Great Expectations (1860) is Charles Dickens’ classic novel about the social ambitions and failings of Pip, a small-town orphan who suddenly becomes wealthy through a mysterious benefactor. Pip leaves his home town for London, but as his social and material standing develop, he suffers a moral deterioration that leaves him questioning his decisions.
What Makes a Gentleman?
Table of Contents
Great Expectations is a coming-of-age tale with strong moral lessons about wealth and nobility, guilt and criminality, and conscience and self-deception. Throughout, various shadowy intrigues, a classic madwoman-in-the-attic, sinister plots and even a chase on the River Thames enliven the story. Its author, Charles Dickens, characteristically paces his narrative with plentiful mysteries and twists, including the true identity of Pip’s generous benefactor – the creator of Pip’s “great expectations.” The novel is simultaneously a bleak love story that pits the hero’s warmth and devotion against his love interest’s cynicism and cruelty. Pip’s very love for Estella drives his doomed pursuit of gentility and wealth. Despite its social satire, Great Expectations is, like most of Dickens’s oeuvre, ultimately a story of redemption – a feel-good tale apt to bolster your faith in humanity.
- Great Expectations is a coming-of-age tale with strong moral lessons about wealth and nobility, guilt and criminality, and conscience and self-deception.
- A mysterious benefactor transforms poor, country boy Pip into a high-society, London gentleman. But it’s only when Pip loses everything that he understands what’s truly noble: honesty, humility, hard work, selflessness and a pure heart.
- The novel contains many elements of social satire and caricature, but ultimately, the tale is a redemptive one.
- Pip’s penitence and his family’s forgiveness enable Pip’s redemption. Conversely, Compeyson’s lack of remorse and Miss Havisham’s inability to forgive him keep Satis House frozen in time and darkness.
- Criminality and prison shadow Pip’s life, beginning with his boyhood home near the prison ships and through to the origins of his great expectations.
- When Charles Dickens was 12 years old, his father spent three months in debtors prison. This experience greatly influenced his future writing.
- Dickens’s writing helped shift Victorian-era opinion about class inequalities.
- The novel as it exists today contains a revised, happier ending. In the original conclusion, Pip remains single and Estella remarries after Drummel’s death.
- Great Expectations was Dickens’s 13th and final finished novel before his death, and critics have called it his best romance and most honest story.
- “Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching.” (Estella, to Pip)
Introduction: An epic tale of class and morality.
Victorian England witnessed the birth of a new kind of civilization.
Cities and factories mushroomed and coated the green and pleasant land of old in industrial grime. The countryside was abandoned by millions of men and women seeking employment in the satanic mills of smog-choked metropolises. Peasants became proletarian laborers and ruddy-faced aristocrats embraced new and urbane ideas and mores
No writer captured all this upheaval better than Charles Dickens, a writer who turned his penetrating gaze on every class involved in the sprawling saga of England’s industrialization.
Class was one of Dickens’s great obsessions and it also plays a key role in Great Expectations. The novel tells the story of Pip, a common laboring boy who “catches” shame and self-hatred from a haughty upper-class girl, Estella. Pip instinctively understands that the chasm between him and the girl he loves is unbridgeable – unless he becomes a gentleman. His wish would have been absurd in another era, but social advancement was as much a feature of Dickens’s England as endemic social conflict and class prejudice.
Pip leaves his village behind and learns to become a gentleman in London. His social rise is rapid and effortless, but his moral education is slow and painful. At every turn, Pip is forced to reckon with the question of what it means to be a good person. He often gets it wrong, not only because he is young and naive, but because he loses contact with the simple and good world represented by his stand-in father, Joe. His laborious reckoning with these mistakes forms the overarching theme of the novel. It is only after a great deal of suffering that Pip reaches maturity and completes that more difficult and profound education.
By the way: if you would like to listen to a very short summary right away, you can also skip to the very last section.
A fateful meeting
It was a cold afternoon on Christmas Eve and seven-year-old Pip found himself in the windswept churchyard of a village about thirty miles east of London.
He was contemplating two gravestones upon which were engraved the names of his mother and father. He sobbed and tears ran down his cheeks.
“Hold your noise!” commanded a harsh voice suddenly. Pip turned and saw a wild-looking man in sodden gray wool with an iron shackle around his ankle. “Where do you live?” he demanded. Pip told him he lived with his sister, Mrs. Joe, wife of Joe Gargery, the village blacksmith. “Blacksmith, eh?” The man eyed the shackle and hatched a plan.
Pip, under threat of having his heart and liver removed, roasted, and eaten if he breathed a word of this, was to steal a file and food and bring them to the man the next morning.
Back at the forge, Joe was in the kitchen poking the coals in the fireplace. Joe and Pip were, as the giant blacksmith said, the “best of friends.” Joe was his playmate – and protector. But there was little he could do to save Pip from the wrath of Mrs. Joe that evening.
It was bad enough being a blacksmith’s wife, she cried, without having to raise her dead parents’ ungrateful child “by hand.” She presently gave Pip a fresh taste of her hands-on rearing. “In the churchyard, indeed!” she raged, thrashing him with a stick. “If it wasn’t for me, you’d have been to the churchyard a long time ago – and stayed there too!”
At dawn, Pip crept downstairs. He took a file from the forge and a rind of cheese, some brandy, and a beautiful, round pork pie from the pantry, which he delivered to the man from the churchyard, who was half-dead from cold and hunger. He gulped down the brandy. His mouth full of cheese and pastry, he took the file to his shackle.
Christmas preparations were in full swing when Pip got back to the forge and his sister had prepared a superb dinner featuring a leg of pickled pork, vegetables, and roast fowl. Pip suffered through dinner knowing his theft must be discovered. When Mrs. Joe went to fetch what she said was an especially good pork pie, he leapt to his feet and ran.
His escape, however, was foiled by a sergeant who was knocking at the door. His men were hunting two convicts who’d escaped from the prison barges moored in the river, he said, but he needed the blacksmith to fix some faulty handcuffs first.
After repairing the handcuffs, Joe took Pip and joined the sergeant. The soldiers found their quarry near an abandoned fort in the marshes. There two men dressed in gray were trading ferocious blows in a muddy ditch. Then one man – Pip’s convict – had the other in a headlock. “I took him,” he thundered, “and I give him up to you!”
When he’d been handcuffed, the convict looked around. His eyes landed on Pip, who, with a slight shake of his head, communicated that he’d kept his word. The convict turned to the sergeant. There was something he wished to clear up lest innocent persons be suspected: he’d stolen a file and some food and drink from the blacksmith’s the previous night. “I’m sorry to say, blacksmith,” he said, turning to Joe, “that I’ve ate your pie.”
“God knows you’re welcome to it,” replied Joe. “We don’t know what you’ve done, but we wouldn’t have you starved for it, poor miserable fellow creature.”
Miss Havisham, an immensely rich and grim lady, lived in a dismal place with high walls, barred doors, and shuttered windows called Satis House in the next town over.
When she remarked that she was looking for a playmate for her adopted daughter, Estella, one of Joe’s relations, who happened to be one of her tenants, mentioned Pip.
Pip was close to nine years old when he started visiting Satis House.
He’d never seen a lady like Miss Havisham before.
She always wore the same thing – a yellowed, crumpled bridal dress that hung loosely around her withered form. She spent her days in a room that looked as if it’d been prepared for a great banquet many years earlier – and never tidied since. Dusty bouquets of desiccated flowers lay around. On a dining table sat a large, untouched, cobweb-covered wedding cake. Every clock in the room had stopped at precisely the same time: twenty minutes to nine.
Estella was as beautiful as Miss Havisham was strange. She was about Pip’s age, but she couldn’t have been more self-possessed, proud, or scornful of him if she’d been twenty-one. Pip and Estella played cards under Miss Havisham’s watchful eyes. When Pip lost, she tossed her hand aside as if winning against a common laboring boy signified nothing.
Miss Havisham encouraged Estella’s cruelty. Her eyes lit up when the girl commented on Pip’s rough hands and his thick, ugly working boots. Estella’s contempt was infectious. When she closed the gate after Pip at the end of a visit, he cursed his own coarseness. This tortuous game went on and on. With each visit, Estella became more beautiful and more contemptuous and Pip fell more hopelessly in love with the scornful, unobtainable girl.
And then it was over. Estella was in Paris studying to be a lady, Miss Havisham informed Pip one afternoon, before remarking with distaste that he’d grown tall. It was best if he stopped coming to Satis House and began his apprenticeship instead.
The forge had once been the glowing road to manhood and independence in Pip’s mind, but it disgusted him now. Being coarse and common wouldn’t have mattered to him had no one told him that’s what he was. But Estella had told him, and he was deeply unsatisfied because of it. It was because of her that a new desire took shape in his heart. Pip wished to be a gentleman.
Something extraordinary happened one ordinary Saturday.
Pip, now a young man in the fourth year of his apprenticeship, was in the village pub with Joe when a grave-looking gentleman approached them.
Mr. Jaggers said he was a lawyer representing an anonymous client. That client, he went on, had bestowed a handsome property on Pip. If Joe released his apprentice, Pip would be removed from his present sphere of life, given an allowance and a tutor, and brought up as a gentleman. There was only one condition: Pip must never try to identify his benefactor.
There were no objections. Joe congratulated Pip on his great expectations and released him from his apprenticeship on the spot. Pip, for his part, was sure he already knew the identity of that benefactor – Miss Havisham. His heart leapt. In making him a gentleman, she was raising him up to Estella’s level and paving the way for their union!
Before departing for London, Pip called at Satis House to take his leave of Miss Havisham. “I’ve come into such good fortunes since we last met,” he said carefully, “and I’m so grateful for it.” She smiled cryptically and replied that her friend Mr. Jaggers had told her all about it.
Pip’s tutor was a relative of Miss Havisham’s, Mr. Pocket, and he lodged with the tutor’s son, Herbert, who quickly became his best friend in London.
Herbert told Pip Miss Havisham’s story. Her father had been a wealthy brewer. When he died, he left Miss Havisham a great fortune and effectively cut her badly behaved half-brother out of the will. She then fell in love with a charming suitor who managed to extract large sums of money from her. She even bought her half-brother’s shares in the brewery at an inflated price and handed them over to this man. Herbert’s father warned her to be careful, but she ignored him and cut off that side of the family. Finally, on the morning of their wedding day, at twenty minutes to nine, Miss Havisham received his note calling off the wedding.
Her suitor, it was later discovered, was an accomplice of half-her brother and the two men had shared the profits before disappearing. Despairing, Miss Havisham sought revenge through Estella, the adopted daughter she’d raised to “wreak havoc on the male sex.”
Pip’s rooms were lavishly decorated. He had servants, dressed exquisitely, dined expensively, and ran up large debts. He was, in short, a gentleman.
When he wasn’t spending his money or studying his books, he often went down to Satis House to visit Miss Havisham. That, at least, was his pretext.
Estella had returned from France and was more beautiful than ever. It was, of course, Estella who brought him back to this bleak house with its barred doors and shuttered windows.
Pip courted Estella slavishly but she remained as coolly indifferent to him as ever, neither leading him on nor rebuffing him. It was Miss Havisham who encouraged him. Estella, she told him one day, had been adopted, raised, and educated “to be loved.” That, she said with vehemence, was what he must do whether she chose to favor him, wound him, or rip his heart to pieces. Looking back, Pip recognized that her words could not have sounded more like a curse if she’d used the word “hate” or “destroy” instead of the word she’d chosen – “love.”
Pip wasn’t the only suitor whose ambitions Miss Havisham encouraged. The worst of them, and the most dangerous to Pip, was Bentley Drummle. Pip knew this high-born loafer from a gentleman’s club in London whose members did little but drink and insult each other. Pip had been bested by Bentley in these exchanges many times. Now, it seemed that Bentley also had the better of him in their rivalry for Estella’s affections too.
He was contemplating this dismal state of affairs on a dismal winter’s night when there was a knock at Pip’s door. Opening it, he saw a haggard-looking man in a great, ragged coat coming up the stairs. As he drew closer, the light from Pip’s candle illuminated his face. In an instant, Pip was back in that windswept churchyard overlooking the marshes. It was “his” convict!
Reluctantly, Pip invited him in to warm himself by the fire. He looked around and noted the lavish surroundings. Not bad for a blacksmith’s boy, he remarked, and asked Pip how he was living. Pip replied cautiously. He’d been chosen, he said, to succeed to some property by his guardian. “Could I make a guess as to the identity of that guardian?” asked the now-smiling convict. Pip’s heart stopped. He suddenly knew the true identity of his benefactor. “Yes, dear, boy,” the convict exclaimed, “I made a gentleman of you!”
The life story of Abel Magwitch (that was the man’s name) was short to tell: in jail and out of jail, in jail and out of jail, in jail and out of jail. He’d always had bad luck, said Abel, but never worse than the evil luck which put him on those prison barges.
It was a smooth-taking gentleman crook called Compeyson who’d landed him there. Compeyson had made a pot of money swindling some gullible rich woman with a sidekick of his called Arthur. He quickly lost the money gambling, however, and Arthur died soon thereafter. In short, he had needed a new accomplice. Which was when he met Able. Down on his luck as usual, and impressed by Compeyson’s style, he became his partner in crime.
They were caught and tried, but gentlemanly Compeyson talked his way into the judge’s good books. He got away with seven years on account of “good character” while Able got the full fourteen. Unhappily for Compeyson, though, they ended up on the same barge. Fearing for his life, and with good reason, he made a run for it. Able, who intended to take it, followed. It was Compeyson whom Pip had seen him wrestling with in that muddy ditch all those years ago.
Abel was banished to Australia for life and told he’d be hanged if he tried to return. He worked as a sheep farmer, stockbroker, and everything in between until, bit by bit, he amassed a fortune. Able paused and looked at Pip. In all that time, he said, he never forgot the boy who saved his life when he was half-dead from cold and hunger on the marshes. Every guinea he earned was for Pip. “I lived rough, my boy,” Abel said, “so that you should live smooth.”
Pip listened in amazement – and horror. The ship in which he’d sailed was wrecked; his illusions lay shattered about him like so much flotsam. Miss Havisham had no plans for him. Estella wasn’t designed for him. He’d been nothing more than a model to practice on in all those visits to Satis House. Worst of all, he’d deserted dear, kind Joe for a wretched convict!
The tangled web into which Pip had stumbled as a boy was now at last unraveling.
The man who deceived Miss Havisham was Compeyson. Arthur, his accomplice in that affair, was her brother. Pip saw that his tutor and the father of his friend, Mr. Pocket, had been wronged by Miss Havisham. She mistook his warnings about Compeyson as a cover to advance his own interests and cut him and his side of the family off.
Pip went down to Satis House to reveal what he knew.
He told Miss Havisham that he’d discovered the identity of his benefactor and that he was as unhappy as she had intended him to be. In encouraging his mistaken impressions, she had focused all her hatred for self-interested, calculating, heartless men onto an innocent victim.
Miss Havisham didn’t deny it. Pip then turned to Estella.
He’d always loved her, as she well knew. Estella raised her eyes to his face but her expression was unchanged. He loved her still, Pip went on, even though he’d given up hope of calling her his own one day and knew she was to marry Bentley. “Don’t be afraid of my being a blessing to him,” she interrupted in a sharp tone. “I shall not be that.” Pip sobbed. “God bless you, and God forgive you,” he said. Those were the last words he spoke to Estella for a very long time.
As he closed the gate, he vowed to never return to that dismal house. A few weeks later, however, he received a note. There was something Miss Havisham wanted to tell him.
A change had come over her and she looked at Pip almost fearfully. It was a grievous thing she’d done, she admitted, to take an impressionable child and make him the object of her bitter vengeance. She had understood that when she heard Pip confessing his love for Estella. His words had been a looking glass in which the love she’d once felt was reflected back at her. Crying “What have I done?” she fell to her knees and begged for Pip’s forgiveness.
Pip took her hands into his own and said he’d already forgiven her. How could he not? He would have loved Estella just as dearly as he did under any circumstances.
The Orphan and the Convict
Young orphan Philip Pirrip – who goes by “Pip” – grows up in the household of his violent older sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, and her kind, docile husband Joe, a blacksmith. They live in a marshy area not far from some of England’s prison hulks – decommissioned ships used as floating prisons for the worst criminals. One Christmas Eve, Pip visits his parents’ graves in a lonely churchyard. He chances upon escaped inmate Abel Magwitch, who uses the threat of violence to force Pip to steal food and a file for removing a leg shackle. He forbids Pip from telling anyone of the encounter, leaving the boy overwhelmed with fear and guilt.
On Christmas Day, soldiers arrive at Joe’s forge and ask him to fix handcuffs for two prison escapees. At Joe’s bidding, Pip joins their pursuit on the marsh. Distant shouting leads the searchers to two grappling fugitives, Magwitch and another man. Magwitch reveals that the two are longtime enemies and exults in bringing about the other fugitive’s capture, though they must both return to prison. Neither Magwitch nor Pip admits to their encounter, and their secret forever binds them.
In the evenings, Pip attends a village school where the teacher sleeps through the lesson. Slowly, with the help of another village orphan, Biddy, he gains a meager education. One night, his fortunes seem to change. Mrs. Joe announces that she’s sending Pip to play regularly at the house of Miss Havisham, a legendary recluse who lives in an old brick manor uptown. Mrs. Joe believes that the visits will endear Pip to the wealthy Miss Havisham, who may then become his benefactor.
“I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong.” (Pip)
Upon ringing Miss Havisham’s bell, Pip meets her charge – the beautiful, proud Estella. As the girl ushers Pip through the estate, she explains that its name, Satis House, means “Enough House.” The manor was meant to leave no want unfulfilled for its owner. In contrast with this description, Pip observes the surrounding ruin. They pass through darkened corridors to reach an upper room blocked from daylight, where Estella leaves him. Here, amid candlelight, he sees the elderly Miss Havisham dressed in yellowed bridal attire, including a veil. Around her, the room is transfixed in time, all the clocks stopped. The woman tells Pip she’s heartbroken – then orders him to play. When Pip falters, she has him summon Estella and begins choreographing their interactions, even directing Estella to break Pip’s heart. Though Pip and Estella are of similar age, the girl scorns Pip as her inferior – a commoner – and objects to playing with him. In turn, Pip becomes ashamed of himself and his manners. At the end of the visit, Miss Havisham directs Pip to return in six days, and despite his humiliation and ready tears, he agrees.
“Estella’s “contempt for me was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.” (Pip)
When Pip returns home to the forge, his sister presses him for details about Miss Havisham. He fabricates lofty, whimsical descriptions of the woman and her activities, which Joe later hears with great wonder. Feeling guilty for misleading his friend Joe, Pip confesses his lies and reveals his shame about being common. Joe gently advises him that dishonesty isn’t the way to elevate his station. Pip listens to his brother-in-law but lies awake that night with the realization that Estella would think Joe common, too. A schism has begun to develop between Pip’s old life and his new one at Miss Havisham’s.
One evening, Pip stops at the local pub to find Joe sitting beside a mysterious stranger. The stranger is an associate of Magwitch and discreetly tries to signal this connection to Pip. Finally, when the stranger stirs his drink with Joe’s file that Pip stole from the forge, Pip understands. The stranger gives Pip a shilling wrapped in paper, which Pip opens later. The paper is two £1 notes, a considerable sum that triggers Pip’s guilt and shame for being secretly linked to a convict.
Meanwhile, Pip’s visits to Satis House become more frequent, and he is subjected to continued social humiliation and Estella’s cruelty. One day, Miss Havisham notices that Pip has grown and announces that he must be apprenticed to Joe at the forge. She summons Joe and gives the blacksmith a bag of gold coins for Pip’s apprenticeship. Pip’s time at Satis House has ended. The coins, she says, are the totality of the payment. The Gargerys celebrate the financial windfall, but Pip is quietly unhappy and ungrateful. He no longer wants to be a blacksmith. Pip wants to be a gentleman.
After a time, Pip contrives a way to see Estella: a thank-you visit to Miss Havisham. However, Miss Havisham delights in telling Pip that Estella’s gone abroad, and Pip leaves disheartened. On returning to the forge, he learns that someone has bludgeoned his sister and a left a filed-through leg shackle beside her. Pips attributes the shackle, though not his sister’s injuries, to Magwitch. Because Mrs. Joe suffers permanent injuries, Biddy joins the household and proves herself capable and clever. Though Mrs. Joe can no longer communicate well, she insists each day on fawning over Orlick, Joe’s journeyman with whom she’d bitterly fought before her attack.
“It is not possible to know how far the influence of any amiable, honest-hearted duty-doing man flies out into the world, but it is very possible to know how it has touched one’s self in going by.” (Pip)
Meanwhile, Pip continues his apprenticeship, visiting Satis House only on his birthdays. As he spends more time with Biddy, Pip’s admiration begins to waver between the lofty, hateful Estella and the humble, wholesome Biddy, as well as the worlds each woman represents.
In Pip’s fourth year as an apprentice, the lawyer Mr. Jaggers arrives at the village pub and announces that Pip has great expectations. The young man is the designated heir of a large sum, and his anonymous benefactor – whom Pip assumes is Miss Havisham – wants him to leave his apprenticeship and become a gentleman.
“We need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of Earth, overlaying our hard hearts.”
Pip is eager to shed his former life, despite his close bonds with Joe and Biddy. At the advice of Mr. Jaggers, Pip moves to London to start his formal education. He learns from Matthew Pocket, who is Miss Havisham’s cousin and also a great scholar. The city’s ugliness and grime surprise him. Pip first stays with Matthew’s honest, amiable son, Herbert Pocket, who, as a boy, once sparred with Pip at Satis House. Herbert and Pip become fast friends over shared secrets, while Herbert gently teaches Pip about London manners. Herbert reveals that Mr. Jaggers is also Miss Havisham’s lawyer and unveils the mystery behind Miss Havisham and the ruined manor: Her jealous half-brother had set her up with a suitor, with whom she became smitten. After the two men manipulated Miss Havisham for money, her groom left her at the altar. Her house has been forever frozen to the hour and minute she received word that her beloved had gone.
Pip soon moves in with Matthew while retaining his flat in London with Herbert. Pip’s London associates now include Matthew’s two other gentleman pupils – Startop and Drummel – and Mr. Jaggers’s clerk, Wemmick. Pip is friends with all but the unintelligent, brutish Drummel. One evening, the gentlemen dine at the home of the powerful Mr. Jaggers. Midway through the meal, Jaggers shocks his guests by forcibly revealing the deep scars on the wrists of his housekeeper, Molly. Soon after, Pip receives a letter from Biddy explaining that Joe is coming to London to see him. At the end of their awkward visit, Joe conveys a message from Miss Havisham: Estella is home and wants to see Pip.
Coming of Age
When Pip reunites with Estella, he finds her grown and beautiful, though Estella asserts that she’s heartless. Later, Pip meets Estella in London and accompanies her to Richmond, where she’ll enter society via the home of a wealthy widow. Along the way, Estella confides in Pip about some of the horrors of growing up in Satis House and resigns herself to Miss Havisham’s plans for her.
“No man who was not a true gentleman at heart, ever was, since the world began, a true gentleman in manner.”
Pip begins to realize that his great expectations are corrupting him. He’s been neglectful of Joe and Biddy, and the promise of wealth has made him miserable, though he feigns happiness. His free spending has landed him in debt and led Herbert there, too. One afternoon, while tabulating debts, Pip receives a letter: Mrs. Joe has died. The funeral brings Pip back to the forge at last. He reconnects with Joe and, to Joe’s delight, even asks to stay in his boyhood room.
“No varnish can hide the grain of the wood…the more varnish you put on, the more the grain will express itself.”
When Pip returns to London, he anticipates his 21st birthday, when he’ll socially come of age. On that day, hopes Pip, Mr. Jaggers will reveal and bestow the extent of Pip’s fortune. Instead, on Pip’s birthday, Mr. Jaggers gives him £500 and explains that Pip is to manage this yearly income independently until his benefactor appears with the full endowment. Wemmick privately helps Pip make generous stealth payments toward a shipping-brokerage career for Herbert.
Meanwhile, Pip keeps visiting Estella, though she sometimes tries to warn him away from her. He still believes Miss Havisham intends Estella to marry him – even after breaking many hearts. When Pip learns at a social club that Drummel has joined the ranks of Estella’s admirers, Pip is incensed that she would stoop so low. Estella later explains that she’s purposefully deceiving Drummel and many others but won’t deceive Pip.
On a stormy night when Pip is 23 years old, Magwitch resurfaces and visits Pip at home. The man greets Pip with affection and pride. Pip is repulsed, but, at seeing the man’s tears, sits down with him. When Pip tries repay the £2 from his boyhood, the fugitive reveals that he is Pip’s generous patron. Magwitch has toiled abroad to earn his fortune in cattle. He has devoted his wealth to making Pip a gentleman – in gratitude for Pip’s kindness on the marsh. The older man has come to see Pip as his son, which horrifies Pip. However, by returning to Pip in England, the exiled Magwitch risks being hanged, so Pip crafts him the guise of a country uncle, taking only Herbert into their confidence. Pip and Herbert plan to protect Magwitch by evoking his longtime enemy from the marsh as reason to go abroad. To this end, they press Magwitch for details of the enmity. As Magwitch describes the seeming gentleman, Compeyson, who enlisted him as a lackey in several cons and then made him a fall guy, Herbert identifies the same man as Miss Havisham’s spurious groom.
“All other swindlers on Earth are nothing to the self-swindlers.”
Before leaving England, Pip visits Satis House to say good-bye. By the end of his visit, he has confronted Miss Havisham, declared his love to Estella, and learned that Drummel and Estella are engaged. Pip’s subsequent grief and pain leave Estella unmoved but push Miss Havisham to true remorse for her role in his heartbreak.
Escape on the River Thames
When Pip returns to London, his gatekeeper hands him a note from Wemmick – a warning not to return home. Something sinister is afoot: Wemmick has heard at Newgate Prison that Pip’s home is under watch. Moreover, Pip learns that Compeyson is still in London. Thus, Herbert and Magwitch hide in a room by the River Thames, a waterway with convenient access to steamers abroad. During weeks of nervous waiting for Wemmick’s signal that it’s safe to depart London, Pip learns that Compeyson is shadowing Pip. One night, Pip and Wemmick dine at the home of Mr. Jaggers. While there, a subtle mannerism of Molly’s allows Pip to identify her as Estella’s mother. After the dinner, Pip learns from Wemmick that Molly is a murderer whom Mr. Jaggers nonetheless got acquitted.
“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.” (Mr. Jaggers)
During the dinner, Wemmick conveys to Pip a summons to Satis House. There, Miss Havisham seeks Pip’s forgiveness, and he gives it. She agrees to continue Pip’s anonymous effort to fund Herbert’s professional advancement. Before Pip leaves the property, Miss Havisham, who is sitting close to the fire, catches flame. Pip saves her life by wrapping her in coats, burning his own arms and hands.
Back in London, Herbert nurses Pip’s injuries and describes how Magwitch has become more gentle and open, even sharing the story of a young woman he once loved who became a murderer. Upon hearing the details, Pip realizes Magwitch is Estella’s father.
As Pip’s burns continue to heal, he at last receives Wemmick’s signal. While Pip and Herbert plan the final, covert details, Pip receives an anonymous letter promising information about Magwitch. Pip appears at the appointed time and place – the marshes of his boyhood – and is taken captive by Orlick, who intends to kill him. Orlick has always been jealous of Pip and even bludgeoned Mrs. Joe because of this hatred. What’s more, Orlick is now working with Compeyson. When Orlick raises his hammer for a murderous blow, Pip gives a shout, which brings his nearby friends Herbert and Startop to his rescue. The next morning, they and Magwitch are on the Thames, tense and fearful of potential interceptors. Their unease proves warranted. As Pip and Magwitch say their good-byes before climbing aboard an outbound steamer, Compeyson and some lawmen appear by boat and arrest Magwitch. The two longtime adversaries go overboard, and only Magwitch, severely injured, resurfaces. Compeyson has drowned.
Forgiveness and Redemption
As Pip accompanies Magwitch back to London, he realizes that the convict no longer repulses him. Pip sees in Magwitch a loyal friend and a good man. Magwitch advises that Pip, a gentleman, should distance himself after the arrest, but Pip pledges to remain by Magwitch’s side. Magwitch’s injuries place him in the infirmary, so Pip is able to make good on his promise by visiting daily. He holds Magwitch’s hand during the trial, when Magwitch is sentenced to death, and during the man’s quiet dying moments in his prison bed before his execution date arrives. Just before his friend dies, Pip reveals that Magwitch’s daughter with Molly – a daughter Magwitch long mourned as dead – is alive and that Pip loves her. He never tells Magwitch that because of the arrest, the government will seize Magwitch’s fortune and end Pip’s great expectations.
“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be.” (Estella, to Pip)
Following Magwitch’s death, Pip is gravely ill, deeply in debt and alone. Herbert has gone abroad after inviting Pip to follow him. However, Joe arrives and nurses Pip back to health, for which Pip is grateful and penitent. Joe tells Pip that Miss Havisham has died and that Orlick is in jail for robbery. Pip and Joe recover their deep friendship, but when Pip becomes stronger, Joe leaves quietly one morning. Afterward, Pip discovers that Joe has paid debts that would have landed Pip in prison.
Pip returns to the forge to thank Joe and with an idea of proposing to Biddy, but when he arrives, he finds the two married. He has arrived on their wedding day. Recovering from his shock, Pip delights in their happiness and announces that he’s going abroad. He asks them to forgive his former ingratitude, and they do. Pip then sells his belongings and accepts Herbert’s offer of a humble clerking position abroad. For more than a decade, he advances slowly in profession and lives an honest, frugal, happy life in the home of the now-married Herbert.
After 11 years away, Pip returns to the forge. Biddy and Joe now have children, including a son named Pip. The elder Pip reveals to Biddy that he still thinks often of Estella, who is now single after a violent, unhappy marriage and Drummel’s accidental death. In the evening, Pip walks to the grounds where Satis House once stood. He encounters Estella, sadder and kinder than before. She has come to say good-bye to the property, which she has been forced to sell. Estella’s hard life has taught her compassion and penitence, and she now says that Pip has a place in her heart. They leave the ruins of Satis House hand in hand, with Pip hopeful of a future together.
About the Text
Structure and Style
The tale of Great Expectations first appeared serialized in a weekly magazine and was later published as a novel in three volumes. The structure and pacing of the book reflect this. Being a bildungsroman – a coming-of-age tale – the plot follows a linear progression from childhood to maturity. However, mysteries are dredged from the pasts of some characters, and various past and present subplots interweave. Pip, the first-person narrator, relays the story as an adult, allowing him to view his youthful encounters and choices with experience and wisdom.
Great Expectations contains many elements of social satire and caricature, but ultimately, the tale is a redemptive one. Characteristically, Dickens interweaves many comedic elements and characters. Wemmick, for example, first appears as a dry, impassive legal clerk but is revealed to live in a strange cottage he’s fashioned into a castle – including drawbridge, turrets and working cannons – with a beloved, extremely deaf parent. Wemmick’s double life brightens the plot in some of its bleakest moments.
Dickens’s writing style is elaborate, detailed and erudite, containing frequent literary and social references. Because Great Expectations is told from the point of view of a gentleman, much of the novel adheres to this refined style. However, several main characters are uneducated – including Joe and Magwitch – so the learned prose is interspersed with slangy dialogue and humor.
- Pip’s yearning to be noble – a gentleman – takes him into high society and back again to the working class. Though society emphasizes status and wealth, when Pip meets the embodiments of those qualities, he finds the individuals self-absorbed, greedy or purely ornamental. The novel’s most noble characters – Joe and Magwitch – have no social status, fine manners or school learning. Yet their honesty, humility, hard work, selflessness and pure hearts make them true gentlemen.
- Criminality and prison shadow Pip’s life. He grows up hearing the occasional boom of the prison-ship cannons on the marshes, and the convict Magwitch and his associates haunt Pip’s boyhood. Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe, is mysteriously bludgeoned by a leg shackle – Magwitch’s very own. Pip’s eventual lawyer-guardian, Mr. Jaggers, is famous throughout Newgate Prison and London’s crime world. And Pip’s great expectations trace back to an exiled felon. Pip himself nearly lands in prison for his unpaid debts, but Joe rescues him. This lifelong shadow links to Pip’s seemingly inherent sense of guilt.
- Relatedly, Pip struggles to understand a justice system where the murderer Molly goes free simply because her lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, argues cunningly, and where the reformed, noble Magwitch must perish in a cell. Pip’s journey from being repulsed by Magwitch to loving the man corresponds with Pip’s learning to trust his own conscience and judgment above all.
- Pip’s penitence for wronging Joe and Biddy and their ready forgiveness allow all three to move on and thrive. Conversely, Compeyson’s lack of remorse and Miss Havisham’s related inability to forgive Compeyson keep Satis House frozen in time and darkness and, further, allow the injury and pain to pass to a new generation.
- Throughout Great Expectations, Dickens uses darkness and light as classic metaphors of evil and good, as well as obscurity and truth. Light typically signifies clarity or virtue, and darkness signifies that Pip is wandering astray. However, Dickens uses the terminology of both darkness and light to describe Estella. In the final sentence of the novel, Pip describes walking hand in hand with Estella into a “tranquil light,” where he “saw no shadow of another parting from her.”
A Nation in Flux
Great Expectations describes Pip’s life and experiences from 1812 to 1840, with 1812 coincidentally being the year of Charles Dickens’s birth. The novel spans a time of dizzying political shifts in England. Just before that period, in 1811, a regency was established under England’s “Mad King George,” George III, allowing the ill monarch’s oldest son to rule as his proxy. Following England’s Regency Period (1810–1820), the Regent was crowned King George IV. However, George IV, a corpulent man given to excess, ruled just one more decade until his death from gastrointestinal bleeding in 1820. Thereafter, King William ruled, followed by Queen Victoria in 1837.
The novel’s time span also coincides with the latter part of the Industrial Revolution, when machine tools, steam power, and other innovations brought many farmers from the countryside to work in the factories of England’s cities. These laborers, including women and children, worked long hours under difficult conditions, yet earned meager incomes. The factory owners, by contrast, profited handsomely. Social reforms became necessary. For example, by 1842, laws passed to prevent boys younger than age 10, as well as any female, from working in an underground mine.
The Industrial Revolution produced the first steamboat on the Thames in 1815. These vessels play an important role in the plans of Pip, Herbert and Magwitch at the end of the novel. However, most other dramatic modernizations of the Industrial Era don’t factor into Pip’s story.
Dickens started drafting Great Expectations in the fall of 1860. Though he originally intended to tell the story in monthly installments, his weekly magazine All the Year Round began to falter. Thus, he revised the estimated length of his novel to serialize it in the weekly publication, thereby boosting its readership. Mere months after he began writing Pip’s tale of fortune and misfortune, Dickens started publishing it. He finished writing it by June 11, 1861.
The novel as it exists today contains a revised ending. In the original conclusion – which never made it past the proof stage – Pip remains single and Estella remarries after Drummel’s death. However, Dickens’s literary friend Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton warned him that such a conclusion would disappoint readers. Thus, Dickens crafted a new ending – one that opens the possibility of a future for Pip and Estella.
Reviews and Legacy
Great Expectations, Dickens’s last finished book, was somewhat a return to his old form – which pleased many critics at the time of its publishing. A review published in The Atlantic in September 1861 raved, “The plot of the romance is…universally admitted to be the best that Dickens has ever invented.” Much later, in 1937, playwright George Barnard Shaw called Great Expectations the author’s “most compactly perfect book…all of one piece and consistently truthful as none of his other books are.”
Today, Dickens remains a lasting literary lion whose works have never gone out of print. Many of his novels drew attention to the plight of the working poor at a time of needed social reform and also helped shift public views about class disparities. Karl Marx once said that Dickens “issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.” Charles Dickens remains one of most famous – and most read – English authors.
Pip’s great expectations had come to nothing. All he could do now was see that Abel got out of the country and escaped the death verdict that would be pronounced on him if he was caught.
His repugnance for the convict had faded. He saw a generous, constant man who had only tried to help him. Abel, he realized, had been a better friend to him than he had to Joe.
Abel’s escape, however, was thwarted at the last minute. As he tried to board a steamer bound for Hamburg in the Thames estuary, a police boat intercepted his own. There was a skirmish. Abel was knocked into the water and pulled under the steamer and into its deadly propellers.
He survived long enough to be tried and sentenced to death by hanging, but not long enough to be brought to the gallows. Abel Magwitch died in a prison hospital bed, his hands in Pip’s. “God bless you, dear boy,” he said with his last remaining breath, “you never deserted me.”
It was true – technically. Pip didn’t contradict the dying convict, but he felt a bitter guilt in his heart. He hadn’t deserted Abel, but he had intended to.
Pip was alone. His benefactor was dead, Estella was married, and he had betrayed the only man whom he counted as family. Exhausted and sick, he collapsed into his bed one day and stayed there. For weeks, he was consumed by a feverish delirium that he thought must kill him. Finally, though, he came around. He opened his eyes and saw Joe.
“Oh Joe,” Pip cried, “you break my heart! Look angry at me, Joe. Strike me, Joe. Tell me of my ingratitude. Don’t be so good to me!” Joe clasped Pip’s hand a little tighter and wiped his eyes. “You and me was ever the best of friends,” he said, calling him, as he always had, “dear Pip.”
When he had recovered, Pip settled his debts as best he could, sold his few remaining possessions, and left England to take up a position as a clerk in Europe.
He was a grown man when he returned several years later to see Joe. During that visit, Pip rose early one morning and made a secret pilgrimage to Satis House.
The place had been ripped down after Miss Havisham’s death. All that remained were the foundations and wildly overgrown garden. Pip sat down on a bench and remained there for a very long time contemplating the desolation.
It was close to dusk when he noticed an unmistakable figure in the distance: Estella!
Pip had heard news of Estella over the years. Bentley had been cruel to her. When a horse he’d been mistreating kicked out and killed him, Estella hadn’t mourned the death of her husband. But her suffering was evident. As Pip gazed into her face, he saw the marks of her suffering. The freshness of her beauty had faded but her indescribable charm remained.
She sat next to him on the bench and they talked quietly as the evening mist rose around them. She had, she said, thought often of Pip in recent times.
He replied that she had always held a place in his heart. There was a long pause. She hadn’t thought that she would take her leave of Pip at this spot, she said, but she was glad to do so in such a fitting place. “Glad to part again, Estella?” Pip answered. “To me,” he added, “parting is a painful thing.” Estella looked at him and spoke very earnestly. He had once said “God bless you, God forgive you!” to her. If he could say it then, he could surely say it now that her suffering had taught to understand what his heart used to be. “I have been bent and broken,” Estella said, “but – I hope – into a better shape.” Could they not part, then, as friends?
“We are friends,” said Pip, rising from the bench and taking her hand. “And will continue friends apart,” answered Estella.They left the ruined place that had once been Satis House, a name which, as Estella had told Pip a long time ago, meant “enough” in Latin.
The evening mists were rising and illuminating a broad expanse of tranquil light. But wherever Pip looked, he could see no shadow of another parting from Estella.
About the Author
Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, England, where his father clerked in the Navy Pay Office. When Dickens was 12, his father spent three months in debtors’ prison – a hardship that Great Expectations’ Pip escapes only through Joe’s humble generosity. With a father in prison, young Charles toiled in a shoe-polish factory. His experience of the inhumane conditions of the working-class life would inform many of his works. After little formal education, Dickens became a solicitor’s clerk at age 15. At age 21, he published his first story, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk” – later republished as “Mr. Minns and His Cousin” – in a magazine. He married Catherine Hogarth, daughter of a newspaper editor, in 1836 and published his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, in 1837. The book earned him a following as a talented satirist and writer. As he would do with many of his major works, Dickens serialized the publication – that is, he published installments in a monthly journal, thus making the novel more affordable and accessible to all. The next year, in 1838, after the first of his 10 children was born, Dickens began publishing Oliver Twist. The laboring class and high society equally loved this book, launching Dickens to literary fame. Just a year later, in 1839, Dickens published Nicholas Nickleby. From 1843 to 1853, he published prolifically, including the novella A Christmas Carol and the novels David Copperfield and Bleak House. During the end of that decade, when Dickens was 39, he acted in a play with young writer Wilkie Collins, who would become his protégé. The two men formed a lasting – and quite famous – friendship. Great Expectations was Dickens’s 13th and last finished novel, following one year after his A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens began publishing The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1870, but on June 9, 1870, at age 58, he died of a stroke. He is buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Here is my review of the book Great Expectations: One Boy’s Desire for Reinvention to Climb the Social Ladder by Charles Dickens:
Great Expectations is a classic novel that tells the story of Pip, an orphan boy who dreams of becoming a gentleman and winning the love of the beautiful but cold-hearted Estella. The novel explores the themes of social class, human worth, and personal growth, as well as the consequences of ambition, pride, and betrayal.
The novel begins with Pip’s encounter with an escaped convict named Magwitch in a churchyard, where Pip lives with his abusive sister and her kind husband Joe, a blacksmith. Pip helps Magwitch by bringing him food and a file, but Magwitch is soon recaptured. Later, Pip is invited to visit Miss Havisham, a wealthy and eccentric lady who lives in a decaying mansion called Satis House. There he meets Estella, Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter, who treats him with contempt and disdain. Pip falls in love with Estella, but she is being raised by Miss Havisham to break men’s hearts, as a revenge for being jilted on her wedding day.
Pip becomes dissatisfied with his humble life and wishes to become a gentleman worthy of Estella’s attention. His wish seems to come true when he receives a large fortune from an anonymous benefactor, who asks him to move to London and be educated by Mr. Jaggers, a lawyer. Pip believes that his benefactor is Miss Havisham, and that she intends him to marry Estella. He leaves his home and his friends behind, and adopts a snobbish and ungrateful attitude towards them.
In London, Pip befriends Herbert Pocket, a cheerful and generous young man who teaches him how to behave like a gentleman. He also meets Wemmick, Mr. Jaggers’ clerk, who has a dual personality: cold and pragmatic at work, warm and whimsical at home. Pip spends his money lavishly and accumulates debts, while waiting for Miss Havisham to reveal her plans for him and Estella.
However, Pip’s expectations are shattered when he learns that his true benefactor is none other than Magwitch, the convict he helped as a child. Magwitch has escaped from Australia, where he was transported for life, and has returned to England to see Pip, whom he considers his son. Pip is horrified and disgusted by this revelation, but he also feels guilty and grateful for Magwitch’s generosity. He decides to help Magwitch escape from the authorities, who are hunting him down.
Meanwhile, Pip discovers that Estella is the daughter of Magwitch and Molly, Mr. Jaggers’ housekeeper, who was accused of murdering another woman over Magwitch’s love. Estella was taken away from her parents by Mr. Jaggers and given to Miss Havisham, who molded her into a heartless beauty. Pip also learns that Miss Havisham has no intention of making him marry Estella, who is engaged to Bentley Drummle, a cruel and wealthy man.
Pip tries to persuade Estella to leave Drummle and run away with him, but she refuses. She tells him that she cannot love him or anyone else, because she has no heart. She also warns him that she will make Drummle miserable, as she has been taught by Miss Havisham.
Pip visits Miss Havisham for the last time and confronts her about her cruelty towards him and Estella. He accuses her of ruining their lives for her own selfish revenge. Miss Havisham begs for his forgiveness and admits her guilt. She also asks him to write to her about Estella’s welfare. As Pip leaves Satis House, he sees Miss Havisham’s dress catch fire from the candles on her wedding cake. He rushes back to save her, but she is badly burned and dies soon after.
Pip and Herbert arrange a plan to smuggle Magwitch out of London by boat. However, their plan is foiled by Compeyson, Magwitch’s former partner in crime and Miss Havisham’s former lover, who has been spying on them. Compeyson informs the police and tries to capture Magwitch himself. A struggle ensues between the two convicts, and both fall into the river. Compeyson drowns, but Magwitch is rescued by Pip and taken to prison. Pip stays by Magwitch’s side until he dies peacefully, knowing that his daughter Estella is alive and that Pip loves her. Pip then falls ill and loses consciousness.
When he recovers, he finds out that his fortune has been confiscated by the Crown, and that he is in debt to his creditors. He also learns that Joe has paid off his debts and nursed him back to health. Pip feels ashamed of his ingratitude towards Joe, and decides to return to his home town and ask for his forgiveness. He also hopes to marry Biddy, Joe’s kind and intelligent friend, who has taught him how to read and write.
However, when he arrives at the forge, he finds out that Joe and Biddy have married each other and have a son named Pip. Pip is happy for them and apologizes for his past behavior. He also promises to be a better friend and brother to them. He then leaves for Cairo, where he joins Herbert in his successful business.
Eleven years later, Pip returns to England and visits Satis House, which has been demolished. There he meets Estella, who has been widowed by Drummle, who abused her and died from a horse accident. Estella tells Pip that she has suffered and changed a lot since they last saw each other. She also says that she has often thought of him and regrets having caused him pain. Pip takes her hand and tells her that he has forgiven her. They walk away together, with a hope of a better future.