Great Expectations (1861) is Charles Dickens’s cautionary novel about the effect of wealth and aspiration upon one’s character. Pirip (Pip), a young orphan raised by his hard sister and her gentle husband and local blacksmith, Joe Gadgery, has no expectations beyond an apprenticeship and life working at the forge. A chance encounter on the local moor with escaped convict, Magwitch, who demands assistance from the young Pip, sets an uneasy tone to the novel’s opening. As he grows up in humble surroundings, Pip falls into contact with Miss Havisham, a wealthy spinster who spends her life hiding from the world and ruing the collapse of her engagement. Miss Havisham manufactures a relationship between her adopted daughter, Estella, and Pip, but cruelly cuts short their burgeoning love as part of a cycle of continuing retribution that she wages against men for her own mistreatment. When the indomitable lawyer, Jaggers, informs Pip that an unnamed benefactor has provided for him financially and desires his advancement, Pip sets out for London and a better life. With his newly acquired expectations, Pip is drawn into the world of wealth and luxury, and disregards those from his previous life, particularly the kindly Joe. However, as secrets are revealed about his benefactor, Pip is forced to question his hollow existence and decide upon the sort of man that he wants to become.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens book cover

Great Expectations is one of Dickens’s bleaker books and can be read as a denunciation of his earlier, more optimistic work, David Copperfield, in which the hero ascends from the masses to a position of privilege. In this sense, Great Expectations is Dickens’s reconsideration of his own position to wealth, and as a novelist in general. Here the reader is presented with the negative impacts that the acquisition of wealth can have; that Pip rejects those who have loved him dearly is testament to the corrupting power of money. There is a consistent conflict between love and money, with many of the characters’ relationships soured by money in one way or another. Pip himself desires status and comes to represent England; the snobbery that results from his aspirational desires, equated to the materialism that Dickens saw all around him. Great Expectations debunks the conception of Victorian England as an affluent success story, and repositions it as a period of self-satisfaction and, ultimately hollow, indulgence.

Pip feels an innate sense of guilt and, as an everyman, carries within him not only society’s potential for guilt and evil, but also the potential to atone for the sins of his forebears. That Dickens chooses to discuss original sin in this way is interesting, particularly as Great Expectations is the first work in which Dickens moved away from the hereditary determinism of his earlier books, and chose instead to promote the idea of nurture, of one’s environment, as the predominant factors in determining one’s character; a far cry from the incorruptible goodness of Oliver Twist.

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Great Expectations is laced with mystery and secrets and Dickens uses symbolism throughout (for example, tying food with different forms of love), and contrasting darkness and light in much of the novel's imagery. The places too are important, from the misty marshes to the area of London around Newgate prison. As ever with Dickens, there are some great characters who collide abruptly with one another: the mysterious and troubled Miss Havisham; the simple, unswervingly good Joe; the officious Jaggers; the comical Herbert; and many more. There are, in particular, some brilliant female characters - dominating, mad, powerful - who are a long way from the Victorian ideal of womanhood. As the novel’s protagonist, Pip, whilst not the most engaging character in the novel, is the perfect tool for Dickens’s purpose. His first person point of view (split between the younger na├»ve Pip, who participates in the events, and the older, mature Pip who tells the story and reflects with maturity upon it) allows the bildungsroman to develop subtly as Pip’s morality is shaped and reshaped. However, whilst allowing for more sophisticated story development, that all the events are seen through Pip’s eyes is limiting, and one misses the humour that comes from having Dickens as the omniscient third-person narrator.

With a tide of aspirational literature washing over the reading public, and a colonial spirit of self-importance and desire to succeed taking hold, Dickens perceptively saw the need for a study of the negative effects of self-advancement, the need for a story to puncture the notion that hard work and commitment inevitably led to wealth and success. Through Great Expectations, Dickens questions the impulse towards self-improvement, and sneers at the common understanding of improvement as being linked to wealth, rather than to becoming a better person. In many ways, Joe is the novel’s hero: the antidote to a society wrapped up in its own advancement, a good man, who is content with his lot, wise enough not to create imbalance and competition within his marriage or community for the sake of a dream. Pip’s moral development throughout the novel is poignant and, through his evolving relationship with Magwitch, he is able to put to rest the cycle of injustice and revenge that pervades the novel’s many threads; an optimistic conclusion then, to one of Dickens’s fiercest social critiques.

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