everything to benefit those he cares about while keeping quiet about his sufferings –including abuse from Mrs. Joe.“Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one man’s a blacksmith, and one’s a whitesmith, and one’s a goldsmith, and one’s a coppersmith. Divisions among such must come, and must be met as they come” (Chapter 27).
Mrs. JoeThe cruel and abusive wife of Joe and the sister of Pip. She becomes an invalid after an attack by Orlick. She is petty and desires more in life than Joe can give her. “People are put in the Hulks because they murder, and because they rob, and forge, and do all sorts of bad; and they always begin by asking questions. Now you get along to bed!” (Chapter 2).
EstellaThe cold and cruel ward of Miss Havisham who Pip loves passionately. She warns Pip she has no heart, but he dreams of winning her love. “We have no choice, you and I, but to obey our instructions. We are not free to follow our own devices, you and I” (Chapter 33).
MagwitchAn escaped convict who Pip aids at the beginning of the novel. In exchange for Pip’s kindness, Magwitch pledges his fortune to help Pip become a gentleman.“Let him go free? Let him profit by the means I found out? Let him make a tool of me afresh and again? Once more? No, no, no” (Chapter 5).
Herbert PocketPip’s best friend in London who dreams of becoming a merchant. He is the son of Miss Havisham’s cousin, Matthew Pocket. “He says, no varnish can hide the grain of the wood; and that the more varnish you put on, the more the grain will express itself” (Chapter 22).
JaggersA criminal lawyer in charge of supervising Pip and Magwitch’s fortune. He is the one who helped Miss Havisham claim Estella as her ward. “Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule” (Chapter 40).

Analysis of Great Expectations with Quotes

Let’s take a closer look at the text.

Genre and Writing Style

Great Expectations is a defining example of the Bildungsroman genre.

Bildungsroman: A novel that follows the growth of the key character both physically and psychologically as they mature and react to life experiences.

In Great Expectations, Dickens follows Pip from his infancy until adulthood. As Pip ages throughout the novel, his reaction to certain situations and his understanding of the world evolves. He begins the novel with unrealistic dreams and romantic notions of improving his social and moral status by becoming a gentleman. He despises Joe for his common ways. However, by the end of the novel, we see Pip view his life more humbly and he has a much more nuanced idea of what true happiness means.

When analyzing a Bildungsroman novel, try to create a timeline of the character’s growth and development. It will help you identify key plot points in the novel as well as help you understand the overall theme and message of the text.

Dickens wrote Great Expectations in the first-person point of view so we can see how Pip matures throughout the novel. Dickens also uses a great deal of irony in the novel establishing a dry sense of humor that contrasts with the sad tone of the text. An example of irony is when Pip believes Miss Havisham to be his rich benefactor when in fact it was the convict Magwitch. Dickens, who is known for long wordy sentences, also used a lot of descriptive words to reveal the character traits of the characters.

The first-person point of view is when the narrator of a story is the main character in the novel. A key clue that the first-person is being used is to look for “I” statements in the narration.

Irony is when reality contradicts expectations.

Below is an excerpt from the text that displays Dickens’s writing style.

“So she sat, corpse-like, as we played at cards; the frillings and trimmings on her bridal dress, looking like earthy paper. I knew nothing then of the discoveries that are occasionally made of bodies buried in ancient times, which fall to powder in the moment of being distinctly seen; but, I have often thought since, that she must have looked as if the admission of the natural light of day would have struck her to dust” (Chapter 8).

In this excerpt, Pip is describing Miss Havisham, who sits all day in her home wearing the same wedding dress she wore the day she was left at the altar. Notice the “I” statements and the descriptions of Miss Havisham. From these descriptions, we learn that Miss Havisham is reclusive and never sets foot outside.

Now that you’ve seen one example of how Charles Dickens uses descriptive words to reveal the character traits of characters, can you find any more examples from the text?

Great Expectations: Major Themes

Here are the main themes of the text. Can you think of others?

Self Improvement

I wanted to make Joe less ignorant and common, that he might be worthier of my society and less open to Estella's reproach (Chapter 15).

Pip’s greatest ambition throughout the novel is to raise his social and moral position in society. Pip believes that if he is educated and a gentleman, he will be respectable in society with greater morals. With the help of Biddy, he learns to read and write and with a benefactor, Pip goes to London to become a gentleman. He believes that once he is a gentleman he will be happy, moral, and able to marry the cold Estella.

However, Pip does not find happiness through his improvement in status and is not any more moral than he was as a poor orphan. Characters (such as Joe) who are uneducated and part of the working class prove that regardless of one’s social status, morality comes from within and not through external factors.

Social Class

Social class is a key theme in Great Expectations just as it was in Victorian society. Every social class is present in the novel.

  • Magwitch is in the lowest, criminal class.
  • Joe is a common laborer in the lower class.
  • Uncle Pumblechook is middle class.
  • Miss Havisham belongs to the upper class.

Pip believes that improving one’s social class improves one’s morality. However, Pip realizes slowly that one’s morality is not dependent on social class but is rather dependent on what a person has on the inside. Morality is found in good deeds, a kind heart, and affection. Those in the lower classes, Joe and Magwitch for example, have high inner worth and are kind and giving. This relates to Pip’s journey of self-improvement throughout the novel.

An example of social class can be found in Chapter 19. Pip visits the tailor Mr. Trabb. Once Mr. Trabb learns that Pip has money, he begins to treat him kindly, almost in an exaggerated manner. However, when Mr. Trabb’s assistant comes in, Mr. Trabb acts cruelly towards the assistant, which shows that people motivated by social class and wealth are not as moral as those who are kind without an expectation of a reward.

“Hold that noise,” said Mr. Trabb, with the greatest sternness, “or I’ll knock your head off!" (Chapter 19).

Can you find any other examples throughout the text that relate to social class? If so, how do they relate to the overall message of the novel?

The Meaning of Great Expectations

Charles Dickens sends a strong message in his defining novel. As Pip matures, his ideas about morality and society evolve. By the end of the novel, Pip learns a huge lesson. He learns to see the world from a new perspective. He sheds his desire to improve his morality and happiness through the improvement of his social class or wealth. Rather, Pip acknowledges that improvement in morality and happiness is a lifelong journey that involves treating others well from the kindness of his heart.

Great Expectations - Key takeaways

  • Charles Dickens, the author of Great Expectations, was influenced by his poor childhood and his work as a laborer while his father was in debtor’s jail.
  • Great Expectations follows the story of the orphan boy Pip who comes into a fortune through an anonymous benefactor. Pip’s greatest ambition is to become a gentleman so he can improve himself. Throughout the novel, Pip must come to learn the true significance of morality.
  • Great Expectations is a bildungsroman written in the first-person point of view. It has a bleak tone that is emphasized with the use of irony.
  • Great expectations explores in depth the themes of self-improvement and social class.
  • The overall meaning of the novel is: What matters most in life and the source of happiness does not come from improving one’s social class, wealth, or status. Instead, it comes from treating others with kindness, affection, and loyalty.

Great Expectations

Great Expectations is about an orphan named Pip who receives a fortune from an anonymous benefactor and dreams of social and moral improvement. 

Charles Dickens sends a strong message in his defining novel, Great Expectations: 

What matters most in life and the source of happiness does not come from improving one’s social class, wealth, or status. Instead, it comes from treating others with kindness, affection, and loyalty. 

Charles Dickens was influenced by his childhood. He began working at a young age to help get his father out of debtor’s jail and knew the hardships of belonging to the working class. 

Great Expectations was written by Charles Dickens and published as a series of periodicals in 1860. 

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is a great book because it explores key moral questions in the face of social class. 

Final Great Expectations Quiz

Question

When was Great Expectations published?

  1. 1860
  2. 1907
  3. 1800
  4. 1768

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Answer

A. 1860

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Question

Who wrote Great Expectations?

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Answer

Charles Dickens

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Question

What historical era is Great Expectations set in?

  1. Russian Revolution
  2. Edwardian Era
  3. Civil War 
  4. The Victorian Era

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Answer

D. The Victorian Era

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Question

How long did the Victorian Era last?

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Answer

1837-1901

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Question

What are few characteristics of the Victorian Age?

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Answer

Rapid industrialization, social class divide, and strict societal expectations of decorum.

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Question

Who is the main character of Great Expectations?

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Answer

Pip

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Question

What genre is Great Expectations?

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Answer

A Bildungsroman

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Question

What is a Bildungsroman?

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Answer

A novel that follows the growth of the key character both physically and psychologically as they mature and react to life experiences. 

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Question

What point of view is used in Great Expectations?

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Answer

First-person point of view

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Question

What is first-person point of view?

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Answer

When the narrator of a story is the main character in the novel. A key clue that the first-person is being used is to look for "I" statements.  

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Question

What is irony?

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Answer

When reality contradicts expectations. 

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Question

What are the major themes in Great Expectations?

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Answer

Self-improvement and social class

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Question

What is the overall meaning of Great Expectations?

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Answer

What matters most in life and the source of happiness does not come from improving one's social class, wealth, or status, it comes from treating others with kindness, affection, and loyalty. 

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Question

What is an example of irony in Great Expectations?

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Answer

 when Pip believes Miss Havisham to be his rich benefactor when in fact it was the convict Magwitch. 

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Question

What is the tone of Great Expectations?

  1. Cheerful 
  2. Sad, Gloomy, Bleak
  3. Indifferent 
  4. Suspicious

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Answer

B. Sad, gloomy, bleak

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