Author: Charles Dickens
Born: February 7, 1812; Portsmouth, Hampshire, England
Died: June 9, 1870; Gad’s Hill, near Rochester, Kent, England
Type of Work: Novel
Type of Plot: Bildungsroman
Time of Work: Nineteenth century
Pip, an orphan
Joe Gargery, Pip’s brother-in-law
Miss Havisham, an eccentric recluse
Estella, Miss Havisham’s ward
Herbert Pocket, Pip’s roommate
Mr. Jaggers, a solicitor
Abel Magwitch (Mr. Provis), a convict
Compeyson, a villain
Little Pip had been left an orphan when he was a small boy, and his much older sister had grudgingly reared him in her cottage. Pip’s brother-in-law, Joe Gargery, on the other hand, was kind and loving to the boy. Pip often wandered alone in the marsh country where he lived with his sister and Joe. One day, he was accosted by a wild-looking stranger who was an escaped prisoner. He frightened Pip and demanded that the boy secretly bring him food and a file to cut the iron chain that bound his leg. When Pip brought him a pork pie and file, he saw another mysterious figure on the marsh. This man engaged in a desperate struggle with the escaped prisoner, then escaped into the fog. The man whom Pip had aided promised that he would somehow repay the boy for helping him. He was later apprehended.
Mrs. Joe sent Pip to the large mansion of strange Miss Havisham upon that lady’s request. Miss Havisham lived in a gloomy, locked house where all the clocks had been stopped on the day her bridegroom failed to appear for the wedding ceremony. She often dressed in her bridal robes; a wedding breakfast molded on the table in an unused room. Pip went there every day to visit the old lady and a beautiful young girl, named Estella, who delighted in tormenting the shy boy. Miss Havisham enjoyed watching the two children together, and she encouraged Estella in her haughty teasing of Pip.
Living in the grim atmosphere of Joe’s blacksmith shop and the uneducated poverty of his sister’s home, Pip was eager to learn. One day, a London solicitor named Jaggers presented him with the opportunity to go to London and become a gentleman. Both Pip and Joe accepted the proposal. Pip imagined that his kind backer was Miss Havisham and that perhaps she wanted to make a gentleman out of him so that he would be fit someday to marry Estella.
In London, Pip found a small apartment set up for him. Herbert Pocket, a young relative of Miss Havisham, was his living companion. When Pip needed money, he was instructed to go to Mr. Jaggers. Although Pip pleaded with the lawyer to disclose the name of his benefactor, Jaggers advised the eager young man not to make inquiries; when the proper time arrived, Pip’s benefactor would make himself known.
Soon Pip became one of a small group of London dandies, among them a disagreeable chap named Bentley Drummle. To Pip’s dismay, Joe Gargery came to visit; Pip, who had outgrown his rural background, was ashamed of Joe’s simple manners, but Herbert Pocket cheerfully helped Pip to entertain Joe in their apartment. After he had left for the evening, Pip felt ashamed of himself. Joe had brought word that Miss Havisham wanted to see the young man, so Pip returned to his old home with his brother-in-law. Miss Havisham and Estella noted the changes in Pip, and when Estella left Pip alone with the old lady, she told him he must fall in love with the beautiful girl. She also said it was time for Estella to come to London, and that she wished Pip to meet her adopted daughter when she arrived. This request made Pip feel even more certain that he had been sent to London by Miss Havisham to be groomed to marry Estella.
Estella had not been in London long before she had many suitors. Of all the men who courted her, she seemed to favor Bentley Drummle. Pip saw Estella frequently. Although she treated him kindly and with friendship, he knew she did not return his love.
On his twenty-first birthday, Pip received a caller. It was Abel Magwitch, the man whom Pip had helped in the marsh many years earlier. He told Pip that it was he who had been financing him ever since he had come to London. At first, the boy was horrified to discover he owed so much to this crude, coarse man, a former criminal. Magwitch told Pip that he had been sent to the Colonies, where he had grown rich. Now he wanted Pip to enjoy all the privileges that he himself had been denied in life. He had returned to England to see the boy to whom he had tried to be a second father. He warned Pip that he was in danger should his presence be discovered, for it was death for a prisoner to return to England once he had been sent to a convict colony. Pip detested his plight. He realized that Miss Havisham had had nothing to do with his great expectations in life, but he was too conscious of his debt to consider abandoning the man whose person he disliked. He determined to do all in his power to please his benefactor. Magwitch, who was using the name Provis to hide his identity, told Pip that the man with whom Pip had seen him struggling long ago in the marsh was his enemy, Compeyson, who had vowed to destroy him. Herbert Pocket, a distant cousin of Miss Havisham, informed Pip that the lover who had betrayed her on her wedding day had been named Arthur Compeyson.
Pip went to see Miss Havisham to denounce her for having allowed him to believe that she was helping him. On his arrival, he was informed that Estella was to marry Bentley Drummle. Since Miss Havisham had suffered at the hands of one faithless man, she had reared Estella to inflict as much hurt as possible upon the many men who would fall in love with her. Estella reminded Pip that she had warned him not to fall in love with her, since she had no compassion for any human being. Pip returned once more to visit Miss Havisham after Estella was married. An accident started a fire in the old, dust-filled mansion; although Pip tried to save the old woman, she died in the blaze, which also badly damaged the gloomy house.
From Provis’ story of his association with Compeyson and from other evidence, Pip had learned that Provis was Estella’s father; he did not reveal his discovery to anyone but Jaggers, whose housekeeper was Estella’s mother. Pip had also learned that Compeyson was in London and plotting to kill Provis. In order to protect the man who had tried to befriend him, Pip arranged to smuggle Provis across the channel to France with the help of Herbert Pocket. Pip intended to join the old man there. Elaborate and secretive as their plans were, Compeyson managed to overtake them as they were putting Provis on the boat. The two enemies fought one last battle in the water, and Provis killed his enemy. He was then taken to jail, where he died before he could be brought to trial.
When Pip fell ill shortly afterward, it was Joe Gargery who came to nurse him. Older and wiser from his many experiences, Pip realized that he no longer needed to be ashamed of the kind man who had given so much love to him when he was a boy. His sister, Mrs. Joe, had died and Joe had married again, this time very happily. Pip, still desolate and unhappy because of his lost Estella, returned to the blacksmith’s home to recuperate. Later, Herbert Pocket and Pip set up business together in London.
Eleven years passed before Pip went to see Joe Gargery again. Curiosity led him to the site of Miss Havisham’s former mansion. There he found Estella, now a widow, wandering over the grounds. During the intervening years, she had lost her cool aloofness and had softened a great deal. She told Pip she had thought of him often. Pip was able to foresee that perhaps he and Estella would never have to part again. The childhood friends walked hand in hand from the place that had once played such an enormous part in both of their lives.
G. K. Chesterton once observed that all of Charles Dickens’ novels could be titled “Great Expectations,” for they are full of an unsubstantial yet ardent expectation of everything. Nevertheless, as Chesterton pointed out with irony, the only book to which Dickens actually gave the title was one in which most of the expectations were never realized. To the Victorians, the word “expectations” meant legacy as well as anticipations. In that closed society, one of the few means by which a person born of the lower or lower-middle class could rise to wealth and high status was through inheritance. A major theme of the Victorian social novel involved a hero’s passage through the class structure, and a major vehicle of that passage was money bestowed upon him, acquired through marriage, or inherited. Unlike many nineteenth century novels that rely upon the stale plot device of a surprise legacy to enrich the fortunate protagonists, Great Expectations probes deeply into the ethical and psychological dangers of advancing through the class system by means of wealth acquired from the toil of others.
Although the story of Pip’s expectations dominates the novel, he is not the only person who waits to benefit from the money of another. His beloved Estella, the ward of Miss Havisham, is wholly dependent upon the caprices of the unstable old woman. Moreover, other characters are the mysterious instrumentalities of legacies. The solicitor Jaggers, who acts as the legal agent for both Miss Havisham and Abel Magwitch, richly benefits from his services. Even his lackey Mr. Wemmick, a mild soul who changes his personality from lamb to wolf to please his employer, earns his living from the legal machinery of the courts. Just as the source of Pip’s money is revealed at last to be socially corrupted, so the uses of tainted wealth inevitably bring about corruption.
In Bleak House (1852-1853), Dickens had already explored with great skill the ruthless precincts of the law courts. His next three novels—Hard Times (1854), Little Dorrit (1855-1857), and A Tale of Two Cities (1859)—were not so well sustained and were, despite memorable scenes, less popular with the critics and public alike. Great Expectations (1860-1861, first published serially in All the Year Round) restored Dickens’ supremacy with his vast reading audience. Serious, controlled, and nearly as complex structurally as Bleak House, the novel also reminded Victorian readers of David Copperfield (1849-1850). Both are apprenticeship novels that treat the life education of a hero. Great Expectations is somewhat less autobiographical than David Copperfield, but it repeats the basic formula of the genre: that of an honest, rather ingenuous but surely likeable young man who, through a series of often painful experiences, learns important lessons about life and himself. These lessons are always designed to reveal the hero’s limitations. As he casts off his own weaknesses and better understands the dangers of the world, he succeeds by advancing through the class system and ends up less brash, a chastened but wiser man.
Great Expectations differs from David Copperfield, however, in the ways that the hero matures to self-knowledge. In the beginning, both David and Pip are young snobs (Pip more than David). Both suffer the traumas of a shattered childhood and troubled adolescence, but David’s childhood suffering is fully motivated on the basis of his separation from loved ones. An innocent, he is the victim of evil that he does not cause. Pip, on the other hand, suffers from a childhood nightmare that forms a pattern of his later experience. An orphan like David, he lives with his brutal sister and her husband, the gentle blacksmith Joe Gargery. The abuse he endures from Mrs. Joe is more than compensated for by the brotherly affection of this simple, generous man. He also wins the loving sympathy of Biddy, another loyal friend. Nevertheless, he is not satisfied, and when he comes upon the convicts in the fog and is terrified, he feels a sense of guilt—misplaced but psychologically necessary—as much for his crimes against his protectors as for the theft of a pork pie. Thereafter, his motives, cloudy as the scene of his childhood terror, are weighted with secret apprehension and guilt. To regain his lost innocence, he must purge himself of the causes of this guilt.
Pip’s life apprenticeship, therefore, involves his gaining a full understanding of his “crimes” against loved ones and of the ways to redeem himself. The causes of his guilt are, in order of severity, snobbish pride, his betrayal of friends and protectors, and finally his participation in the machinery of corruption.
As a snob, he not only breaks the social mold into which he has been cast but lords it over the underlings and unfortunates of the class system. Because of his presumed great expectations, he believes himself to be superior to the humbler Joe and Biddy. He makes such a pompous fool of himself that Trabb’s boy—that brilliant comic invention, at once naughty boy and honest philosopher—parodies his absurd airs and pretensions. His snobbery, however, costs him a dearer price than humiliation by an urchin. He falls in love with Estella, like himself a pretender to high social class, only to be rejected in favor of a worthless cad, Bentley Drummle. His fanciful dreams of social distinction are shattered forever when he learns the bitter truth about his benefactor, who is not the highborn Miss Havisham but the escaped convict Magwitch, the wretched stranger of his terror in the fog.
As Pip comes to understand the rotten foundations for his social position, he also learns terrible truths about his own weaknesses. Out of foolish pride, he has betrayed his most loyal friends, Joe and Biddy. In a sense, he has even betrayed Miss Havisham. He has mistaken her insanity for mere eccentricity and allowed her to act out her fantasies of romantic revenge. When he tries to confront her with the reality of her life, he is too late, for she expires in flames. He is almost too late to come to the service of his real benefactor, Magwitch. He is so disturbed with the realization of the convict’s sacrifice that he nearly flees from the old man when he is in danger. At best, he can repay Magwitch with gratitude, not love, and his sense of guilt grows from his understanding that he cannot ever repay his debt to a man he secretly loathes.
Pip’s final lesson is that, no matter how pure might be his motives, he has been one of the instruments of social corruption. In a sense, he is the counterpart to the malcontent Dolge Orlick. Like Orlick, he had as a youth been an apprentice at the forge, but whereas he was fortunate in having moved upward into society, Orlick, consumed by hatred, failed in every enterprise. In chapter 53, a climactic scene of the novel, Orlick confronts his enemy and blames Pip for all of his failures. He even accuses Pip of responsibility for the death of Mrs. Joe. The charge is paranoiac and false: Orlick is the murderer. In his almost hallucinatory terror, however, Pip can psychologically accept Orlick’s reasoning. As a child, Pip had hated his sister. If he had not been the active instrument of her death, he nevertheless profited from it. Similarly, Pip profited from the hard-earned toil of Magwitch. Indeed, most of the success he had enjoyed, thanks to the astute protection of Mr. Jaggers, had come not as his due but for a price, the payment of corrupted money. Since he had been the ignorant recipient of the fruits of corruption, his psychological guilt is all the greater.
Nevertheless, Pip, though chastened, is not destroyed by guilt. During the course of his apprenticeship to life, he learns valuable truths about himself and about his limitations. By the end of his career, when his apprenticeship is over and he is a responsible, mature being, he has cast off petty pride, snobbery, and the vexations of corrupted wealth. Although he has lost his innocence forever, he can truly appreciate Herbert Pocket, Joe, and Biddy, all of whom had retained their integrity. When he turns to Estella, also chastened by her wretched marriage to the sadistic Drummle