Great Expectations

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Great Expectations

Charles Dickens
Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study

Charles Dickens


This was Dickens' second-to-last complete novel. It was first published as a weekly series in 1860 and in book form in 1861. Early critics had mixed reviews, disliking Dickens' tendency to exaggerate both plot and characters, but readers were so enthusiastic that the 1861 edition required five printings. Similar to Dickens' memories of his own childhood, in his early years the young Pip seems powerless to stand against injustice or to ever realize his dreams for a better life. However, as he grows into a useful worker and then an educated young man he reaches an important realization: grand schemes and dreams are never what they first seem to be. Pip himself is not always honest, and careful readers can catch him in several obvious contradictions between his truth and fantasies. Victorian-era audiences were more likely to have appreciated the melodramatic scenes and the revised, more hopeful ending. However, modern critics have little but praise for Dickens' brilliant development of timeless themes: fear and fun, loneliness and luck, classism and social justice, humiliation and honor. Some still puzzle over Dickens' revision that ends the novel with sudden optimism, and they suggest that the sales of Dickens' magazine All the Year Round, in which the series first appeared, was assured by gluing on a happy ending that hints Pip and Estella will unite at last. Some critics point out that the original ending is better because it is more realistic since Pip must earn the self-knowledge that can only come from giving up his obsession with Estella. However, Victorian audiences eagerly followed the story of Pip, episode by episode, assuming that the protagonist's love and patience would win out in the end. Modern editions contain both denouements for the reader to choose a preference.

Author Biography

From the time he was twenty-one, Charles Dickens knew he would not be the great actor he had imagined, nor even the journalist he next attempted to be. Instead, he felt he was destined to become a great novelist. He not only had experiences with the same joys and tragedies his characters would have, but he also had the great talent to make his readers feel and see all these experiences in detail. The second of eight children of John and Elizabeth Dickens, Charles was born on February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, England. His early childhood was a happy one. Though plagued by frequent illnesses, his first years were also filled with exciting stories told to him by his parents and his nurse.

However, when Dickens was twelve, his family moved to London, where his father was imprisoned for debts he could not pay. Charles was forced to go to work pasting labels on bottles at a bootblack factory. Although this job lasted less than a year, he often felt hungry and abandoned, especially compared to his sister Frances, who continued studying at the Royal Academy of Music, where she was winning awards. For Dickens, the injustice was almost more than he could stand, and his suffering was multiplied by his mother's delight about the job that he always remembered with hatred.

Although his critics are the first to say that Great Expectations is not directly autobiographical, Dickens' own words tell us that he resented having to work in the factory, where he dreamed of the better life he felt he deserved, much as Pip is eager to leave Joe's forge. Also, Dickens' essay "Travelling Abroad" describes a small boy who rides in a coach with Dickens past his grand house, Gad's Hill. Although the boy in the essay does not know Dickens or that this is the great author's house, he remarks that his father has told him that hard work will earn him this house, which Dickens had also admired for years before finally being able to afford it in 1856. Dickens' familiarity with youthful expectations and later-life remembrances of them are clear in this reflection.

Likewise, Dickens' first love for Maria Beadnell so impressed him by its horrible failure that even years later he could barely speak of it to his friend and biographer, John Forster. All that Dickens had written about her he later burned. He believed that Maria had rejected him because of social class differences, since Dickens had not yet established his writing career at the time and Maria's father was a banker. Decades later, his character Miss Havisham would burn, shooting up flames twice her size, in compensation for her cold heart.

Dickens' marriage to Catherine (Kate) Hogarth, the daughter of a newspaper editor, in 1836 produced ten children. Their union ended in separation in 1858, however. By the time Great Expectations was published in 1860, Dickens had known his mistress Ellen Teman—an actress he had met when he became interested in the stage—for several years, and he established a separate household in which he lived with Ternan. It would not be until after the author's death, however, that Dickens' daughter would make the affair public. Teman was twenty-seven years younger than Dickens, a fact that resembles the age difference between the happy, later-life couple Joe and Biddy in Great Expectations. Dickens protected his privacy because he was worried about his reputation as a respected writer and the editor of Household Words, a family magazine. Such turmoil and ecstasy in Dickens' intimate relationships have since been compared to the misery and bliss of couples in his novels.

If anything, Dickens' descriptions of suffering were and still are his chief endearing quality to readers who find them both realistic and empathetic. Beginning with Bleak House in 1852, Dickens is widely acknowledged to have entered a "Dark Period" of writing. Yet he seemed to enjoy his continuing popularity with readers and to ignore his critics' remarks that his stories were too melodramatic. While readers have long accepted that tendency, they have also warmed to Dickens' love of humor.

Critics suggest that the part of Dickens' life that is most reflected in A Tale of Two Cities is his personal relationships with his wife and Ellen Ternan. In 1855, he reestablished contact with his childhood sweetheart Maria Beadnell, but he was very disappointed with their meeting and depicted his disillusionment in the 1857 novel Little Dorrit. A quarrel with his publishers Bradbury & Evans over his mistress's reputation led Dickens to turn to a new publishing house, Chapman & Hall, to publish A Tale of Two Cities. Some critics suggest that Dickens' depiction of Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities and the behavior of the two principal characters, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, toward her, reflects his own attitude toward Ternan.

Dickens died of a brain aneurysm in June 1870. Although he had expressly wished to be buried at his country home, Gad's Hill, his request was disregarded, apparently owing to his fame. Instead, he was buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, London.

Plot Summary

The First Stage of Pip's Expectations

Charles Dickens' Great Expectations opens as seven-year-old Philip Pirrip, known as "Pip," visits the graves of his parents down in the marshes near his home on Christmas Eve. Here he encounters a threatening escaped convict, who frightens Pip and makes him promise to steal food and a file for him. Pip steals some food from his brother-in-law, the blacksmith Joe Gargery, and his cruel sister "Mrs. Joe," with whom he lives, and takes it to the convict the next day. The convict is soon caught and returned to the "Hulks," the prison ships from which he had escaped.

Pip is invited to visit the wealthy Miss Havisham, and to play with her adopted daughter, Estella. Miss Havisham lives in the gloomy Satis House, and Pip discovers her to be an extremely eccentric woman. Having been abandoned on her wedding day many years earlier, Miss Havisham has never changed out of her wedding dress since that time, and nothing in the house, including the rotting wedding cake covered with spider webs, has been touched since she discovered that her fiance had left her and had cheated her out of a great deal of money. Miss Havisham has raised Estella to be a cold and heartless woman who will avenge her adopted mother by breaking the hearts of men.

Pip continues to visit Satis House to play with Estella, and he begins to fall in love with her, despite the fact that she is rude and condescending to him. Because of Miss Havisham's interest in him, Pip's family and friends speculate on his future prospects, and Pip attempts to improve those prospects by asking his friend, the orphaned Biddy, to tutor him. Eventually, Miss Havisham gives Pip some money, tells him his services are no longer needed, and that it is time for him to be apprenticed to his brother-in-law, Joe. Pip is disappointed.

One day Pip learns that someone has broken into his home and that his sister, Mrs. Joe, has been injured with a great blow to the back of the head. Biddy moves in to help take care of her and the household and continues to tutor Pip, with whom she is falling in love. Biddy believes that it was Orlick, a contemptuous employee of Joe's, who injured Mrs. Joe. Biddy also fears that Orlick is falling in love with her. Pip continues to work for Joe, visiting Miss Havisham every year on his birthday, and constantly regretting his desire for a more comfortable lifestyle and his infatuation with Estella.

Some time later a stranger visits Pip and informs him that an anonymous benefactor would like to transform him into a gentleman. The stranger, a lawyer named Jaggers, will administer Pip's new income and suggests that Pip move to London and take a man named Matthew Pocket as his tutor, who happens to be a relative of Miss Havisham. Pip assumes that Miss Havisham is his mysterious benefactor. Pip buys himself some new clothes and bidding his family farewell, slips out of town on his own, embarrassed to be seen in his new outfit with Joe.

The Second Stage of Pip's Expectations

In London, Pip lodges with Pocket's son Herbert. Pip also becomes friends with John Wemmick, Jaggers' clerk, and learns that Jaggers is a famous lawyer who is noted for his work in defending prisoners and thieves who face execution. Wemmick takes Pip home to dinner one night, and Pip is intrigued by his house, which resembles a tiny castle, complete with drawbridge and moat, where Wemmick lives with his elderly and stone-deaf father, whom he calls "the Aged P." Pip is also invited to dine at Jaggers' house, where he meets Jaggers' sullen housekeeper, Molly.

Joe comes to London to bring a message to Pip, who is embarrassed to have Joe visit him. The message is from Miss Havisham, who invites Pip to come to see Estella, who is visiting her mother. Going to Satis House at once, Pip is surprised to find that Orlick is now Miss Havisham's watchman, and he tells Jaggers that the man should be dismissed. Not long after this, Pip learns that his sister has died, and he returns home for her funeral. While he is there, he promises Biddy that he will visit Joe often in the future, but Biddy expresses her doubt that he actually will do so:

'I am not going to leave poor Joe alone."

Biddy said never a single word.

"Biddy, don't you hear me?"

"Yes, Mr. Pip."

"Not to mention your calling me Mr. Pip—which appears to me to be in bad taste, Biddy—what do you mean?"

"What do I mean?" asked Biddy, timidly.

"Biddy," said I, in a virtuously self-asserting manner, 'I must request to know what you mean by this?"

"By this?" said Biddy.

"Now don't echo," I retorted. "You used not to echo, Biddy."

"Used not!" said Biddy. "O Mr. Pip! Used!" …

… "Biddy," said I, "I made a remark respecting my coming down here often, to see Joe, which you received with a marked silence. Have the goodness, Biddy, to tell me why."

"Are you quite sure, then, that you WILL come to see him often?" asked Biddy, stopping in the narrow garden walk, and looking at me under the stars with a clear and honest eye.

"Oh dear me!" said I, as if I found myself compelled to give up Biddy in despair. "This really is a very bad side of human nature! Don't say any more, if you please, Biddy. This shocks me very much."

The Third Stage of Pip's Expectations

One day Pip is visited by a stranger, and soon recognizes him to be the convict to whom he had brought food years ago. The convict, Abel Magwitch, has made a fortune as a sheep farmer in New South Wales, Australia, and he has prided himself on having used his money to make a gentleman out of the little boy who had helped him long ago. Pip is shocked and embarrassed to learn that it is the convict who has given him his "great expectations" and not Miss Havisham.

Magwitch tells him of his history, and how he became involved with another more gentlemanly criminal who got him into trouble, and yet was punished less severely when they were both caught. Pip and Herbert deduce that this criminal is Compeyson, the man who schemed with his partner, Arthur, to swindle Miss Havisham of her money. Arthur was supposed to marry Miss Havisham to get her money, but his conscience caused him to abandon her at the alter when he couldn't go through with the plan. Because Magwitch faces certain death if he is discovered in England, Pip and Herbert concoct a plan for helping him escape unnoticed.

Planning to leave the country with Magwitch, Pip pays Miss Havisham a call. The old lady admits that she allowed Pip to believe that she was his benefactress, and Pip asks her to help him with a plan he has to set Herbert up in business anonymously. Pip is shocked to learn that Estella plans to marry his doltish acquaintance Bentley Drummle. Dining one night with Jaggers, Pip learns more about the housekeeper Molly's history. Having been accused of killing another woman involved with her husband and having threatened to murder her own daughter, Molly was successfully defended by Jaggers. Recognizing her face and hands, Pip realizes with astonishment that Molly is the mother of Estella.

Pip is summoned to Miss Havisham's again, where the old lady begs Pip to forgive her. After leaving her, Pip is disturbed and decides to return to the house to look in on her. He finds the poor old woman ablaze, having sat too close to the fire, and he is burned while trying to put out the flames. Later Pip learns of Miss Havisham's death, and that she has left money to Herbert, as he had requested. Returning to London, he learns the story of Magwitch's wife, and deduces that Magwitch was married to Molly, and therefore is Estella's father.

Summoned back to the marshes near his old home by a mysterious note, Pip narrowly escapes death when he is attacked by a vengeful Orlick and rescued just in time by some local villagers. He returns to London where he and Herbert carry out their plan to sneak Magwitch onto a steamer on the Thames. Their plans fail, however. They are attacked by another boat, and Magwitch is severely wounded. As the kind old Magwitch is dying, Pip tells him of his daughter Estella.

After being nursed out of a serious illness by the devoted Joe, Pip joins the business partnership he has established for Herbert in the East. After eleven years, he returns to England and visits Joe and Biddy, who have married and have a family. He also meets Estella, who has left her husband, on the property of the now demolished Satis House. This time, Pip says that "I saw no shadow of another parting from her."

In Dickens' original version, Pip and Estella part with the understanding that they will probably never see each other again, but in the revised version, Dickens' makes the ending more optimistic by implying that they will, indeed, have a future together someday.



Arthur, Miss Havisham's suitor who once jilted her, has fallen in with the villainous Compeyson and his schemes. However, unlike Compeyson, Arthur has a conscience; he dreams of Miss Havisham dressed in white at his bedside and dies of fright. He and Compeyson had once schemed to get Miss Havisham's fortune, but at the last moment, with the wedding cake on the table and Miss Havisham dressed in her bridal finery, Arthur jilted her, presumably on an attempt at her fortune that he could not carry through.


The gentle, loving, soft-spoken, wise, and efficient Biddy is Pip's tutor before Mrs. Joe is injured and Biddy moves into the Gargery home to take care of the house. After Mrs. Joe dies, she and Joe Gargery marry. Pip, who at one point tells Biddy that he might be interested in marrying her if it weren't for her lowly social status, later comes to realize that Biddy's true worth as a person far outshines any artificial class distinctions.


Compeyson is the scoundrel who arranges Miss Havisham's affair with Arthur. He also testifies in court against Magwitch in an earlier scheme that failed, after which Magwitch is banished from England and exiled to Australia. A coward, he breaks the old rule of "honor among thieves." Compeyson is the second escaped convict that is out on the marsh the night that Pip first meets Magwitch, and he eventually dies fighting with Magwitch during their second capture.

Bentley Drummle

Pip's fellow member of the Finches of the Grove in London, Bentley Drummle is no gentleman but a rude and lazy man who teases Pip about Estella's apparent preference for Drummle. Jaggers recognizes a ruthless streak in Drummle and refers to him as the Spider (presumably because he catches all the flies, i.e. anything he wants). A parallel character to Arthur, Drummle becomes engaged to and then marries Estella, whom he barely knows but whose fortune he stands to gain. However, he does not survive her.


Adopted by Miss Havisham at the age of "two or three," Estella is taught from then on to reject all who love her. This is Miss Havisham's vengeance in reaction to her romantic disappointment by Arthur. About the same age as Pip, Estella acts much older than he does and snubs or insults him more often than merely ignoring his attempts at friendship or love. In this, she is quite honest with Pip, for she has been raised to be cruel, to tolerate or to brush off love, and to reject it later in order to watch the man suffer. Miss Havisham's success in raising a cold-hearted beauty is too much for her, however, for Estella can feel no love for the old woman either. Thus, Estella cannot help but to refuse to give Pip any hope of marriage whenever he confesses his love. Instead, she tells him that she will ruin the man she does marry—and why not, when she cares for no one? When she becomes engaged to Bentley Drummle, Pip cannot talk her out of marrying such a brutal man. In the novel's revised ending, when Estella meets Pip years later she has had a daughter (also named Estella) by Drunmmle, who has died. Estella has survived, but she has been "bent and broken" by the doomed marriage. She has never found out who her biological parents were because Miss Havisham has led her to assume that they were dead. More tragically, Estella has never learned to care about anyone's happiness, not even her own.

Media Adaptations

  • Great Expectations was first adapted by film in the silent movie version in 1917, released by Paramount Pictures, on five reels, Famous Players Film Company, 3 January 1917, and presented by David Frohman.
  • A 1934 remake, poorly directed by Stuart Walker, starred Jane Wyatt as Estella and Phillip Holmes as Pip, but the public thought their performances were lackluster. Universal released this film on eleven reels.
  • A British production of the novel on film was made in Great Britain in 1946, directed by David Lean and available from Rank/Cineguild. This most acclaimed of the film versions of Dickens' novel stars John Mills as Pip, Valerie Hobson as Estella, and Alec Guiness as Herbert Pocket, Jr., and it won two Oscars in 1947. According to critic Robert Murphy, it was "one of the finest of all film adaptations of Dickens."
  • Two critical adaptations of the novel were captured on film in 1962 dealing with (1) setting, character, and themes and (2) critical interpretation. Each of these two films were produced for a high school or early college audience by the Encyclopedia Brittannica Corporation, and each are 35 minutes in length.
  • In 1973, the University of Michigan produced a dramatization of Dickens' attack in Great Expectations on the upper class of British society, with a senior high to college level audience in mind. Available on the Dickens' World Series from the University of Michigan, this film runs 29 minutes.
  • A 1974 version by Scotia-Barber/ITC was released in 1974 in Great Britain. Joseph Hardy directed.
  • Produced by the BBC. the first close-captioned version of Great Expectations was made in 1981 and released in the US in August 1988 by CBS/Fox Video. Starring Gerry Sundquist, Stratford Johns, and Joan Hudson, it was directed by Julian Aymes and runs for 300 minutes (also available on two cassettes in Great Britain from BBC/International Historic Films, Inc., #R249).
  • Great Expectations: The Untold Story was adapted for viewers from Magwitch's point of view. Featuring John Stanton, Sigrid Thornton, and Robert Coleby, and directed by Tim Burstall, this video was released by Facets Multimedia, Inc. in 1987.
  • Great Expectations was filmed for prime time television by Primetime/Harlech Television in both Great Britain and the US in 1989. This was a made-for-TV presentation in 1989.
  • Walt Disney Home Video also has a 1989 version of the novel on video, starring Jean Simmons and Anthony Hopkins, directed by Kevin Connor, and running 325 minutes.
  • Two 1978 animated versions of Great Expectations represent Dickens' tale of Pip. One is close-captioned, directed by Jean Tych and produced by Burbank Films for Live Home Video, and the other is available from Library Video Company, both running 72 minutes.
  • Selected readings from Great Expectations is available on audio tape from Time Warner. The 1994 tape, accompanied by a study guide, runs 72 minutes and is narrated by Michael York.
  • A 1987 unabridged sound recording on eleven cassettes (approximately 16 hours running time) includes both endings to the novel. The narrator is Frank Muller, and the set is available from Recorded Books in Charlotte Hall, MD.
  • A 1981 abridged version, two cassettes running 180 minutes, is read by Anton Rodgers, available from Listen for Pleasure, Downsview, Ontario. Both endings are included.

Joe Gargery

Joe is Pip's uncle and surrogate father, but also a fellow-sufferer from his wife's nasty temper and violent behavior. He is a rough, strong working man who generally keeps his emotions to himself. According to Joe, whenever he had tried to protect young Pip from his sister's abuse, she not only hit Joe too but hurt Pip the "heavier for it." Joe gladly takes Pip on as his apprentice at the forge and misses him terribly when Pip leaves for London; however, he will not stand in the way of Pip's good fortune. After Mrs. Joe is attacked, he nurses her with the help of Biddy, whom he marries after Mrs. Joe dies. He also gently and lovingly nurses Pip back to health in London. An uneducated man, he learns enough about writing from Biddy to leave Pip a letter to say goodbye, misspelling his own name "Jo" as Pip had done as a child. Of all of the characters in the novel, Joe is one who does not change, remaining tough yet childlike in love. If he has a weakness, it is a tendency to look on the bright side when there isn't one, which seemed a bit foolish to Pip as a teenager. Yet in spite of Joe's hard life, he remains "good-natured," "easy-going," and unfailingly devoted to Pip and Biddy.

Mrs. Joe Gargery

A large, menacing woman, Mrs. Joe prides herself on raising Pip "by hand," which is a sorry pun on the way she is hitting the child and her husband whenever she is not verbally attacking them. Her favorite instrument, "The Tickler," is a stick that is "worn smooth" from caning Pip, regardless of his behavior. The bodice of her apron is stuck through with pins and needles, a true metaphor for her character. Only one man stands up to her, the evil Orlick, and she never completely recovers from his savage attack. She spends her last days in the tender care of Joe and Biddy, no longer physically or verbally vicious but in a state of childlike happiness.


See Pip

Miss Havisham

Always dressed in the wedding gown in which she had once planned to be married, Miss Havisham is colorless, from her hair to her faded white shoes, of which she wears only one. She wants Pip to play with Estella to act out her love-turned-hatred for the man who jilted her on their wedding day. She has left the house as it was then, even the items on her dressing table. The great room across from her chamber is likewise untouched; the cake, now eerily covered with spiders and dusty cobwebs, is in the middle of the long dining table. It is her wish that this table be cleared only when she is dead so that she may be laid on it for her wake. By arranging for repeated contact between the children, Miss Havisham intends that Pip will fall in love with the frosty Estella, and she constantly reminds Pip to "love her, love her, love her!" She rewards Pip's visits with coins and does not contradict him when Pip is sure that she is his anonymous benefactor. When Pip continues to visit them from London, Miss Havisham is still anxious for him to admire Estella. However, when Estella makes plans to marry Bentley Drummle, Miss Havisham finds that she has done too well in teaching Estella to be a cold, cruel lover. Estella plans to leave her and will not, and probably cannot, express any love for Miss Havisham. When the old lady's clothing accidentally catches on fire, she is saved by Pip who rolls her in the tablecloth from the great room. Her doctor orders her bed to be brought in and arranged on the table, fulfilling her wish to be laid in state where her wedding feast had once been. Before she dies, she honors Pip's request for money for his friend, Herbert Pocket, amazed that Pip wants nothing for himself. She also suffers from nightmares of dying without forgiveness, as well as from her burns. Even so, she dies with Pip's kiss of forgiveness on her wrinkled forehead.

Mr. Jaggers

All of the Londoners on the wrong side of the law know Mr. Jaggers is the lawyer with the best chance of keeping them out of Newgate Prison. Jaggers is never wrong. His reputation is so great that his clients know that Jaggers won't take a case he can't win and will tell them so. They also know that they will be refused if they cannot pay his fee. His reputation for courtroom drama is equally well-known, for he has moved many a judge and jury to tears. Outside of court, his speech is guarded so that he cannot be misinterpreted. It seems barely human that he never lets down that guard. Since he is Miss Havisham's lawyer and he is also bound by Pip's mysterious benefactor's desire to remain unknown, Jaggers bolsters Pip's belief that Miss Havisham is his benefactor. However, Jaggers has many clients, all with secrets to be kept. A cold calculator of his own financial gain, Jaggers is the sort of person one can respect but can never call "friend." Even so, he invites Pip to dinner occasionally and once tells Pip to bring his classmates. While Jaggers might seem to favor Pip this way at times, he is more appreciative of Pip's schoolmate, Bentley Drummle, whom Jaggers nicknames "The Spider." He sees in Drummle the shrewd and ruthless qualities that he believes are necessary for getting ahead in the world.

Mrs. Joe

See Mrs. Joe Gargery

Abel Magwitch

In trouble from the day he was born, Abel Magwitch is an orphan like Pip but without Joe or any loving family member to befriend him. All he can recall of his early days is his name. In and out of trouble with the law all his life, he is banished to Australia, where he tends sheep and saves his money to one day make "an English gentleman" out of the little boy named Pip who once was kind to him while he was running from the police on the marshes. When he reenters Pip's life in London, Magwitch holds the key to many mysteries, but if he is recaptured he will not be sent back to Australia but sentenced to death. He calls himself "Provis" to avoid recognition and spends many happy hours with Pip, in spite of Pip's discomfort at learning that his benefactor has not been Miss Havisham but a criminal. However, Pip learns a great deal more from Magwitch than his identity, for Magwitch is the link between more characters in the novel than anyone but Pip himself. In spite of their caution, Magwitch is recaptured, injured, and sentenced to death. However, he is already dying of his wounds. Even so, he has lived out his dream of creating in Pip the respectable man that Magwitch himself could never be, as well as assuring that his former crime partner and arch-enemy Compeyson drowns. In his last days, Magwitch reveals to Pip the confidence scheme that he was drawn into with Arthur and Compeyson. However, it is only after Magwitch's death that Pip discovers that Magwitch was also Estella's father.


Jaggers' maid who serves dinner to Pip has strange scars on her wrists, as though she were once shackled. Indeed, she has known hard times before Jaggers has "tamed her," and Jaggers openly refers to her "gypsy blood." As her lawyer, Jaggers once saved her from being sent to Newgate Prison, and he shames her in front of Pip to remind her of her old life, her reform, and her alternative to serving in his house. At another dinner with Mr. Jaggers, Pip is fascinated by Molly's hands for another reason. He has seen them somewhere before. Eventually, Pip notices other resemblances between Molly and Estella and forces a stilted admission out of Jaggers that Molly was once married to a convict and that their child, a little girl, was adopted by a rich woman with no children of her own, and that Jaggers arranged such an adoption. Put together with Magwitch's story and Jaggers' hypothetical sketch, it is obvious that Molly was Magwitch's wife and Estella's mother. With Magwitch in jail, Molly had no other means of support and had been caught thieving. Jaggers had arranged for her release on her promise to serve at his table and to stay out of trouble or else he would turn her back over to the police. Molly does not know Estella or Miss Havisham, only that her child has been cared for by someone with great wealth.


One of the characters in the novel with no apparent redeeming qualities, Orlick is a big, unhappy clod who works at Joe's forge until he insults Mrs. Joe and is fired. Orlick also bears a grudge against Pip for having Joe's favor and a benefactor. When Orlick first threatens Mrs. Joe, it is the one time that Joe stands up and tolerates no nonsense from Orlick. Years later, however, Orlick lures Pip to the limekiln out on the marshes and ties Pip up with the intention of killing him. Meanwhile, Orlick tells Pip of the scene of his attack on Mrs. Joe's skull with a convict's (Magwitch's) leg irons that he had found on the marsh. Since it is Pip who was responsible for getting a file to Magwitch to remove his shackles, Orlick's deed may be only the delayed result of Pip's childhood "crime" of having once helped a convict. However, right wins out when help arrives and Orlick is arrested before Pip is harmed.

Philip Pirrip

See Pip


Pip is someone who is shaped by his changing circumstances. He is an orphan who never knew his dead parents or brothers. He is raised by his sister and Joe Gargery at Joe's forge on the marshes near a country village at some distance from London. For a child who perpetually fears punishment, Pip learns to lie quite convincingly. A self-proclaimed "sensitive" boy, he is frequently beaten or starved and verbally abused by his sister, although he keeps only one secret from his gentle uncle, Joe Gargery. Threatened by an escaped convict Pip meets in the church cemetery, he steals food and a file, a "crime" he is certain will be his doom. Pip is equally intimidated by the hideous Miss Havisham and the lovely Estella. Even though Estella is his own age, Pip feels dominated by the girl and obeys Miss Havisham's order to "love her!" When Pip learns that he has an anonymous benefactor who will provide for his education in London, he eagerly leaves his apprenticeship with Joe behind, certain that his patron is Miss Havisham who is preparing him to become a gentleman worthy of marrying Estella. His hunch is supported by his long-standing belief that he is better than he has been treated and that he deserves more in Me than becoming a blacksmith like Joe. Furthermore, the lawyer who pays Pip's alowance is also Miss Havisham's lawyer. However, in London, Pip's tutor, Mr. Herbert Pocket Sr., turns out to be ineffectual, and Pip finds himself without adequate training for any profession to fit his new social class. He further discovers that all of his old "expectations" have been wrong-headed. Even so, learning this seems to be his best education. For Pip, who spends much of his life either daydreaming or defending himself, such a change of heart seems heroic enough to set things right again. However, except for risking his own life to save Miss Havisham, Pip is less like a hero than like someone who expects to win the lottery any day now but has little idea what he will do with the money except to spend it. In the end, he redeems himself by realizing who his true friends are when all of his "expectations" and money are gone. He is reunited with Joe and Biddy, and his kindness to Herbert Pocket, Jr., is repaid.

Pip's convict

See Abel Magwitch

Herbert Pocket Jr.

Pip's roommate in London, Herbert Pocket, Jr., is also his best friend. Herbert nicknames Pip "Handel" because it is the name of a famous man (a compliment to Pip). Easygoing and not particularly bright, Herbert is nonetheless loyal and persevering. While they are students together, Herbert tries to help Pip figure out where all of their money is going. Later, he invites Pip to share in his sudden fortune, before finding out that Pip is the reason for it. Herbert is the receiver of Pip's only request of Miss Havisham for money. Tolerant and kind, even to the irritating alcoholic and gout-ridden Mr. Barley, Herbert falls in love with and marries the equally kind and patient daughter Clara Barley. Also, he is trusted with helping Pip try to get Magwitch out of England. Herbert's most heroic hour is finding Orlick's letter that Pip had dropped and rushing off to save Pip at the moment that Orlick would have surely killed him. At last, Herbert provides a job for Pip when all of his fortune is gone. In the original ending, Herbert names his son "Pip."

Herbert Pocket Sr.

Unable to control his own "tumbling" family, Mr. Pocket is also an inadequate tutor to the students in his house. Pip reads and makes friends there but learns little from Mr. Pocket, Sr., that is useful. Not surprisingly, Pocket only teaches in order to keep Mrs. Pocket, who feels that she has married beneath her class for him, and their brood of children fed. Also, it is doubtful that he can do anything else for a living. However, no one seems to complain, for the Pockets' house is a place for young gentlemen to gather to meet one another if not to learn.


See Abel Magwitch

Uncle Pumblechook

Uncle Pumblechook is held in high esteem by Mrs. Joe because he is from a slightly higher social rank in the village than she is on the marsh. However, he is little more than a stereotype of a snob who takes every opportunity to poke fun at Pip when he is poor or to befriend Pip when Pip has money.


See Bentley Drummle

John Wemmick

A true friend to Pip in London, Wemmick is a dual personality. In London, where he is a chief clerk at Jaggers's law office, Wemmick is as coldly business-minded as his employer is. However, he takes a liking to Pip and invites him to his house, a miniature castle complete with a tiny moat, draw-bridge, and a cannon that Wemmick fires each evening because it delights his deaf father. In his own odd household, Wemmick becomes close friends with Pip, who grows to value their relationship tremendously. Wemmick keeps one ear open at all times at the office to determine the best time to get Magwitch out of the country, and Wemmick sends word to Pip when he thinks the London underworld is unaware. Also, Wemmick thinks so much of Pip that Pip is the only wedding guest at the marriage of Wemmick and Miss Skiffins. Even so, whenever Pip sees Wemmick at the office, Wemmick is curt and businesslike again. It is Wemmick's practice to keep both of his worlds separate from each other.

Wemmick's Aged Parent

Another stereotype, the Aged Parent is old and deaf, and he responds to almost all conversation by smiling and yelling, "All right, John!" Combined with the odd house and landscape, the Aged Parent is relaxation and comic relief for Pip, who enjoys visiting Wemmick's place as a world apart from the threats of London.

Mr. Wopsle

After accompanying Pip and Joe across the marsh the night the police first catch the escaped convicts, Wopsle has seen both Magwitch and Compeyson. This is important when, after Mr. Wopsle has left the country for London to act in the theater, he recognizes the second convict, Compeyson, sitting behind Pip in the audience. With that knowledge, Pip knows that Compeyson is still alive and that he must get Magwitch out of the country as soon as possible before Compeyson finds him again.


Alienation and Loneliness

Beneath the Dickens' major theme of a great respect for wealth is an analysis of the fate of the outsider. At least four known orphans—Mrs. Joe, Magwitch, Estella, and Pip himself—have suffered loneliness, but each character reacts differently. Pip begins his story as a child standing in a gloomy cemetery at the grave site of his family, so pitifully alone that he can do no more than imagine his mother as the "wife of the above," which he can only interpret as directions to his mother's current address in heaven. Pip himself is often threatened with death by his sister and again by his convict, Magwitch. Even Orlick, the town lout, tries to kill an adult Pip. Joe Gargery is Pip's only friend on the marshes, and even after Pip is introduced to city life friends are few compared to the number of those who are coldly uncaring or dangerous. On the other hand, Estella's odd childhood, in the wrinkled hands of an old woman with a twisted mind, teaches her to reject all affection or friendships. Estella plays with Pip like a cat toys with a mouse, certainly not like an equal or playmate, for that is not Miss Havisham's intention. Likewise, as Magwitch confesses to Pip, his childhood on the streets of London was such a nightmare that he cannot even remember how he once learned his own name, and it is no wonder he has had to turn to a life of crime. Mrs. Joe is another character who is antisocial. She lives on the marshes among rough, working class men and has no friends but Joe and no female acquaintances whatever. Pip's guardian and Joe's wife, she is so rude, antagonistic, and violent that she drives away those who would otherwise love her. As Pip's sister, Mrs. Joe shares the same loss of their family, but her means of coping with loneliness is quite different from Pip's attempts to get along with people and to stay out of trouble. Indeed, Mrs. Joe causes most of the problems in her life and everyone else's at the forge. Aside from these obvious loners, each struggling to find his or her place in the world, Jaggers also stands alone, an upholder of the law but to an inhuman degree. He never lets down his guard, as though he were likely to be sued if he relaxed, misspoke, or reacted at all with emotion. No matter how openly Pip offers friendship, Jaggers maintains a distant attitude and instead admires the wealthy but evil Bentley Drummle for knowing what he wants and getting it. While Pip has the greatest number of friends of these alienated characters, even he is strangely hesitant to leave London to rejoin Joe and Biddy or to accept Herbert Pocket's offer of a position in his firm. Only when Pip has exhausted his expectations and has no other direction to turn does he realize that he is quite lucky to have two good friends who love him for himself and can forget about his social status. By doing this, Pip is the one character who works his way out of alienation and loneliness into a socially active life that is enriched by love shared with friends. Although this hard-earned knowledge was not one of his original "expectations," Pip finds that this is far greater wealth than any benefactor's inheritance.

Topics for Further Study

  • Research the history and 1850-60 social climate of Australia as an English penal colony, where Magwitch had been living, when Queensland was becoming a separate colony from New South Wales.
  • Investigate U.S. social conditions in 1842 when Dickens visited the United States, and compare this to conditions seen in 1868 when he returned to America on a reading tour. Keep in mind Dickens' themes of class distinction and real life versus expectation of changes he would have been likely to see in the American people. Consider the Gold Rush; the Emancipation Proclamation; John Brown's 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia; the 1857 Dred Scott Decision; etc.
  • Investigate child labor in England before the 1875-80 movement to legally limit work-hours and to improve dangerous factory conditions. Dickens' arousal of public sentiment against industry's inhuman treatment of minors and disenfranchised citizens in his novels contributed to this reform.

Identity: Search for Self

As a child, Pip is small for his age and quite weak, physically and temperamentally. An orphan living with his sister in near poverty, he dreams of great wealth. Meanwhile, finding ways to avoid abuse from his sister becomes his daily lesson. He submits to the insults of Mrs. Joe, Uncle Pumblechook, Mr. Wopsle, Estella and Miss Havisham's relatives. Pip is terrified of Miss Havisham when she first orders him to play a game as she watches him and he realizes that he is too miserable to play at anything. Later, he is anxious and delighted to escape that life and go to the city where he can establish a new identity as a gentleman in his own right. Indeed, from his first day in London he is addressed as "Mr. Pip" and treated well. He finds, however, that he has little to back up that esteem except money that he has not earned and only squanders on expensive clothes, decorations for his apartment, and a servant boy he calls "The Avenger." What is Pip avenging but the poverty to which he was born? Yet when Joe comes to London, Pip is ashamed of him, embarrassed that Joe now calls him "Sir" yet distressed by Joe's low-brow speech and country clothes. Pip is likewise mortified by Magwitch. Even after learning that the convict is responsible for Pip's rise in status and his great allowance, Pip does not want to be seen with the old man because Magwitch does not fit into Pip's new identity. That Magwitch has risked his life to come back to England to see Pip does not influence Pip's decision to get rid of Magwitch as soon as possible. Pip frequently returns to the village to visit Miss Havisham and Estella, and to enjoy a gentleman's treatment from the shopkeeper Trabb and Trabb's boy who once sneered at Pip. However, Pip neither returns to the humble forge to visit Joe nor sends any message to him. In time, Pip is ashamed of that and apologizes to both Magwitch and Joe. Also, he forgives Miss Havisham for her early cruelty with a kiss on her deathbed. But this cannot happen until he has endured greater suffering and pangs of conscience than he ever knew as a weakling boy on the marsh. Miss Havisham also rises above her reputation as a tight-fisted and heartless old woman by granting Pip's request for money to set up Herbert Pocket in a business, and by begging Pip's forgiveness before she dies. Once cruel, she ends by suffering from the realization that she has wasted her life on hatred and vengeance, yet it is too late for her to enjoy her change of heart. Pip adds this to his lessons on gaining respect and peace in his own life. Another good model comes from Wemmick, who adores his old father and shares care of the Aged Parent with Pip on at least one occasion when, ironically, Pip is avoiding contact with Magwitch. Nevertheless, Pip attends Magwitch in his last days as tenderly as Wemmick tends his own father and as lovingly as Joe nurses Pip back from death. When Pip finally returns to the marsh to propose marriage to Biddy and to thank Joe, he finds them already married. Pip asks Joe's forgiveness before he joins Herbert Pocket, Jr. to earn his way in the world and to repay Joe for covering some of his bills. Pip finally takes charge of his future and enjoys the love of his family and friends, realizing that they are his most precious wealth. Having been first a pauper, then a man of the leisure class, and finally a middle-class worker, Pip is finally certain of his place in the world by knowing true contentment and self-worth.

Victim and Victimization

In the endless struggle for power, the winners are the ruthless, thinks Jaggers. He has yet to learn that such power is not equal to the strength of being true to one's convictions, as Pip learns. Even though Jaggers deals with victims and victimizers daily, he is less informed than Pip is as a victim himself. Mrs. Joe Gargery prides herself on having brought up Pip "by hand," meaning with no help but also with the idea that sparing the rod spoils the child. Yet Pip has not been spared numerous encounters with "The Tickler," his sister's cane. But if one who lives by the cane dies by it, so does Mrs. Joe suffer a violent beating before her death. Similarly, other victimizers become victims before their final chance to repent. Magwitch, once a thug on the streets of London, is stalked by his former accomplice. While his childhood in the underworld taught him to eat or be eaten, Magwitch risks all to return to England so that he can see for himself Pip's success and to settle his score with the villainous Compeyson. Also, Molly is "tamed" by Jaggers. A gypsy by birth, a criminal by necessity, and now bound to his household, she neither roams nor breaks the law anymore. But she is a powerless victim who never learns the fate of her daughter except that the child has been adopted into a wealthy household where she will receive the food and shelter Molly cannot provide. While Pip worries that Drummle will harm Estella, it is she who must endure a loveless marriage to outlive her cruel husband. A victim of Miss Havisham's icy character instead of enjoying the love of a mother, Estella is first the abused and then the abuser of both Pip and Miss Havisham. She then becomes the abused wife of the rotten Drummle. Yet, finally, at least in the original ending, Estella is a potentially better mother to her daughter than either her own mother or Miss Havisham ever were to her. Even in the revised ending, she breaks the abuse cycle by reconciling with Pip as his equal. And a lesser character, Trabb's boy, insults Pip and his first good suit of clothes. It is the only way that this poor fellow has of getting back at someone who has had better luck than he has had, for Trabb's boy was humiliated when his employer ordered him to be polite to the new young master Pip. In this way, Trabb's boy is both the victim of class distinction in his society and a victimizer of the upper class in the only way he can be. Through his unobserved and therefore unpunishable rudeness to Pip, he defends himself and strikes a blow at a social class that he has no hope of ever joining. Pip himself must realize that he has victimized people by treating them as lesser creatures. He realizes that he broke Joe's heart when he left the forge and again when he stayed out of contact for eleven years. He hurts Biddy by telling her that he could never love her, even though he returns intending to ask her to marry him after he has lost all of his money. Finding her already married to Joe is Pip's final lesson that power is not related to happiness and that one can only be a victim by permitting it. Trabb's boy is not Pip's only example. Jaggers is also feared by those who are not on his side. Yet Pip doubts that Jaggers has much to enjoy when he goes home at the end of the day. For all of these characters, the pleasure of power as victimizer is short-lived and/or unsatisfying.

Guilt and Innocence

With the law as a backdrop for much of the action, Pip finds that guilt and innocence are much more complex than he first thought. Having helped a convict to escape weighs heavily on his young mind, and he is sure that greater powers will catch up to punish him in time. When they do, they are much different than Pip first supposed, for he must first deal with his own conscience outside of the English courts. Underlying all of the characters' actions and outcomes is this theme: the guilty are punished by a power higher than any king's. Everyone who acts unjustly in the novel is made to either suffer and repent or to die without forgiveness. Likewise, those few who have nothing to regret are begged for mercy. While Pip is owed an apology by Mrs. Joe, her cruelty to him is avenged by her pitiful and helpless last days. The same could be said of Miss Havisham, who dies powerless, alone, and begging Pip's forgiveness. And while Pip owes Joe his life and feels great guilt for the times he wished not to know Joe, he has often abused their friendship. Pip pays for his carelessness by suffering and nearly dying, and by falling from great wealth back into poverty. His early innocence is the innocence to which he must return for forgiveness, a prodigal son who remembers the simple truth. Estella is too late to reconcile with Miss Havisham, but she finally treats Pip as an equal in both endings to the novel. Estella has also learned the truth about power. While the law is not kind to Magwitch, he accepts it. The fairness of that is left to the reader to decide since Magwitch has had few chances to be anything in life but a convict. That he is Pip's own convict is his redeeming quality, and in turn Magwitch has saved Pip's humility by revealing that a criminal, not a lady, is providing the money to fulfill Pip's grand expectations of joining the upper class. Magwitch has earned that money by the sweat of his brow, working as a common sheep rancher in Australia and not by any criminal activity. He could have easily spent the money on himself instead of Pip. These truths are Pip's salvation from a worthless, lazy, and arrogant life like Drummle. Less obvious are those who have never learned what Pip has found. Uncle Pumblechook and Miss Havisham's relatives will continue to curse others' luck and their own lack of fortune. Guilty of not listening to his heart, Jaggers will live out his days by guarding his words and emotions. While hopelessly self-involved characters such as Drummle and Compeyson are condemned to die without acknowledging their own guilt, others such as Magwitch, Molly, and Estella will be forgiven for misdeeds that are either justifiable or beyond their ability to avoid. Told through Pip's voice, the story shows that the power of forgiveness is great, for it is by mercy to others that one is forgiven. The law of the land that Pip once feared has little to do with real justice, for only by admitting his own guilt can he find happiness. As Pip concludes about himself by remembering Herbert Pocket, Jr., "I was one day enlightened by the reflection, that perhaps the inaptitude had never been in him at all, but had been in me." Or as Estella says to Pip upon meeting him again, "I am greatly changed. I wonder you know me."


Point of View

The first-person narrator of Dickens' Great Expectations is an adult Pip who tells the story in his own voice and from his own memory. What is distinctive about that voice is that it can so intimately recall the many small details of a little boy's fear and misery, as well as the voices and dialects of others—from the rough country speech of Magwitch and Orlick to the deaf Aged Parent's loud repetitions or the mechanically predictable things Jaggers says. Yet other details seem to be forgotten. Pip tells almost nothing of his beatings from Mrs. Joe, but a great deal about his fear of them, using adult vocabulary and concepts in these reflections. The opening scene with little Pip in the cemetery recalls the tombstones as looking like "lozenges," soothing the throat of this mature narrator. This way, the adult Pip not only evaluates events as he remembers them but also adds a deeper insight than he would have had as a child. The story unfolds chronologically from Pip's earliest memories to his most recent experiences. And while some critics justify Dickens' revised ending, Pip's development is most believable for modern readers if he parts from Estella with the final realization that he could never have been happy with her and her man-hating legacy from Miss Havisham.


In Great Expectations, Pip must not only work out his problems but also sort out reality from his childhood dreams. Realistically, the only way that he can do this is by trial and error and learning from his mistakes. First comes his education, demonstrating that becoming a gentleman means more than having material wealth. Pip may read as many fine books as he can, but the most important lessons come not from them (he does not quote from them) but from his analysis of real people and events in his society. While Drummle is financially wealthier than Herbert Pocket or Startop, among Pip's London friends, Drummle has no redeeming qualities nor does he value his friends, which Pip learns is the most important thing in his own life. In his development, Pip discovers that Miss Havisham has not been his kindly benefactor as he had assumed. Even so, he is able to both save her life and help her to find a little left of her soul before she dies. By helping someone who only appears to be better off than he is, he finds honor in his own name, as humble as that may be. It is ironic that the criminal Magwitch had insisted, as a condition of Pip's allowance, that he keep his boyhood name "Pip" rather than "Phillip." He finds that the requirements of maturity are taking responsibility for one's actions, and this is what Pip must do by the end of the novel. He admits that he has at times been ashamed of his country life and friends. Pip also reveals that while he once enjoyed being treated royally by Uncle Pumblechook and Tragg in town, he sees now that this was a false honor. The true nobility is in his homecoming, which is similar to the biblical prodigal son's return. Pip confesses to Joe and Biddy that he has been too proud to appreciate their unfailing love until he finally comes back to them with his new knowledge.

Comic Relief

With so many serious things to think about and the ever-present dangers that appear, Pip is always glad to slip away to Wemmick's miniature castle, complete with a tiny moat and cannon, where all good things seem possible again in this stronghold against the evil of the outer world. One of the best features of the place is the stereotypical character of Wemmick's father, the laughable Aged Parent. Good-natured, deaf, dependent, and weakened by age, the old man is no threat to Pip or to anyone. Instead, he requires the protection of those who have power in the world, that is to say Wemmick and Pip. Wemmick's devotion to his old father seems to Pip to be a wonderful thing, especially in a society that constantly seeks out the weak to take advantage of them. However, the fragility of the situation makes Wemmick's house seem all the more magical. As close as it is to the unforgiving city life of London, it is a world apart—something about which Wemmick constantly cautions Pip. It is not to be mentioned to Jaggers or to anyone outside of this rare and delightfully protected environment. Pip is rewarded for honoring Wemmick's trust and friendship by being allowed to cook and watch over the Aged Parent, as well as being honored as Wemmick's only wedding guest who is not kin. Pip soon becomes as fiercely protective as Wemmick is of this place where evil dare not enter.


The distinctions between the city, the town, and the country are the most apparent shifts in Pip's story. Although all of them harbor dangerous elements, all of them also carry the forces of good. The difference is that the marsh folk are more obvious in their desires. Orlick is the example of a man without a soul, and Pip recognizes this from the beginning. It is no surprise when it is revealed that he was Mrs. Joe's savage attacker. The fact that he would also kill Pip points out Orlick's lack of distinction between those who deserve his vengeance and those who do not. He readily attacks anyone who gets in his way. However, in town Tragg's boy makes Pip the laughingstock of all who have more in life than he will ever have, thus showing humor and a knowledge of the world that Orlick does not have. Even so, Orlick believes he has power over others who may be better off than he is, which he tries to prove. By contrast, along London's sooty streets are those who know Jaggers. They both fear and respect him as someone with the education and social power to help them. He is as impersonal as the buildings around him, but if he cannot save their lives they are certain that they could not have been saved by anyone. That kind of blind trust is not found in the village—where even Tragg's boy dares to mock Pip—or on the marshes where brute strength may means survival. Of the three, the city is least likely to recognize individuality, which Pip indicates by noticing the overall dirtiness and decay of it as soon as he arrives there. A person may hide on the marshes or outside of the city, whereas the city has too many eyes to cover up anyone or any deed for long. Even Pip must escape to the suburbs (Wemmick's) for a time to avoid those eyes.

Historical Context


Nineteenth century England had flourishing cities and emerging industries. Machines made it possible for those with money to invest to earn great profits, especially with an abundance of poor people who were willing to work long hours at hard or repetitive jobs for little pay. By contrast, the rural system included landlords, farmers, and common laborers who owned no land. In this rural system that had existed for centuries, those without land had no hope of bettering their lives: once in poverty, always in poverty. These hopeless poor moved to the city on the dream of making their own fortunes; it was usual for working class families to send young children off to the factories for twelveto fourteen-hour shifts or longer. Child labor laws would not be enacted until the 1860s.

Meanwhile, children and women were ideal workers because they did not form labor unions, and were easily intimidated, beaten, or fired if they protested against an employer's mistreatment. School attendance was a luxury reserved for the children of parents who could afford to pay private tutors in addition to the family's loss of income from a child's labor. The first publicly funded elementary schools were not established until the 1870s, when the demand for skilled laborers increased. The idea of high schools did not receive England's public support until the turn of the century, after Dickens' death. Meanwhile, the labor-saving machines that were to make a few people's fortunes earned many others little more than bad health or early graves.

Compare & Contrast

  • Early 1800s: Workhouses were set up so that the poor and those who owed money had an alternative to debtors' prison from which there was no escape without paying the debt; this was almost impossible if the debtor were unable to work.

    Today: The poor are being urged off of social welfare programs and into "workfare," low-paying jobs that teach skills but do not pay a living wage.

  • Early 1800s: Child labor was used and abused by industry with long hours and unsafe conditions in the workplace, especially the mines. If children got sick, there was no medical care for them except from charities, such as London's Hospital for Sick Children begun in 1852 and supported by Charles Dickens.

    Today: Child labor laws are strictly enforced, and medical care for the poor is widely available since social reform laws were enacted in the United States in the mid-1960s.

  • Early 1800s: Since most of England heated homes and industry with coal and peat, air pollution was visible and lung problems were widespread. Pip notices the grime and soot on everything in his first impression of the city and wonders how people could choose to live in such a dirty place.

    Today: Air pollution, although not always visible in PCBs and ozone-depleting chemicals, is now one of our greatest global concerns. Continual research explores new methods of cleaner heat, from solar power to natural gas.

  • Early 1800s: Dickens supported and campaigned for public backing for the so-called "Ragged Schools" where poor children could receive some education. Despite their horrible conditions these schools were arguably better than complete neglect.

    Today: A modern belief in public education for all children owes much to such early reformers as Dickenssince that education has shown to improve society for all citizens.

The new money caused new needs. Prior to the nineteenth century, banking had been left to businesses and was fairly informal, by reputation. Since there had been little money to exchange, except by a well-known few, there had been little need for that service. The Bank of England had been established in 1694, but it dealt mainly with government projects. Industrialization changed that, and banking houses became more numerous as a middle class emerged. New businesses needed to borrow money, and the rapid production of goods for a growing economy promised new wealth for both borrowers and lenders. That is how Pip found employment for his friend, Herbert Pocket, who later hired Pip.

Obviously, not all who turned to the city for fortune found it. There were workhouses and debtors' prisons for those who failed to achieve their dreams of advancement. Those shut out from that promise lived in misery and often turned to crime. Since money was made in the city, the rise in criminal activity appeared there. As the number of jobless residents increased, so did the number of smugglers, pickpockets, thieves, and swindlers. Those with enough money to escape the soot and dangers of London, began to build up the towns, as we see in Wemmick's choice of address. Only the outlying country folk stayed much the same as they had for centuries, and we see Pip's travel is either by stagecoach or on foot. That was normal until the 1860s when the railroad finally connected the country to the city and the past to the new age of the machine.

Critical Overview

Charles Dickens was often faulted by his early critics for writing with more melodrama or realism than suited his readers' tastes. In 1861, E. S. Dallas suggested that this was part of Dickens' charm: "Faults there are in abundance, but who is going to find fault when the very essence of the fun is to commit faults?" Yet Lady Carlisle once delicately commented, "I know there are such unfortunate beings as pickpockets and streetwalkers … but I own I do not much wish to hear what they say to one another." Likewise, in 1862 Mrs. Margaret Oliphant found the novel "feeble, fatigued, and colorless," yet defended Miss Havisham as "a very harmless and rather amiable old woman," suggesting that among Dickens' readers were the Miss Havishams of that era. At the same time, other early critics viewed this book as a happy change of pace from Dickens' so-called "Dark Period" of writing due to the novel. According to John Moore Capes and J.E.E.D. Acton's 1862 review, "We should be puzzled to name Mr. Dickens' equal in the perception of the purely farcical, ludicrous, and preposterously funny."

As Humphrey House later reflected, "The whole [Victorian] class drift was upwards and there was no reason to suppose that it would ever stop being so," meaning that in any age or economy people believe in whatever they hope for themselves. Other modern critics, however, tend to look on the novel as an example of Dickens' "brilliant study of guilt." In any case, it is story-telling at its best. As Angus Calder comments in his introduction to the 1965 Penguin Books edition, "The densely detailed surroundings, the strange life of these creatures, make the dialogue tense and convincing." It is a hard book to put down because we believe in Pip and want to see him win out in the end.

Yet even twentieth-century critics disagree with each other. While E. M. Forster faults Dickens for creating "two-dimensional" characters, George Orwell praises him by pointing out that "Dickens' imagination overwhelms everything, like a weed." Dorothy Van Ghent notes Dickens' accuracy in describing "the complex inner life which we know men and women have." And Angus Calder notices that "Pip does not merely see what has been there all the time; in the cases of Miss Havisham and Magwitch, he actively helps them to become better people near the end of their lives." This is the theme and ethic of redemption, but not only for Pip. As Calder concludes, "The book begins with a beast-like man so hungry that he thinks of eating a little boy …, haunted, like the rest of Dickens' fiction, by jails and images of prisons.… [while] what makes men grow is fellowship." Connecting and interacting with one another is Dickens' timeless purpose for telling this story with all of its humorous twists and heart-wrenching turns. Considering all of the new discussion about the novel each year, Dickens seems to continue to achieve his purpose—and amazingly well. By 1987, Bert G. Hornback had claimed the existence of "more than two hundred adaptations of his [Dickens'] novels for the stage, and more than fifty versions produced as films for television."


Arnold A. Markley

In the following essay, Markley, an assistant professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, explains how the fact that Dickens' novel was originally published serially had a profound effect on the creation of the story's plot and characters. Markley also discusses the novel as representative of Dickens' social concerns, which are a common feature in his novels.

In the Victorian era, reading fiction was an extremely favorite pastime, and new novels were commonly published in serial format in periodicals. Many writers such as Charles Dickens became quite popular and developed huge followings that dutifully bought the periodicals in which they were published month after month, hooked by the entertaining and suspenseful stories. Dickens began Great Expectations in the fall of 1860, publishing it in weekly installments that began in December of that year in his popular periodical All the Year Round. Many of Dickens' earlier novels had been published serially as well, but usually in twenty installments in a periodical issued only once a month. Because a weekly serial was necessarily shorter than one that came out only once a month, the installments of Great Expectations needed to be much more concise, a publishing requirement that had a great effect on the ultimate structure of the novel, which is indeed more concise than many of Dickens' earlier novels.

The fact that Victorian novels were published in installments had a great effect on the characteristics and style of those novels. For example, each installment characteristically ended with a "cliff-hanger" much like a soap opera on television; that is, a suspenseful ending designed to tease the reader into buying the next issue in order to find out what happens to the characters. Novelists also frequently created their characters with certain "character tags," peculiar and often comic aspects of their physical appearances or way of talking in order to help readers remember each character from month to month. This was especially important for the minor characters. Finally, such novels characteristically included fantastic and extremely complex plots, all of the many strands of which were miraculously tied together in the final installments, as is the case with Pip's gradual discovery not only of the identity of his benefactor, but also of Estella's real parents. In Great Expectations, all of the major characters have been introduced by the end of "The First Stage of Pip's Expectations," and all of the major strands of the plot have begun; Dickens continues to manipulate them throughout the next two thirds of the novel before tying them all together at the end.

The serial format of the novel also allowed for the peculiar situation of the ending of Great Expectations. In Dickens' original ending, Pip meets Estella in London many years after the events in the main part of the narrative, and hears of her troubles with Bentley Drummle and of her plans to marry again. The two characters part, and there is no suggestion that they will ever marry, or even that they will ever meet again. But when Dickens' friend and fellow author Edward Bulwer-Lytton read the manuscript for this ending, he convinced Dickens to give the novel a happier ending, believing that the reading public would be much more satisfied if he at least hinted that Pip and Estella will be free to marry at the end of the story.

In the case of installments in weekly periodicals as opposed to monthly ones, many publishers and readers felt that autobiographical stories were more appropriate for publication. Autobiographical stories, which were reputedly "true," generally managed to grip the reader emotionally much more quickly than a fictional story. Some scholars today, such as Janice Carlisle, believe that this may have contributed to Dickens' decision to write Great Expectations as if it were an autobiography, with a first person narrator, Pip, telling the story of his life. One of the most consistently praised aspects of the novel, and one of the things that makes it such an extraordinary achievement, is Dickens' masterful depiction of Pip's personality. The entire story is presented to us through this main character's eyes, which allows the reader a great deal of insight into Pip's psychology. Because of this, readers through the years have tended to see Pip as a much more successful and more realistic characterization than many others of Dickens' major characters. Some scholars have attributed the success of Pip as a character to the relationship of many of the situations and events in the novel to Dickens' own life. Dickens himself came from a poor background, and he was forced to work in a shoe blacking company as a child. And, like Pip, he managed to improve his own "expectations" considerably with his phenomenal success years later as a novelist.

The fact that Dickens so effectively invites his readers into the mind of his narrator and main character, Pip, also gives great impact to the development of the novel's themes. The main action of the novel involves Pip's expectations to improve his lot in life, and the three "stages" of his transformation from a poor boy living in a small town into a gentleman successful in the world of Victorian commerce. Initially believing his benefactor to be the wealthy Miss Havisham, Pip becomes a snob, and gradually becomes more and more embarrassed by his past, by his home, and particularly by his loyal and true friend, the humble blacksmith Joe. Upon learning the true identity of his benefactor, however, Pip's mistaken assumptions and his future expectations are dashed when he is forced to confront the fact that the man who has turned him into a gentleman is none other than an uneducated and uncouth criminal. The reader who becomes caught up in Pip's outlook, sharing his assumptions with him, experiences, like Pip, a surprise and an important lesson when those assumptions are shattered.

The lesson that Pip learns comes in his gradually growing to see the goodness and humanity of Magwitch, truly a noble soul despite his past involvement in crime. Such a realization allows Pip, and the reader, to see the wrongness of a class structure that implies that wealth and a high station in life are equal to high moral virtue. After all, Magwitch is portrayed as having a gentle and noble spirit, while the more suave and gentlemanly Compeyson is a vicious and unfeeling criminal. Miss Havisham, too, who represents a wealthier class than that of Pip's family, is not his benefactor, but knowingly allows Pip to believe that she is as she involves him in her own schemes. Moreover, in looking back over the story line, the reader sees at the end that it was Pip's simple act of stealing food as a small boy to help the escaped Magwitch that led to his "great expectations," and not his appeal to Miss Havisham as a future mate for Estella, as he had convinced himself throughout the early part of the novel. Through the stages of his personal and psychological development, Pip experiences a change of heart, and learns the value of a true friend, finally seeing Joe and Biddy, the humble friends of his youth, as the loyal friends who have always stood by him despite his aspirations to rise above them in class.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Dickens' Oliver Twist is the story of an orphan who overcomes his humble beginnings to prove himself worthy of the virtuous Nancy's love for him, and to overcome all of his notorious enemies.
  • William Thackeray's Vanity Fair is from the same period as Dickens' Great Expectations. Like it, the novel makes statements against social class distinction and snobbery. However, Thackeray's hero is a girl who inherits money and work to win the credibility and love of her readers.
  • Likewise, Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White has the theme of virtue overcoming adversity. Laura endures an unhappy marriage and the loss of her wealth to end by marrying her true love and giving birth to their son. Although Dickensian elements of plot twists and social themes occur, his humor may seem to be missing.

By charting Pip's gradual change throughout the novel, Dickens manages to illustrate an important aspect of the socio-ecomonic context of his times. As the Industrial Revolution continued to change the nature of commerce in England and beyond throughout the nineteenth century, a middle class gradually emerged where before there had been only the aristocrats who were born wealthy, and the lower classes. In many ways Pip represents the kind of middle class "gentleman" that was quite common during this time; that is, a gentleman who had established himself in a successful business and a comfortable lifestyle despite the fact that he had been born into poorer circumstances. If he had been born a century earlier, Pip would not have so easily found the means to rise out of his social station and enter a higher one through Magwitch's and his own success in business ventures.

This kind of social commentary is common in Dickens' works. Often he took the opportunity to criticize aspects of contemporary British culture that troubled him, like Victorian standards of education, the legal system, or crime and British prisons, which indeed he takes the opportunity to examine even in Great Expectations when Pip visits the notorious Newgate Prison in London. Before Great Expectations, many readers had begun to feel that the novels that Dickens wrote in the 1850s, such as Bleak House and Hard Times, had become too dark, gloomy, and depressing, and they missed the humor and the appealing characterizations of such popular earlier novels as Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, and David Copperfield. Such readers were much pleased by Great Expectations, because, despite Dickens' occasional lapses into social criticism, they found such figures as the self-important Uncle Pumblechook, the would-be actor Mr. Wopsle, and the comic family of the Pockets worthy of comparison with the humorous caricatures that made the earlier novels so popular.

In addition to the character of Pip, Great Expectations offers many characters that add a rich texture to any interpretation of the novel. Some critics have found an unusual opportunity for understanding the place of women in Victorian culture and their role in Victorian fiction by studying the women in this novel: the kind Biddy, who is able to guess the identity of Mrs. Joe's attacker, and who sees more clearly than anyone the painful effects of Pip's selfish aspirations, and Molly, the mysterious woman who had been unwilling to suffer the degradation of her husband Magwitch's infidelity without a fight. Of particular interest is the peciliar and memorable case of Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter Estella. Miss Havisham embodies the wrath of a woman who has been cheated and abandoned by a reputed lover, and as a result she is a woman who has refused to accept the passage of time. The clocks in her house were stopped forever when she learned of her lover's duplicity, and the shoe she was in the process of putting on when she heard the news remains off of her foot. Her rotting wedding dress and cake represent the spoiled hopes that are turned into hatred as she plots her revenge by raising a heartless child to break the hearts of men. Far from the generous benefactor she appears to be to Pip, she lures him into her plans to make Estella into a cold and condescending young lady. And the outcome of Miss Havisham's plans offer the reader a lesson as well; she comes to find that she herself can expect no affection from a child she has raised without affection, and the vindictive life that she raised Estella to live becomes a sham and a tragedy when Estella enters a bad marriage with the abusive Bentley Drummle.

Other characters, such as the gentle blacksmith Joe, the lawyer Jaggers with his scores of grateful clients, and Jaggers' clerk Wemmick also contribute to the indelible impression of Great Expectations on the reader. Wemmick, particularly, is one of Dickens' most idiosyncratic and endearing characters, with his clearly delineated private side in which he serves Jaggers with the utmost professional discretion, and his diametrically opposed personal side in which he takes care of his stone deaf father, "the Aged P," in their impenetrable suburban cottage built to resemble a castle complete with cannon, moat and drawbridge. It is characters like Wemmick, and Joe, and Miss Havisham, in addition to the remarkably realistic characterization of Pip, that make Great Expectations one of Dickens' greatest works, and indeed one of the finest achievements of the Victorian novel. Like the Victorian readers who hurried to buy the latest issue of the magazine to read the latest in Pip's adventures, readers through the years have continued to find the experience of reading Great Expectations to be compelling and endlessly entertaining.

Source: Arnold A. Markley, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.

Lucille P. Shores

In the excerpt below, Shores argues that the character of Estella, often regarded as cold and cruel, acts with genuine affection and honesty in her relationship with Pip.

A close inspection of the speeches and gestures which Dickens gives to Estella can easily give credit to the notion that she has a great deal of respect and affection for Pip, but Dickens never actually has Pip put this forth as a revelation, simply because Pip continues to remain ignorant of it. He does not even give the retrospective "if-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now" analysis of this situation that he does in the cases of Joe and Magwitch. We are probably not accustomed to this much subtlety in Dickens; we are used to having him spell out his meanings for us very clearly. But the possibility of Estella's sincere affection for Pip should not be dismissed simply because Dickens does not give it the heavy underlining he usually gives; for this is an area of emotion in which Dickens the man had a customary reticence.

Although Estella has been trained by Miss Havisham to be instinctively proud and insulting, it can be seen that as a woman she is consistently gentle with Pip—in her own way, of course. She has a deep-rooted dislike of all the Pockets, from her awareness of their malicious envy of her, and Pip early wins her favor by being her champion against them. Even as a child, she rewards him with a kiss when he bests Herbert Pocket in their senseless (but very believable) fisticuffs. And as an adult, she states clearly and unequivocally that the Pockets' ill-opinion of him only strengthens her favorable opinion of Pip and that she derives bitter pleasure from the fact that he is above their petty meannesses. Even at the height of his unjustified snobbishness, Pip never comes close to the pretentiousness, intolerance, and avariciousness of the Pocket clan (Herbert and Matthew of course excepted). It is Pip's enduring decency and essential simplicity that cause Estella to regard him, albeit rather grudgingly at times, as her hero; he is undoubtedly a refreshing contrast to all she has been used to.

But besides this rather abstract respect which Estella has for Pip, we can also infer that she is attracted to him as a man. The scene where Pip and Estella first meet as adults is handled with a restraint characteristic of Victorian fiction in general and Dickens in particular, but nevertheless it can give a remarkably clear impression, if attention is paid to it.

"Is he changed?" Miss Havisham asked her.

"Very much," said Estella, looking at me.

"Less coarse and common?" said Miss Havisham, playing with Estella's hair.

Estella laughed, and looked at the shoe in her hand, and laughed again, and looked at me, and put the shoe down. She treated me as a boy still, but she lured me on.

The shoe, of course, is a symbolic shoe (reminding us of Miss Havisham's bridal slippers), but it is also a very right detail in this scene. Dickens has intuitively been able to capture here the exact behavior of a young woman who is sexually attracted to a man and embarrassed by her feelings. Estella has long schooled herself in "perfect composure," but she is unable to conceal completely her physical awareness; Pip takes this reaction, in a quite typically male way, as an enticement. It is her unexpected womanliness that causes him to retreat to boyishness.

Any post-Freudian reader should be able to discern that Estella's notorious pride is only a defense against her feelings of inadequacy. Even though she is not aware that she is in fact the daughter of such "low" characters as Magwitch and Molly, she knows all too well that she is only Miss Havisham's adopted daughter and that she has quite arbitrarily been placed in a position of gentility. It is probably this very defensiveness about the precariousness of her own genteel situation that makes her as a child chide Pip for his coarseness and commonness. She has been continually beset by Miss Havisham's relatives, who resent her as the heiress of fortunes that could be theirs; she has been made to feel like an usurper. And when the artificiality of her upbringing becomes contrasted with the naturalness of Pip's, she seems to become all the more resentful of this life that she has had forced on her without her consent. As a woman, she knows that Miss Havisham has warped her personality beyond repair, and she is ashamed of what she has become. But with an admirable matter-offactness she accepts her own limitations, and quite unselfishly she refuses to burden Pip with them. Again and again she sincerely warns him away from her; there is nothing coy about her manner of doing so.

"Oh! I have a heart to be stabbed in or shot in, I have no doubt," said Estella, "and, of course, if it ceased to beat I should cease to be. But you know what I mean. I have no softness there, no—sympathy—sentiment—nonsense."

She asserts that she cannot love, and in the conventional sense she is probably right. Just as with Pip, conventional notions do not apply to her. Pip's love is a strongly emotional and uncontrollable sensation; he knows it must appear absurd to other people, but he cannot help it. But Pip has repeatedly shown himself to be first a boy and then a young man given to extravagance and hyperbole. It is natural for him to behave as he does—for him to have an exaggerated love and to display it in an exaggerated way. It is equally natural for Estella, who from her babyhood on has had all her personality channeled into artificial restraints, to behave in the muted, subdued, tightly controlled way she does. She has been taught by Miss Havisham not to love, but then to Miss Havisham real love consists of "blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter." It is small wonder that Estella is not able to recognize her feeling for Pip as love.

Estella is only instinctively aware that Pip is different from all other people and that he somehow deserves a different and better treatment. Her rejection of Pip, which is almost universally condemned by critics as showing her pitilessness, is actualy a very laudable sort of nobility and altruism. She knows that she cannot make Pip happy (Bernard Shaw is quite right in saying that Estella's character is not conducive to providing connubial happiness), and she has too much affection for him to link her unhappy life with his. When Pip reproaches her for flinging herself away on a brute like Bentley Drummle, her reply is incisive and illuminating.

"On whom should I fling myself away?" she retorted with a smile. "Should I fling myself away upon the man who would the soonest feel (if people do feel such things) that I took nothing to him? There! It is done. I shall do well enough, and so will my husband. As to leading me into what you call this fatal step, Miss Havisham would have had me wait, and not marry yet; but I am tired of the life I have led, which has had very few charms for me, and I am willing enough to change it. Say no more. We shall never understand each other."

"Such a mean brute, such a stupid brute!" I urged in despair.

"Don't be afraid of my being a blessing to him," said Estella; "I shall not be that. Come! Here is my hand. Do we part on this, you visionary boy—or man?"

Several things should become obvious upon inspection of this passage. One is that Estella is certainly not marrying Drummle for his money, as most critics blithely state in their summaries of the novel's plot. She is also not acting mechanically as an instrument of Miss Havisham; she is, in fact, defying Miss Havisham and seeking escape from the life her foster mother has subjected her to. But more importantly, she is surely marrying Drummle because she feels herself to be unworthy of Pip; she has chosen Drummle precisely because he has nothing to recommend him and she feels he is the only sort of husband to whom she can do no harm. And again her attraction to Pip should be clear just in a phrase like "you visionary boy—or man"; this is a charmingly revealing kind of thing that a woman would say to a man whose quixoticism she regards with affectionate humor.

Up to the very end, Dickens has her maintain this reserve with Pip—and it is a reserve rather than an actual coldness. She has been willing through all these years not to see Pip, and even when they meet again she has not sought him out; she gave him up thoroughly, even though the passing of years has evidently made it harder rather than easier for her to forget him. The last dialogue she is given to say is a declaration that even though now they have forgiven each other old wrongs and agreed to be friends, they must continue apart. Even now, she does not trust herself with Pip's happiness.

But of course the point is that Pip does not really want to be happy—again, in the conventional sense. He has said repeatedly that he is not happy with Estella, but even less happy without her. And the fact that all these people who condemn the "happy ending" miss is that it is not happy at all. Pip and Estella come together quite by accident; neither has determined to redeem his life by seeking out the other. Each has been shattered by many disillusioning and trying experiences. And Dickens leaves the actual conditions of their reunion quite ambiguous. "I saw no shadow of another parting from her." There is no reason, except maudlin sentimentality, to suppose that this means that they got married and lived happily ever after. It should simply mean that Pip no longer feels threatened by a separation from her, in his old desperate way. At any rate, it should be clear that if Pip and Estella do at last come together, it is only because now finally they can understand each other (as Estella supposed they never could) and admit their mutual need, which has grown more subtle but not less urgent with age.

It is often dismissed as mere sloppiness on Dickens' part that he did not go back and revise Pip's early observations of Estella if, in fact, eventually he is to win and marry her, as the new ending seems to suggest. But Dickens was almost never a sloppy writer, and certainly not in Great Expectations. An author who would be careful enough to change a preposition in Biddy's letter would certainly not let something as crucial as a major inconsistency of tone slip by him. If he left the strain of melancholy in Pip's retrospective remarks about Estella, it was surely because he felt that this tone continued to be appropriate, even with the revised ending. Pip's and Estella's meeting is not a joyous reunion and a promise that now everything wil be all right; it is the somber and solemn merger of two people who realize resignedly that each is the other's fate.

The years and her harsh experiences have only rendered Estella more humble in her regard for Pip. Because now she has had ample time to think about her feelings for him and to realize consciously what she only sensed instinctively before: that he has always been for her, in his own bumbling way, a hero. A woman who can speak with quiet restraint of "the remembrance of what I had thrown away when I was quite ignorant of its worth" shows no traces of Edwin Charles's wilful girl who finally triumphs by bringing Pip to her feet.

The name Estella of course means "star," and much has been made of the symbolism of Estella both as a star and as a jewel. One of Pip's first remarks about Estella is that "her light came along the dark passage like a star." There are occasions when Pip regards the stars as being cold and distant and perhaps even hostile, and they provide a contrast to the heat and brightness of the light of Joe's forge. But even though a star may seem cold and distant, it is always accepted as a reliable beacon and guide; and Estella, for all her reserve, is never false to Pip—never, in fact, anything but perfectly candid and also sound in her assessments of human nature. She says to Pip in the end, "I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape." She has passed through the homely blacksmith's fire, just as Pip has, and she no longer possesses the same sort of lofty removal from things as she had in her reflected, starry light.

This is not a fairy-tale sort of happiness that Dickens is presenting us with. It is the very real sort of compromise that men and women make to each other, when life inexplicably but inevitably thrusts them together. Bulwer Lytton was probably reacting with basic human sympathy when he insisted that Pip and Estella should be reunited; there is nothing forced or contrived about such a circumstance. Dickens created in Estella a character who could not be denied her rights as an individual. If we react to what Dickens actually shows us of Estella's character, then we cannot make facile judgments of her as a heartless she-monster who will make Pip's life wretched and whose union with him is therefore inappropriate. Dickens has succeeded, almost in spite of himself, in portraying an honest and attractive woman who deserves the hero Pip proves himself to be.

Source: Lucille P. Shores, "The Character of Estella in Great Expectations," in Massachusetts Studies in English, Fall, 1972, pp. 91-99.

Robert Barnard

In the following excerpt, Barnard describes Dickens' symbolic use of prison and animal imagery to suggest the transference of guilt from one character to another.

It becomes clear through a variety of subtle means in the early chapters of Great Expectations that the young Pip soaks up guilt like a sponge. From the moment he knows he has to rob the larder, everything around him takes on an accusatory or revengeful air. The very coals in the household fire seem to him "avenging," he dreams of pirates who summon him to be hanged, the boards on the staircase cry "Stop thief," the cattle (especially one with a clerical air) accuse him, and even the gates and dykes run at him as if they were pursuers. The whole picture of a guilty and terrified childish mind is remarkably vivid, so much so that the reader is never tempted to stop and ask himself whether the depravity Pip feels in himself is commensurate with the offense he has committed. He has deprived himself of a piece of bread and butter, and stolen random items of food from the family larder-no very enormous sins in the mind of the average child. Even granting the distorted vision of a terrified boy, it would seem that Pip is exaggerating his crime.

But of course the guilt he feels on the score of this minor theft is only part of a larger guilt—congenital, as it were, since it seems to have been generally regarded as criminally stupid in him to allow himself to be born at all—fostered in him by his sister, his sister's friends, and his surroundings. To Mrs. Joe he is not just a burden; he is a delinquent, to be treated as such. As a suitable topic for conversation during that most appallingly unmerry Christmas dinner which follows the second meeting with the convict, she regales the company with a catalogue of "all the illnesses I had been guilty of, and all the acts of sleeplessness I had committed, and all the high places I had tumbled from, and all the low places I had tumbled into, and all the injuries I had done myself, and all the times she had wished me in my grave, and I had contumaciously refused to go there." When, after the convict-hunt, he is sleepy, she removes him as "a slumbrous offence to the company's eyesight." The very food she allows him is given "a mortifying and penitential character." The rest of the company follows suit. It is Pip's misfortune, both in childhood and in adulthood, to be brought into contact with overbearing characters whose most usual method of conducting a conversation is inquisitorial. His position vis-à-vis Pumblechook and Jaggers is at best that of a slippery witness, at worst that of a criminal in the dock. Whether it is Pumblechook sticking the point of the conversation into him as if he were "an unfortunate little bull in a Spanish arena," or Jaggers, gnawing his forefinger and throwing it at him, Pip's position is as abject as that of any nineteenth-century delinquent, before the court on a trivial but capital charge.

The notion that Pip's fallen condition requires constant repentance and moral "touching up" is metaphorically expressed through the clothes he is forced into. They, like his diet, are of a "penitential" character:

As to me, I think my sister must have had some general idea that I was a young offender whom an Accoucheur Policeman had taken up (on my birthday) and delivered over to her, to be dealt with according to the outraged majesty of the law. I was always treated as though I had insisted on being born in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion, and morality, and against the dissuading arguments of my best friends. Even when I was taken to have a new suit of clothes, the tailor had orders to make them like a kind of Reformatory, and on no account to let me have the free use of my limbs.

The intensive concentration on Pip's feelings of guilt and delinquency culminate in the extraordinary suggestion that he himself is in some way responsible for the attack on his sister. Orlick, the real attacker, puts it bluntly during the scene in the sluice-house by the lime kiln: "It was you as did for your shrew sister." The more conventional Pip of those days replies: "It was you, villain." The younger Pip would have had a more ambiguous reaction. The attack occurs after two scenes in which the imaginary guilt is very obviously laid on Pip's shoulders. First we have the scene where he is "bound" to Joe, and treated as a criminal by court, family, and by-standers alike—especially by Pumblechook, who held him "as if we had looked in on our way to the scaffold." Then the reading of George Barnwell fixes on him, in his own eyes as well as Wopsle's and Pumblechook's, the role of ungrateful and murderous apprentice. The feeling that he had "had some hand in the attack upon my sister" is intensified when the weapon is found to be the convict's leg-iron, the symbol of Pip's "criminal" connection with the convict.

In all these ways, some with comic overtones, some completely serious, a degree of uncertainty is given to the question of guilt and innocence in this novel. With the exception of Joe, who is still in a paradisaic state of grace and innocence, the guilt of one character tinges the other characters, just as the moral regeneration of one character tinges the others. Thus all the characters participate in the fallen state of the others, and participate in their redemption too. Sin and crime are complex, both in their causes and in their consequences. In this novel the involved coincidences and connections, the gradual revelation of past wrongs which provide guilty links between disparate characters—in short the creaky machinery of a Dickens novel, so clumsily handled in Little Dorrit, for example—have an artistic purpose which totally justifies them. Magwitch, Miss Havisham, Pip, and Estella are connected by chains of guilt and corruption, and their roles as betrayers and betrayed, corruptors and corrupted, are deliberately allowed to become ambiguous. Miss Havisham, betrayed by Magwitch's associate, herself corrupts both Pip and Estella; Pip's childish pity for the convict starts a process of regeneration in him which itself contributes materially to the process of corruption in Pip. Guilt is infectious: Jaggers compulsively washes it off with scented soap; Pip feels contaminated by Newgate; when Magwitch is spied on after his return, it isPip who gets the "haunting idea" of being watched, and who feels that, if the convict is caught, he, Pip, will in some way be his murderer. In this matter of guilt and crime the characters are members one of another.

This fact, of course, explains why Newgate Prison has so often been felt by readers to have an importance in the novel quite incommensurate with the space devoted to it. Corruption spreads outwards from there, and almost all the major characters are affected by that corruption. In addition, a real prison is necessary to reinforce the many "images" of prison in the novel. Prison is no mere "overspill" theme from Dickens' previous novels; it is an inevitable concomitant of the main theme. Miss Havisham's crazy self-immolation is no mere repetition with variations of Mrs. Clennam's grim voluntary imprisonment in Little Dorrit; it is a still more powerful symbol of man's propensity to cherish his emotional wounds, distort them to mere theatricality, use them as an excuse to pervert others. In all the scenes involving Satis House, strong emphasis is placed on keys, bars, chains, and blocked windows. And throughout the novel the windows of rooms Pip is in give no view of the world outside: they are shuttered, dirty, damp, "patched like a broken head." One comes down "like a guillotine" and nearly beheads him as he tries to look through. Everywhere he goes Pip feels shut in, "caged and threatened" as he describes himself in the little causeway inn on the Thames. Innocence provides no escape from the prisons; indeed, the only way Wemmick can keep his innocence free from the contamination of Newgate is by shutting himself off from the world in his miniature castle at Walworth. Prisons, then, permeate the book, though not quite so completely as in Little Dorrit.

And, unlike Little Dorrit, the novel is also saturated with other aspects of punishment and legal repression, used symbolically. For example, Pip's "guilty" connection with the convict leads to his metaphorically bearing his leg-iron as well. The bread and butter he secretes becomes a "load on my leg," and that "made me think … of the man with the load on his leg." The cold morning earth rivets itself to the young Pip's feet "as iron was riveted to the leg of the man." The convict, and his messenger at the Jolly Bargemen who "rubs his leg," never appear but that we are reminded again of the iron and the associations it has for Pip.

Chains, too, pervade the novel: on a literal level, obviously enough, on the door of Satis House and attached to Jaggers' watch, sign of his mastery of the underworld characters he deals with. The symbolic use is more interesting. In a Dickens novel we usually have a symbol of "destiny," the complex interweaving of people, events, and past actions which provides the plot of the novel and makes the characters what they are. Often this symbol is quite a conventional one: in Little Dorrit it is a road; in this novel we have the river and the ships on it, which are several times identified with Miss Havisham and Pip's delusions concerning his expectations from her. But Pip's real destiny is connected with a chain:

Think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

The significance of the symbol becomes more explicit when Magwitch returns. Now he is no longer a man, to be pitied, but an object: "what I was chained to." When Pip comes to contemplate the realities of his situation, as opposed to the rosy vision of a calm sea and prosperous voyage with which he had been deluding himself, he realizes that Magwitch has been "loading me with his wretched gold and silver chains."

Similarly the "traps" which have sealed Magwitch's destiny catch Pip as well. The traps are set both by the law and Compeyson. Early in the novel the convicts are described as game "trapped in a circle"; Compeyson's criminal activities involve the entrapping of others: "All sorts of traps as Compeyson could set with his hand and keep his legs out of … was Compeyson's business." Magwitch sees these traps as an occupational hazard of his kind: "I'm an old bird now, as had dared all manner of traps since he was fledged." Pip is less adept at keeping out of them; indeed, he makes his own. Jaggers is compared to a man who sets a trap—"Suddenly—click—you're caught"—and Pip is a victim of his legalistic equivocations. The sluice-house is described as a trap, which indeed it is, set by Orlick. But his delusions concerning Estella are at least partly of his own construction: "You made your own snares," says Miss Havisham.

Perhaps the most subtle way Dickens suggests the transference of guilt from one character to another is by his use of the image of the dog. In chapter iii, while Pip, with the pity for his desolation which is to have such momentous consequences, is watching the convict eating the food he has brought him, a comparison occurs to his mind which is to reverberate through the novel:

I had often watched a large dog of ours eating his food; and I now noticed a decided similarity betwen the dog's way of eating, and the man's. The man took strong sharp sudden bites, just like the dog. He swallowed, or rather snapped up, every mouthful, too soon and too fast; and he looked sideways here and there while he ate, as if he thought there was danger in every direction of somebody's coming to take the pie away. He was altogether too unsettled in his mind over it, to appreciate it comfortably, I thought, or to have anybody to dine with him, without making a chop with his jaws at the visitor. In all of which particulars he was very like the dog.

It is a comparison which has been hinted at on the convict's first appearance in the churchyard— "a man … who limped and shivered, and glared and growled"—and which is maintained throughout the early chapters in which he appears. The soldiers growl at the captured pair "as if to dogs," as Pip is to remember when he travels home from London in the company of the two other convicts. It is, indeed, an identification which Magwitch himself accepts, using it as a description of himself only less frequently than his favorite "warmint." When he hears of the existence of the escaped convict Compeyson he vows to "pull him down like a bloodhound." When he reappears to reveal to Pip the source of his expectations, he refers to himself as "that there hunted dunghill dog wot you kep life in." At this time, in spite of his resolution to keep "a genteel muzzle on," he disgusts Pip not only by his low talk, but by his eating:

He ate in a ravenous way that was very disagreeable, and all his actions were uncouth, noisy and greedy. Some of his teeth had failed him since I saw him eat on the marshes, and as he turned his food in his mouth, and turned his head sideways to bring his strongest fangs to bear upon it, he looked terribly like a hungry old dog.

Though the novel is full of animal imagery, the identification of the convict with a dog, by implication a miserable, starved cur, is interesting because no other character, except perhaps Pumblechook, is so surely and continuously identified with any one species. The comparison is not a particularly surprising or unusual one, but what makes it especially significant is that it spills over onto the young Pip. The convict himself calls him "young dog" and "fierce young hound," and this last phrase is remembered with anguish by Pip when he fears that the convict will imagine it was he who betrayed him. But it is later in the book, when Pip himself is in the position of the despised outcast, that the comparison comes through most clearly. Curiously enough, it comes in a scene in which he is being fed:

She came back, with some bread and meat and a little mug of beer. She put the mug down on the stones of the yard, and gave me the bread and meat without looking at me, as insolently as if I were a dog in disgrace. I was so humiliated, hurt, spumed, offended, angry, sorry—I cannot hit the right name for the smart—God knows what its name was—that tears started to my eyes.

It is through his treatment by Estella, so different from the spirit in which he himself watched the convict, that he comes to find himself in the position of the hunted convict whom he had feared and compassionated: a spumed outcast, despised, almost beneath contempt, his humanity degraded or denied, reduced to the level of a beast.

It is through the use of this image that we see most clearly that, as Pip takes over the same metaphor as the convict, he assumes his share in his guilt and emotionally comprehends his position in society. The child can both pity the convict and put himself imaginatively in his position. The young man with "expectations" and a horror of crime can do neither, which makes doubly ironical Magwitch's part in bringing about this change in character.

Source: Robert Barnard, "Imagery and Theme in Great Expectations," in Dickens Studies Annual, 1970, pp. 238-51.


Angus Calder, Introduction to Great Expectations, Penguin, 1981.

Janice Carlisle, editor, "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens, Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Bert G. Hornback, 'Great Expectations': A Novel of Friendship, Twayne, 1987.

Humphrey House, The Dickens World, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 1942.

For Further Study

Robert Barnard, Imagery and Theme in the Novels of Dickens, Humanities Press, 1974.

Includes valuable discussions of the images and themes that Dickens pursues in his novels, including Great Expectations.

Mary Lamberton Becker, Introducing Charles Dickens, Dodd, 1940.

This biography contains the story of Dickens' late-life encounter with a boy who, like himself in his youth, holds dreams of someday becoming the master of Gad's Hill.

Jerome Hamilton Buckley, Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding, Harvard University Press, 1974.

Provides an important discussion of Great Expectations in the tradition of the bildungsroman, a type of novel that focuses on the coming of age of a major character.

G. K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens, 22nd edition, Methuen, 1949.

Besides "The Boyhood of Dickens" in Chapter 2, an excellent commentary on the lowbrow character of some highbred gentlemen (168) and "The Alleged Optimism of Dickens" in Chapter 11.

William Ross Clark, editor, Discussions of Charles Dickens, Heath, 1961.

An anthology of criticism from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth, including Gissing, Bush, Orwell, House, Stange, Moynahan, and Miller.

Philip Collins, editor, Dickens: The Critical Heritage, Barnes, 1971.

A collection of contemporary responses, reviews, and critical interpretations of Dickens' works.

Steven Connor, Charles Dickens, Basil Blackwell, 1985.

Groups discussions of Dickens' novels according to theme; the essay on Great Expectations is found under the category of "Self and System."

Archibald C. Coolidge, Charles Dickens as a Serial Novelist, University of Iowa Press, 1967.

A valuable study of the manner in which Dickens wrote his novels for publication in periodicals in installments, and the effects that this manner of publication had on the development of his works.

Mamie Dickens, My Father as I Recall Him, Dutton, n.d.

Dickens' love of Gads Hill and his intensity in living with the characters he created.

K. J. Fielding, Charles Dickens: A Critical Introduction, David McKay Co., 1958.

An influential study of Dickens' works in which the author emphasizes, among other things, the fact that the novels can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

K. J. Fielding, editor, The Speeches of Charles Dickens, Oxford University Press, 1960.

Dickens addresses the need for more and better schools for lower class children.

George H. Ford, "Charles Dickens," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 21: Victorian Novelists Before 1885, edited by Ira B. Nadel and William E. Fredeman, Gale, 1983, pp. 89-124.

Dickens' biography, criticism, and themes, interwoven as Bildungsroman in the author's life and work.

John Forster, "Great Expectations," in The Life of Charles Dickens, Scribners, 1904, pp. 355-61.

Dickens plans Great Expectations as an autobiography similar to David Copperfield's.

John A. Garraty and Peter Gay, editors, "From Liberalism to Democracy," The Columbia History of the World, Harper, 1972, pp. 871-83.

General background on the socio-economic influences of the time, including the force of democracy versus the fear of rule by the many illiterate.

Robin Gilmour, The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel, Allen, 1981.

A study of the cultural and political significance of "gentleman" as a recurring theme in Victorian novels; includes a discussion of Pip's desire to better his lot in life and to become a gentleman in the context of other works of Victorian literature.

Bernard D. Grebanier, Samuel Middlebrook, Stith Thompson, and William Watts, editors, English Literature and Its Backgrounds, Volume Two: From the Forerunners of Romanticism to the Present, 2nd edition, Holt, 1949.

A comprehensive timeline of British literature, 1550-1940, and an illustrated chapter on "The Victorian Age" (417-48).

Philip Hobsbaum, A Reader's Guide to Charles Dickens, Thames & Hudson, 1972.

Provides a wealth of background information on Dickens' life, Dickens' England, and Dickens' novels.

Rewey Belle Inglis, Alice Cecilia Cooper, Marion A. Sturdevant, and William Rose Benet, editors, Adventures in English Literature, Harcourt, 1938.

A timeline of British Victorian authors (671) and a reprint of the chapter on Dickens' childhood from G. K. Chesterton's Charles Dickens, published in 1906 (1090-99).

Fred Kaplan, Dickens: A Biography, Morrow, 1988.

A comprehensive biography of the author that provides much insight into Dickens' life and into the composition of his novels.

Charles Kent, Charles Dickens as a Reader, Lippincott, 1872.

A personal view of Dickens by one who knew him and his lasting love of theater and audience.

F. R. and Q. D. Leavis, Dickens the Novelist, Pantheon, 1970.

Includes Q. D. Leavis' insightful essay "How We Must Read 'Great Expectations," a useful introduction to interpreting the novel.

J. Hillis Miller, Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels, Indiana University Press, 1969.

Includes an influential essay in which the author interprets the major themes of Great Expectations.

Harland S. Nelson, Charles Dickens, Twayne, 1981.

Covers detailed information on the background, audience, and serialization of Dickens' works; also includes summaries of the novels.

Norman Page, A Dickens Companion, Schocken Books, 1984.

An invaluable resource with information on such topics as the composition, serialization, publication, and reception of Dickens' works.

J. B. Priestley, Charles Dickens and His World, Viking Press, 1969.

A detailed study of the England of Dickens' day; useful for gaining a better understanding of the setting of his novels.

Anny Sandrin, Great Expectations, Unwin Hyman, 1988.

A collection of Dickens' criticism and biography, including the story he told of meeting a young boy who reminded him of himself as a child with dreams of becoming master of Gads Hill.

Michael Slater, Dickens on America and the Americans, University of Texas Press, 1978.

Dickens notes distinct differences between American and English factory wage slaves.

Michael Slater, editor, Dickens 1970: Centenary Essays, Stein, 1970.

Comedy, social change, and children's issues are addressed, among others.

Graham Storey and Kathleen Tillotson, editors, The Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. Eight, Clarendon Press, 1995.

Notable primarily for Dickens' 1858 admission of his failed marriage and his protection of the woman purported to be his mistress, closely followed by his will in which only his family is mentioned.

Adolphus William Ward, Dickens, Harper, 1882.

A generally positive review with attention to Dicken's revised ending as one that is less than expected.

Edmund Wilson, The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature, Oxford University Press, 1947.

In the essay "Dickens: The Two Scrooges," Wilson became one of the first critics to focus on Dickens as an artist, and to attribute much of the darker themes in his novels to his personality and background.

Angus Wilson, The World of Charles Dickens, Viking, 1970.

Many illustrations and easy-to-understand text, including a description and illustration of the "Ragged Schools" (228-29).

George J. Worth, Great Expectations: An Annotated Bibliography, Garland, 1986.

An invaluable resource that will direct the student to a variety of published material on Great Expectations for the study of this novel.