Everything about “Great Expectations”: Themes, Plot, and Characters
“Great Expectations” is one of the last novels written by Charles Dickens in 1861. It is also one of his most popular creations and has been frequently staged in theatres and on movie screens. The text was written in Dickens’ “mature” years when the author critiqued the dishonest and lavish life many gentlemen of those times had led. The story has a gripping plot, but it’s rather grey, sad, and doesn’t end happily for most of its characters.
Dickens has incorporated a lot of his own experiences and sorrows into the “Great Expectations” book. Initially, the writer wanted to end the novel in a tragic way, however, Dickens had always been wary of sad endings—his audience appreciated the happy endings much more than the philosophical misfortunes. That’s why he didn’t dare to end the story on a sad note, even though the whole plot was heading towards a calamity.
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“Great Expectations” Summary
“Great Expectations” is a story about the life of a simple little boy, who lives through a poor childhood and into a rich adulthood, learning many lessons throughout this process. The book begins with the protagonist introducing himself:
Chapter I “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip”.
Pip is an honest and simple man, but he doesn’t find a place for himself in society. Even money and the rich gentleman’s life didn’t make him happy. Towards the end of the book, Pip will realize that his expectations and desires misled him and ruined his life: he loved a woman (Estella) who couldn’t return his feelings, and he was grateful to another woman (Miss Havisham) for becoming wealthy when in fact Miss Havisham did nothing for Pip and only encouraged Estella to hurt him even more. But for now, it is all in the distant future as the story is about to unfold.
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Pip is an orphan who is brought up in a dull family that consists of his abusive sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, who “had an exquisite art of making her cleanliness more uncomfortable and unacceptable than dirt itself” (Chapter IV), and her husband, Joe Gargery, the blacksmith. Joe Gargery was a good simple man who treated Pip well:
Chapter II “Joe was a fair man, with curls of flaxen hair on each side of his smooth face, and with eyes of such a very undecided blue that they seemed to have somehow got mixed with their own whites. He was a mild, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easy-going, foolish, dear fellow…”.
One day, while visiting his parents’ grave, Pip meets an escaped convict and risks his own safety to bring him food and a saw to take off the shackles.
After a while, Pip gets invited to visit the house of Miss Havisham—also referred to as “Satis House” in the book. Miss Havisham is a wealthy and peculiar woman. Ever since some man robbed her and then fled on the day of their supposed marriage, she became lost, dull, and constantly unsatisfied with everything. She continued to wear her wedding dress and preserved everything in her dilapidated home the exact way it had been set up for the planned wedding. Miss Havisham invited Pip to her house because she wanted to find a companion for her foster daughter Estella.
Estella is an orphan brought up by Miss Havisham to despise and loathe all males that come near her: “Break their hearts my pride and hope, break their hearts and have no mercy!” (Chapter XII)—this is one of the most famous quotes from “Great Expectations”. Estella was a beautiful girl brought up to be a lady, but her heart was cold and her morals were wicked. She humiliated Pip from the first time she was asked to play with him: “With this boy? Why, he is a common laboring boy!” (Chapter VIII) and has used every opportunity ever since to demonstrate how much she is better than him.
Pip comes to like Estella, but the more time he spends with her, the more he starts to hate himself – his low status, his simple clothes, his blacksmithing apprenticeship that made his face dirty and his hands coarse (and was paid for by Miss Havisham). From the time he met Estella, for Pip great expectations were to be a gentleman and be admired by this polished girl and her mother. One day Pip finds out that somebody has hit his sister so hard that her brain gets badly damaged. Next to the place where she was attacked, people found broken shackles. Later, another orphan, Biddy, comes to live with Pip to take care of Mrs. Joe. Pip describes Biddy as a very ordinary girl:
Chapter VII “… her hair always wanted brushing, her hands always wanted washing, and her shoes always wanted mending and pulling up at heel”.
One of the most exciting things that happen in the summary of “Great Expectations” is when a well-known attorney from London, Mr. Jaggers, tells Pip that he has inherited a fortune and his life will change forever. Mr. Jaggers is a typical lawyer – he is stubborn, rich, arrogant, and shady. He does not, surprisingly, reveal who the generous person to provide Pip with this fortune is:
Chapter XVIII “... you are to understand, secondly, Mr. Pip, that the name of the person who is your liberal benefactor remains a profound secret, until the person chooses to reveal it”.
Pip, also shocked, does not even want to guess, as he already makes up his mind about the origin of the inheritance:
Chapter XVIII “My dream was out; my wild fancy was surpassed by sober reality; Miss Havisham was going to make my fortune on a grand scale”.
Pip is warned not to try to guess or find out who his benefactor is—such was the condition of acquiring the inheritance.
Pip is happy: he remains convinced that his secret benefactor is Miss Havisham, which he interprets to mean that she is likely preparing him to be a suitable husband for Estella. The boy gets new fancy clothes, people start to treat him differently, he moves to London, where he shares an apartment with Herbert Pocket, Bentley Drummle, and Startop, and he takes classes to become a real gentleman. Pip makes quick progress and is soon able to behave just like other high-class people. While connecting with prestigious British society, Pip grows more and more ashamed of his past. The boy actively tries to avoid Joe when he comes to visit, but when the news of his sister's death comes, Pip visits her funeral and begins to feel sorry for being so distant with Joe and Biddy. Pip continues to spend time with Estella when they are both in London; he loves her, but the only feeling she exhibits towards him is contempt and cruelty. After a while, Estella develops a relationship with Pip’s friend Bentley Drummle (which was more of a relationship with his money and status, to be precise), and they get married.
At the same time, an encounter from the past re-introduces itself – the convict Pip met in the graveyard years ago whose name is Abel Magwitch. It turns out Magwitch was the secret benefactor that made Pip rich – after the incident in the graveyard he had escaped to Australia, made a fortune there, and asked Jaggers to take care of the boy as a sign of gratitude. Magwitch is a complex character who had gotten into trouble because of bad company and then got set up by a cunning companion of his. His character exemplifies how inhumane laws and unjust rules set by a cynic society, lead to the gradual degradation of a man. Magwitch tells Pip that he is being followed by another convict, his ex-partner, Compeyson, who was notorious for many illegal deals:
Chapter XLII “… he’d been to a public boarding-school and had learning. He was a smooth one to talk, and was a dab at the ways of gentlefolks. He was good-looking too”.
By listening to his life story, the reader understands that Magwitch is the real father of Estella (her mother is Mr. Jaggers’ housekeeper), and Compeyson is the man who fooled Miss Havisham so many years ago.
Pip develops a plan to help Magwitch escape the country and Compeyson drowns in the pursuit of trying to catch Magwitch. Magwitch gets hurt and gets caught. He then gets sent to prison where he dies from his wounds. Pip had stopped taking Magwitch’s money some time ago, and now it has all gone to the benefit of the state anyway. Pip has accumulated debt and gets in trouble for being unable to repay it. When Pip’s health declines, Joe comes to take care of him and even pays off his debts. After recovering, Pip joins his friend Herbert, and Herbert’s wife Clara, to work at the Clarriner’s office in Cairo (Egypt)—Pip was the one to secure Herbert a position with the company back when he had money.
After being away for 11 years, Pip comes back and visits Joe. Joe had married Biddy and they had even named their son after Pip:
Chapter LIX “We giv’ him the name of Pip for your sake, dear old chap… and we hoped he might grow a little bit like you, and we think he do”.
Walking around the remains of the Satis House, Pip meets widowed Estella and the two head off to a new start…
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Great Expectations Themes and Motives
Social class is a very important determinant of one’s position in the book. Both Estella and Pip were orphans, but the girl was brought up to praise her status and humiliate everybody who didn’t share the same status as her. Estella is a victim of class inequality, she is taught to despise people and even things:
Chapter VII “I played the game to an end with Estella, and she beggared me. She threw the cards down on the table when she had won them all, as if she despised them for having been won of me”.
At the same time, the writer shows how some people were doomed to live and die in lower-class life, they had no chance to make it up the social ladder because others would never accept them:
Chapter IV “In his working-clothes, Joe was a well-knit characteristic-looking blacksmith; in his holiday clothes, he was more like a scarecrow in good circumstances, than anything else”.
Ambition and self-improvement: Charles Dickens makes fun of the shallow ambitions people often have, which is seen in the characters in “Great Expectations” – they are ordinary, and many of them are poor financially and/or emotionally. Pip’s biggest desire is to be a gentleman and he doesn’t appreciate himself because of where he came from:
Chapter VIII “I was a common laboring-boy; that my hands were coarse; that my boots were thick; that I had fallen into a despicable habit of calling knaves Jacks; that I was much more ignorant than I had considered myself last night, and generally that I was in a low-lived bad way”.
The young boy doesn’t strive for real self-improvement, he wants to have the image, the looks, and the respect—all of the superficial things.
Integrity and reputation: Being honest and sincere wasn’t worth much in those times. The characters were doing all the wrong things, but nobody stopped them. For example, Miss Havisham gladly accepts Pip’s gratitude even though she knows she isn’t the benefactor who paid for his lavish life in London. She later admits that she pretended to be the one who gave Pip money just to irritate her family.
Parents in the book are nothing more than empty vessels – they are absent from the lives of most characters, and those who assume parental duties do not perform them well. For example: “My sister… had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbors because she had brought me up “by hand” (Chapter II). Parents were supposed to put Pip in school, teach him to respect himself, and value others, but nobody was there to take care of him. Taking into account that Dickens wrote many children’s stories, you would assume that in “Great Expectations”, the author would try to discover the roots and causes of many childhood miseries and broken kids’ lives.
Justice is not evident, but an important theme in this book. What is “Great Expectations about? – It’s simply about getting what one deserves. The plot is unfair, that’s true. But the characters’ wishes and actions are also quite shallow and unjust. In the end, each of them has the opportunity to turn their life around, but choose to behave the way society expects them to.
Generosity: Pip didn’t experience much kindness or generosity in his life. The only person who treated him with respect was his sister’s husband Joe Gargery, whom he later starts to avoid once Pip becomes a gentleman. Magwitch makes Pip a gentleman to repay the “generosity” the boy demonstrated out of mere fear for his life; and Pip doesn't even appreciate Magwitch’s generosity. The boy really enjoyed the thought that Miss Havisham believed in him and sponsored him to become a gentleman. So when the young man finds out that she hadn’t actually invested in his education, and thus didn’t plan for Estella to marry him, Pip panics:
Chapter XXXIX “Miss Havisham’s intentions towards me, all a mere dream; Estella not designed for me; I only suffered in Satis House as a convenience, a sting for the greedy relations, a model with a mechanical heart to practise on when no other practice was at hand”.
His whole world becomes broken, he feels humiliated, and decides to flee abroad.