Dickens' Great Expectations: Plot, Characters, and Social Class

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

Charles Dickens wrote the classic novel Great Expectations. Explore the major characters, themes, emphasis on social class, plot, the two separate endings, and why Charles Dickens decided to revise the original ending. Updated: 08/23/2021

Introduction to the Novel

If you've never read Great Expectations, you've probably encountered it in some form or another because Dickens is everywhere. There've been tons of movie adaptations - there's one with Alec Guinness, one with Gwyneth Paltrow; Daniel Radcliffe (that's the guy who plays Harry Potter) got his acting start playing Pip in a movie adaptation of Great Expectations - but you can learn everything you need to know about it in less time than it will take you to watch any of those movies, and I am certainly just as entertaining as Gwyneth and young Daniel Radcliffe. So here we go!

The novel was published serially from 1860 to 1861. This just means that chapters usually end without resolution; he was trying to make it a cliffhanger so you'd buy the next issue of the magazine. It's kind of like Lost, where they force you to watch the next episode because they end with dramatic music and you don't know who's in the hatch and all of that. Luckily, Great Expectations doesn't disappoint you and make you cry like the end of Lost does because it doesn't wrap everything up in a neat bow like they promised you - but anyway.

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  • 0:02 Introduction to the Novel
  • 1:16 Major Characters
  • 3:32 Major Themes
  • 6:13 Plot Summary
  • 14:02 The Two Endings
  • 16:01 Lesson Summary
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Major Characters

Major characters in Great Expectations: the first is Pip, who I mentioned before - the young Daniel Radcliffe character. Since the novel is a Bildungsroman, which is just following along a character's development as he gets older, Pip is the guy that the Bildungsroman is about, so he's kind of the main character. We learn early on that he's passionate and idealistic and he's really, really moral. He's always looking to improve himself in a social kind of way and also in a moral way.

Next, we've got the convict, who is also known as Magwitch, which is another one of those awesome Dickensian names. He's kind of an interesting figure. He's a convict, as you might have guessed from his title - he's on the run from the law - but he also does some really good things that we're going to talk about later, so he's a morally ambiguous kind of character.

There's Miss Havisham, who kind of seems like a crazy person when we meet her. She hangs out in her old wedding dress because she got abandoned at the altar. Her wedding didn't happen, so she basically hangs around in her old dress, which is kind of like an episode of 30 Rock - well, I guess that's when she buys her dress without having a wedding in mind, but it's the same kind of idea. There's rotting food and memories and she's just a weird character. She hangs out in a room where all the clocks are stopped at 20 to 9:00, which was the moment she found out that her fiancé left her; she only wears one shoe because she was only wearing one shoe at the time. She's kind of a crazy person.

But she's the guardian of Estella, who is someone with whom Pip is infatuated. He loves Estella. She lives this kind of upper-class life; she's beautiful, she's cold and manipulative, kind of like Gwyneth Paltrow if you want to typecast things.

Major characters in Great Expectations
Major Characters Great Expectations

There're other characters that I'm going to talk about as we go along, but these are kind of the most important ones, the ones that are going to crop up again and again, and I don't want to have to keep reintroducing them.

Major Themes

Before we get to the plot - I'm keeping you on the edge of your seat - we're going to talk about one more thing, which is major themes, because this is something we're going to introduce and then you can see how they unfold as the novel goes forward. I mentioned before that it's a Bildungsroman, and that's important because Pip - who, again, is the main character - is full of ambition, and that really propels him through his life. He has - wait for it - great expectations for himself and for what his life is going to be. So his moral development is really central to the book. Like any good Bildungsroman, he has to develop and change as it goes along. He has a really strong conscience, and he's always, always, always worrying about acting immorally because he recognizes that immoral behavior is not good, leads to punishment, and could prevent him from reaching his goals - all bad things. So that's one sort of key thing that we're going to look at.

The other is a huge deal in this book: social class. Dickens portrays people from every stratum of Victorian England's class system, and Pip always wants to ascend the social latter; that's one of his goals. It's important to think about this issue of class in the context of when the book was written. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, class was who you were born as and that was basically it. You were either born into the aristocracy or you weren't, and that was kind of how it broke down: there's aristocracy and then there's everybody else. But by the time Dickens wrote Great Expectations, the world was actually changing quite a bit, and by this point you could achieve wealth and status through your work, which is more similar to the world that we know today.

Now we basically take for granted that if you work hard and you go to school and do all the right things, you can climb the social ladder even if you're born into poverty, which is kind of one of the tenets of America in a way - that's the American Dream, that you can achieve what you want through hard work, and it doesn't matter what class you're born into. But even in the early days of America, all the presidents were rich guys. Now you get someone like Obama, who had difficulties and hardships growing up, and now he's president. So the world that Dickens is telling us about is one that's kind of in transition from a prior system - where it was pretty much who you were when you were born - to the current system where you can fight your way up, but people are figuring out what the best way is to do that and what sort of new challenges are associated with that kind of world.

Plot Summary

So, finally, we're going to get to the story - I know you've been waiting patiently. The novel opens fairly ominously. Pip is hanging out in a cemetery. He's a young orphan and he's looking at his parents' tombstones, which is extra sad. And as he's doing this - as he's wallowing in his sadness - an escaped convict appears and orders Pip to find him some food and also a file so he can file his shackles off. At this time, Pip is living with his sister, who's not so nice (kind of abusive) and her husband, whose name is Joe. When the convict tells him to go get food he runs and he gets some food and the file and brings it to the convict. He briefly runs into a second convict, which I only mention because it will be important later - for now, just know that he runs into another guy who's also escaped from jail.

And here's our first example of Pip's sterling character. He's terrified of the convict - I think as you would be if you're hanging out in a graveyard and some man in shackles jumped out at you and demanded food - but Pip honors his promise to help the convict. That's important to him. But helping out the convict kind of leads to a guilty conscience, because he expects to be arrested for doing that, especially after he learns that the convict was found by the police shortly after Pip helped him. So he gets a little worried that maybe he's going to get taken down by this guy.

A while later, Pip's uncle takes him to Satis House, which is where Miss Havisham lives - remember, crazy lady in a wedding dress, all the clocks set to the same time - and Pip's uncle and his sister think that Miss Havisham, who is quite wealthy, will make Pip rich as well - and by extension them, so that's their genius plan, and so they send him there. Miss Havisham just wants someone to play with Estella, so that's where Pip falls into all of this. Of course he falls in love with Estella, because that's just what little kids do, I guess. She's kind of not that happy about having to play with a boy who's not of high social status. Again, kind of imagine Gwyneth Paltrow having to go to Walmart - I don't think they sell brick pizza ovens or whatever the stuff is she advertises on her blog.

Satis House is the home of Miss Havisham
Satis House Great Expectations

Regular playdates at Satis House unfortunately do not lead to fortune for Pip; instead, Miss Havisham ends up helping him become an apprentice for Joe. There's this kind of sweet country girl named Biddy, which is kind of a horrible name, who kind of might be into Pip, but he's still got his sights set on the high-class Estella. Things aren't going all that well for Pip at this point.

But then things take an unexpected turn for the better when a lawyer turns up and tells Pip that a mysterious benefactor has given him a ton of money. He has to go to London and become a gentleman - that's what he's supposed to do with the money. Pip thinks the benefactor is probably Miss Havisham, which makes sense; she's the only person that he knows who seems to have any money, so he goes to London. This process of becoming a gentleman really ends up being a process of becoming a jerk. It's that age-old saying: mo' money, mo' problems. He's kind of rude to Joe, who's really been nothing but nice to him, and he starts running up some debts which, again, seems to be what happens once you have a little taste of what money is.

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