Great Expectations Analysis

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
This lesson highlights some of the main themes of ''Great Expectations,'' Dickens' enduringly popular novel about a young man growing up and trying to find his place in the world.

Charles Dickens and Great Expectations

Charles Dickens, around the time Great Expectations was published

Great Expectations was published in 1861, comparatively late in Charles Dickens' career, when he was already a bestselling sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. The book is often used in school curricula because it's such a great example of what Dickens does best. Great Expectations uses genre creatively and is full of social criticism and vivid characters.

Genre and Tone

Pip, the main protagonist of Great Expectations, is also its narrator. In many ways, the novel functions as a Bildungsroman, a book about its protagonist's moral formation. The book follows Pip from his childhood, where he experiences both abuse and tenderness, through adolescence, and his first experiences of love, to maturity. Readers see him figure out who he is and how he wants to live. He makes a lot of mistakes along the way, but it's hard not to root for him.

Dickens uses a lot of tropes of Gothic romance in his novel, invoking the supernatural and the mysterious, and thwarted love. Pip himself seems aware of these tropes and is misled into believing things about his life because they seem dramatically right. Surely the mysterious benefactor who enables him to pursue the life of a gentleman in London must be Miss Havisham, the reclusive woman who invites him to play with her ward, Estella, in her creepy house! Surely she must intend Pip and Estella to marry! As Pip eventually finds out, reality is often messier than fiction, but Dickens uses Gothic romanticism to play with readers' expectations.

Context and Themes

Social Change and Social Criticism

Although Dickens wrote Great Expectations in the mid-Victorian period, it's set several decades earlier. Dickens leveled critiques at the educational system and the legal system of Britain. Dickens used vivid anecdotes to highlight pervasive problems, as when he described a village school as a place where children paid for the opportunity of watching the teacher fall asleep over her books (Chapter 7).

The great injustices of law are also explored in Great Expectations, beginning in the very first scene, where the young Pip encounters an escaped convict, whom we later learn is named Magwitch. Pip brings the man food and a file (Chapter 3) and is haunted by memories of his desperation (Chapter 10). Later, we learn that Magwitch doesn't remember a time when he wasn't an object of punishment. He tells Pip: 'I've been done everything to, pretty well - except hanged...I've been carted here and carted there, and put out of this town and put out of that town, and whipped and worried and drove' (Chapter 42). Magwitch's story is one of the most poignant in the novel.

The Roles of Women

Dickens has been justly criticized for creating two-dimensional female characters. In Great Expectations, Clara Pocket conforms to the stereotype of the 'Angel in the House,' defined primarily by her domestic talents and her patience with men in her life. Pip's childhood friend, Biddy, is similar but also pragmatic and willing to call Pip out on his selfish conduct.

Several of the women in this novel are depicted as victims of the gendered constraints society places on them. The aristocratic Miss Havisham is literally driven mad when her fiancé jilts her, denying her the marriage for which she hoped. She sets up Estella, her ward, not only to marry well, but to also break men's hearts along the way. Estella herself rebels against this, resenting the fact that she is sent up to London to be shown off, as much a trophy as the jewels she wears (Chapter 33).

The working-class women of Great Expectations have different and greater difficulties with which to cope. Dickens does a brilliant job revealing how social class and gender both work against such women. Molly, Mr. Jaggers' housekeeper, is nearly always silent, trapped and exploited by the man who is ostensibly protecting her. Mrs. Joe, Pip's older sister, is unsympathetic in many ways, abusive to Pip and her husband. Joe has pity on her, as she is a victim of an unfair system, 'a woman drudging and slaving...and never getting no peace in her mortal days' (Chapter 7).

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