Great Expectations: Important Quotes Explained

Instructor: Clayton Tarr

Clayton has taught college English and has a PhD in literature.

In this lesson, we will examine a few important quotations from Charles Dickens's 'Great Expectations.' We will especially look at how Dickens handles wealth, class, truth, and death.

Dickens and Quotation

Trying to pick out the most important quotations in a novel by Charles Dickens is like trying to find a needle in a needle-stack. After all, Dickens wrote several of the most important and memorable lines in the history of literature, including 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times' in A Tale of Two Cities. At any rate, let's look at some quotations below that address the universal concepts of wealth, class, truth, and death in his novel Great Expectations.

Chapter VII

'I had heard of Miss Havisham up town,--everybody for miles round had heard of Miss Havisham up town--as an immensely rich and grim lady, who lived in a large and dismal house barricaded against robbers, and who led a life of seclusion.'

Here Pip, the novel's first-person narrator, reflects on the fame (or rather infamy) of Miss Havisham, who takes him under her wing, in a way. We see that Miss Havisham is cut off from the world, and specifically that she isolates herself from other people. Before we know anything about Miss Havisham's mental capacity, Pip suggests that her seclusion is motivated by class. She is rich and sees it necessary to barricade herself from the poor. Nonetheless, she lets Pip inside, which is one reason why he mistakenly thinks that she is his secret benefactor.

Chapter XVII

'At those times, I would decide conclusively that my disaffection to dear old Joe and the forge was gone, and that I was growing up in a fair way to be partners with Joe and to keep company with Biddy--when all in a moment some confounding remembrance of the Havisham days would fall upon me, like a destructive missile, and scatter my wits again. . . perhaps after all Miss Havisham was going to make my fortune when my time was out.'

This quotation, again from Pip, builds on the class separation that is one of the novel's main themes. Pip, an orphan, is raised by his cruel sister and her kind husband, Joe. Thus, Pip's upbringing is decidedly working class. Once he meets Miss Havisham, however, everything changes. He idolizes Estella, Miss Havisham's mysterious ward, and begins to desire the affected, seemingly luxurious lifestyle that they lead. When he has thoughts about his connection with his family, they are quickly 'exploded' by the drive for wealth and fame. Pip eventually learns that this style is all surface and no depth, though not before he squanders the money that his benefactor, Magwich, provided.

Chapter XXII

'He says no varnish can hide the grain of the wood; and the more varnish you put on the more the grain will express itself.'

This quotation is from Pip's friend, Herbert Pocket. It comes when Herbert reveals the details of Miss Havisham's disastrous relationship, in which she was duped by a conniving, duplicitous man. The quotation also has a lot to do with Estella. The more money and style that she and Miss Havisham display, the more their negative characteristics come to light. Unfortunately, Pip doesn't learn this fact until it is too late. He has neglected the good in his life, including his benevolent father-figure, Magwitch.

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