Great Expectations

Charles John Huffam Dickens - Published 1861

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, England. He was the son of John Dickens, a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, and Elizabeth (Barrow) Dickens. Young Dickens was taught at home by his mother, and attended a Dame School (a school in which the rudiments of reading and writing were taught by a woman in her own home) at Chatham for a short time, and Wellington Academy in London. Later, he further educated himself by reading widely in the British Museum. Dickens’s father was incompetent at managing money, and was eventually sent to debtor’s prison. Attempting to support herself and the younger children in more modest quarters when they had to leave the family home, Mrs. Dickens tried to set herself up as the principal of a girls’ school, but no one enrolled any children to be taught by her. Dickens was sent at age 12 to work in a run-down part of London, in a business owned by a family friend, sticking labels on bottles of boot-black; he lived in a small, humble rooming house nearby. For months his only recreation was depressing Sunday visits to his father in debtor’s prison. This life horrified him, giving him belly cramps and lasting nightmares. Even the friendship of a poor boy named Fagin who tended Dickens when he was sick at work was not enough to relieve his shame.

After some months the family’s income was recovered to a small extent, but it took the intervention of another family friend before young Dickens’s parents brought him to Kent to live with the family. It simply had not occurred to them to remove their 12-year-old son from miserable employment in a slum.

These few months had a profound affect on young Dickens’s life. Afterwards he strove to be a gentleman, to escape what he had learned of poverty. He considered a career in the theater, but took up writing and discovered that he had a natural talent—and what he wrote, he could sell to earn a respectable living.

For the rest of his life, Dickens avoided that run-down part of London where he had lived and worked in misery for months. Even as an adult, a successful author and editor, he told no one about those experiences. His children noticed that if Dickens had to walk through that district, he would grimly hold their hands and proceed out of the area as quickly as possible, never saying a word. It was not until his literary executor asked some searching questions that Dickens broke silence, only once, in the last years of his life. The core of feelings that was the genesis of his celebrated novels David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and Great Expectations was revealed only after the author’s death.

Dickens enjoyed a career as a novelist, journalist, court reporter, and editor. He was editor of London Daily News in 1846, founder and editor of Household Words from 1833-1835, and of All the Year Round from 1859-1870. He was also a talented amateur actor, and presented public readings of his works, beginning in 1858. He acquired a grand home in Kent, called Gad’s Hill, which he had aspired to own since boyhood.

Dickens fell in love many times as a young man, but he married Catherine Hogarth in April, 1836, and together they raised ten children. He and his wife separated in 1858, when he was spending a great deal of time in London. Later they divorced, probably at least in part because Dickens had fallen in love with Ellen Ternan, an Irish actress.

In 1865, Dickens survived a train wreck which left his first-class carriage dangling from a railway bridge. By all reports, Dickens calmed his traveling companions (his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother), got them all safely off the train and then went to the aid of many injured and dying passengers. Eventually, Dickens retrieved his current manuscript from the railway carriage as it swayed from the bridge, before leaving the scene. Afterwards, he suffered from a great fear of train wrecks but continued to travel for lectures and readings.

He died of a paralytic stroke, at Gad’s Hill, Kent, England, on June 18, 1870, and was buried in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, near Chaucer and Shakespeare.


The orphaned Philip Pirrip, who calls himself Pip, was raised by his harsh sister Mrs. Joe and her kind husband Joe Gargery, a blacksmith. Wandering through the marshes near his home one day, Pip encounters a ragged stranger who demands that Pip bring him food and a file to remove the chain that binds his leg. Pip complies with this request. Later Pip sees him struggling with another stranger before they disappear from view. The man Pip had helped is later captured by the police, but promises to repay Pip for his aid.

Miss Havisham, an eccentric old lady who lives in a huge mansion, asks that Pip come to visit her. All of the clocks in her dark, dusty house are stopped on the hour that the man Miss Havisham planned to marry abandoned her. She still wears her now-yellowed wedding dress, and the moldy wedding cake still stands on a table in her room, inhabited by a colony of spiders. A frequent visitor at the mansion, Pip talks with Estella, Miss Havisham’s haughty young ward. Eventually he is paid a small sum and told it is time for him to become Joe’s apprentice.

One day someone breaks into their home and Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe, is injured with a great blow to the back of the head. A kind young woman named Biddy moves from the village into Joe’s home to help take care of Mrs. Joe and the household. Biddy believes that it was Orlick, a contemptuous employee of Joe’s, who injured Mrs. Joe. Biddy also fears that Orlick is falling in love with her. Pip continues to work for Joe. Every year on Pip’s birthday, the youth visits Miss Havisham. Pip is constantly regretting his desire for a more comfortable lifestyle, and regrets also his infatuation with Estella.

Pip is surprised and pleased when a London lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, brings him to London to be educated, become a gentleman, and eventually come into an inheritance; Pip assumes that Miss Havisham is financing this plan to groom him as a proper husband for Estella. In London, Pip rooms with an agreeable young man named Herbert Pocket, a distant relative of Miss Havisham.

Pip associates with a group of young dandies who call themselves the Finches of the Grove, the most prominent of which is a cad named Bentley Drummle. When the still-devoted Joe comes to visit him, Pip is embarrassed by his brother-in-law’s crude ways and treats him unkindly. Miss Havisham informs Pip that Estella will be moving to London and that she wants Pip to fall in love with her. But after her arrival in London, Estella is courted by Drummle.

Pip receives an unexpected visit on his 21st birthday from the convict whom he had met so long ago in the marshes. The man, whose name is Abel Magwitch, reveals that he has been the boy’s benefactor all along, having grown rich after being banished to Australia. He has come back to witness Pip’s progress even though his own life is endangered by his illegal return to England. Pip is initially repulsed by Magwitch’s coarseness yet realizes how much he owes him; he decides to try to help Magwitch in any way he can. Magwitch is using the pseudonym Provis to avoid detection. He also reveals that the man with whom he had struggled in the marsh and who still vows to destroy him is the villainous Compeyson, who, coincidentally, is also the man responsible for the abandonment of Miss Havisham by her fiancé Arthur on their wedding day. Determined to chastise Miss Havisham for allowing him to believe that she was his benefactor, Pip visits her. He learns that Estella is engaged to Drummle and that Miss Havisham had carefully trained her young ward to break the hearts of as many men as possible, as vengeance for the desertion she herself had experienced. As a result, Estella is a cold and detached young woman, unable to love or feel compassion. On a final visit to Miss Havisham’s house after Estella’s wedding, Pip finds the mansion on fire but is unable to save Miss Havisham, who perishes.

Pip and young Herbert Pocket scheme to help Magwitch escape to France, but just as they have secured him aboard a boat, Compeyson appears and the two men fight, eventually struggling in the water. Magwitch kills his enemy and is immediately apprehended by the police; he dies in prison, but not before Pip recognizes his pity and love for his benefactor. Pip becomes seriously ill and Joe arrives to nurse him back to health, giving Pip an occasion to realize the value of his old friend’s constancy and love. Mrs. Joe has since died, and Joe has married the Gargery’s former servant, Biddy. Still despondent over having lost Estella, Pip establishes an importing business with Herbert.

Eleven years later he returns to visit Joe and also the spot where Miss Havisham’s mansion once stood. He finds the widowed Estella also wandering there; she has become a warmer, more compassionate person over the years. The two leave together, and appear destined for happiness together. In Dickens’s original version, Pip and Estella part with the understanding that they will probably never see each other again, but in the revised version, Dickens’s makes the ending more optimistic by implying that they will, indeed, have a future together someday.


This novel is set in England, contemporary with the time of its writing. The action takes place in a country village built on marshy land, and in London, which is far more distant spiritually from the village than physically.

Pip becomes familiar with the homes of people of varying incomes. The humble home of Joe Gargery, the blacksmith, is where Pip is raised. The Gargery house and its furnishings are simple, but decent; by contrast, the inadequate foster care given young Pip by his grown sister is unnecessarily stingy and cruel. But the comparative wealth of Miss Havisham has not made her grand house a comfortable home, nor filled it with wonders. Her refusal to move on from the moment she was jilted has resulted in a house that is a gothic horror of spiders’ webs and dust.

In London, Pip finds homes that are not so much a source of comforts both physical and emotional, as a theater for play-acting. From pretend-castles to a lawyer’s absolute domain, to even his young gentleman’s digs, Pip is in place after place where the concerns of the rest of the world do not intrude. It would seem that the greatest freedom of a gentleman is the freedom in his home to do no practical work, and to entertain himself there as its absolute master.


G. K. Chesterton said: “It is the real unconquerable rush and energy in a character which was the supreme and quite indescribable greatness of Dickens.” By the time the reader finishes several chapters and has met what would seem to be enough major characters for any novel, new characters are introduced, some of whom (though minor roles) are crucial to the final story, and have important relationships with Pip and other major characters.

Young Phillip Pirrip, also known as Pip, is shaped by his changing circumstances. He is an orphan who never knew his dead parents or brothers, raised by his sister and Joe Gargery at Joe’s workshop on the marshes near a country village at some distance from London. For a child in constant fear of punishment, Pip learns to lie rather convincingly. A sensitive boy, he is frequently beaten or starved and verbally abused by his sister, although he keeps only one secret: that he once stole food and a file to give an escaped convict, a crime he is certain will be his doom.

Pip is intimidated by the hideous Miss Havisham and by the lovely Estella. Even though Estella is his own age, Pip feels dominated by the girl and obeys Miss Havisham’s order to love her. When Pip learns that he has an anonymous benefactor who will provide for his education in London, he eagerly leaves his apprenticeship with Joe behind, certain that his patron is Miss Havisham who is preparing him to become a gentleman worthy of marrying Estella. His hunch is supported by his long-standing belief that he deserves more in life than becoming a blacksmith like Joe. Furthermore, the lawyer who pays Pip’s allowance is also Miss Havisham’s lawyer.

However, in London, Pip’s tutor, Mr. Pocket, turns out to be ineffectual, and Pip finds himself without adequate training for any profession to fit his new social class. Pip is made conceited and mean by his good fortune; but he always remains a good fellow, with a desire to do right, and with warm feelings. He also discovers that all of his old expectations have been wrong. Even so, learning this seems to be his best education.

For Pip, who spends much of his life either daydreaming or defending himself, such a change of heart seems heroic enough to set things right again. However, except for risking his own life to save Miss Havisham, Pip is not really a hero. In the end, he redeems himself by forgiving Miss Havisham, and requesting that she make her young relative Herbert Pocket her heir. He realizes who his true friends are when all of his expectations and money are gone. He is reunited with Joe and Biddy, and his kindness to Herbert Pocket is repaid.

The minor characters in Great Expectations are a motley crew. Among those not to be admired is Bentley Drummle, the rich and sulky leader of the dandified Finches of the Grove (and thus the epitome of Pip’s misguided early notion of a gentleman), who marries and violently mistreats Estella. Others include Miss Havisham’s relative Sarah Pocket, a withered, sharp-tongued, snobbish woman who resents Pip’s ascent to her own elevated social class; Old Bill Barley, the father of Herbert’s fiancée Clara, a gouty and drunken old man whose habit of surveying a nearby river with a telescope is a remnant of his former career as a sailor; Mr. Pocket, Herbert’s father and Pip’s tutor, who teaches him only the mere rudiments of education since as a gentleman he will not need to know much; and Molly, Mr. Jaggers’s strange, silent housekeeper, who turns out to have been a murderess, Magwitch’s mistress, and Estella’s mother.

Another of these minor characters is Mr. Wopsle. A man who accompanies Pip and Joe across the marsh the night the police first catch the escaped convicts, Mr. Wopsle has seen both Magwitch and Compeyson. This is important much later in the story: when Mr. Wopsle has left the countryside for London to act in the theater, he recognizes the second convict, Compeyson, sitting behind Pip in the audience. With that knowledge, Pip knows that Compeyson is still alive and that he must get Magwitch out of the country as soon as possible before Compeyson finds him again.

Minor characters are used by the author to bring in news and important developments, and to keep the story revolving around its major character, Pip. Pip is not the best person in the novel, nor even a very admirable boy or young man. But he eventually learns to see what is good in the people around him, and through Pip’s realizations, the author is stating his opinions about the absolute worth and relative worth of people like his characters.

The gentle, loving, soft-spoken, wise, and efficient Biddy is Pip’s tutor before Mrs. Joe is injured and Biddy moves into the Gargery home to take care of the house. After Mrs. Joe dies, she marries Joe Gargery. Though Pip at one point might be interested in marrying Biddy if it were not for her lowly social status, he later comes to realize that Biddy’s true worth as a person far outshines any artificial class distinctions.

Far less worthy, though a gentleman, is Arthur, Miss Havisham’s suitor who once jilted her. Before the novel begins, he has fallen in with the villainous Compeyson and his schemes. However, unlike Compeyson, Arthur has a conscience; he dreams of Miss Havisham dressed in white at his bedside and dies of fright. He and Compeyson had once schemed to get Miss Havisham’s fortune, but at the last moment, with the wedding cake on the table and Miss Havisham dressed in her bridal finery, Arthur jilted her; presumably he could not carry through with the plan. He also functions as a parallel character with Bentley Drummle.

Compeyson is the man who arranges Miss Havisham’s engagement with Arthur. He also testifies in court against Magwitch in an earlier scheme that failed, after which Magwitch is banished from England and exiled to Australia. Compeyson is the second escaped convict out on the marsh the night that Pip first meets Magwitch, and he eventually dies fighting with Magwitch during their second capture years later.

Part of the fallout from the jilting of Miss Havisham is the adoption of Estella by Miss Havisham at the age of two or three. She has been taught to reject all who love her; this is Miss Havisham’s vengeance for her being jilted by Arthur. About the same age as Pip, Estella acts much older and snubs him more often than merely ignoring his attempts at friendship or love. In this, she is quite honest with Pip, for she has been raised to brush off love, and to reject it later in order to watch the man suffer. Miss Havisham’s success in raising a cold-hearted beauty is too much for her, however, for Estella can feel no love for the old woman either. Thus, Estella can only refuse Pip whenever he confesses his love. Instead, she tells him that she will ruin the man she does marry and why not, when she cares for no one? When she becomes engaged to Bentley Drummle, Pip cannot talk her out of marrying such a brutal man. In the novel’s revised ending, when Estella meets Pip years later, she has had a daughter (also named Estella) by Drummle, who has died. Estella has survived, bent and broken by the doomed marriage. She never knew who her parents were because Miss Havisham led her to assume that they were dead. More tragically, Estella has never learned to care about anyone’s happiness, not even her own.

A far more caring person is Joe Gargery, Pip’s uncle and surrogate father, but also a fellow-sufferer from his wife’s nasty temper and violent behavior. He is a rough, strong working man who keeps his emotions to himself. Whenever Joe had tried to protect young Pip from his sister’s abuse, she not only hit Joe too but hurt Pip the more for it. Joe gladly takes Pip on as his apprentice at the forge and misses him terribly when Pip leaves for London, but will not stand in the way of Pip’s good fortune. After Mrs. Joe is attacked, he nurses her with the help of Biddy, whom he marries after Mrs. Joe dies. He also lovingly nurses Pip back to health in London. An uneducated man, he learns enough about writing from Biddy to leave Pip a letter to say goodbye, misspelling his own name Jo as Pip had done as a child.

Of all Dickens’s many characters in the novel, Joe is one who does not change, remaining tough yet childlike in love. His weakness is a tendency to look on the bright side, which seemed foolish to Pip as a teenager. The ways in which the other characters treat Joe provide insight into their own weaknesses: Pip is ashamed of him, Estella makes fun of him, and Jaggers is stunned when Joe refuses to accept money for the loss of Pip from his shop. In spite of Joe’s hard life, he remains good-natured and devoted to Pip and Biddy.

Joe’s first wife is a large, menacing woman. Mrs. Joe Gargery prides herself on raising Pip by hand, which is a sorry pun on the way she hits the child and her husband whenever she is not verbally attacking them. Her favorite instrument, The Tickler, is a stick that is worn smooth from caning Pip, regardless of his behavior. The bodice of her apron is stuck through with pins and needles, a true metaphor for her character. Only Orlick stands up to her, and she never recovers from his savage attack. She spends her last days in the tender care of Joe and Biddy, no longer vicious but in a state of childlike happiness.

There is no happiness for the novel’s true eccentric. Always dressed in the wedding gown in which she had once planned to be married, Miss Havisham is colorless, from her hair to her single faded white shoe. She wants Pip and Estella to act out her love-turned-to-hatred for the man who jilted her on their wedding day. She has left the house untouched, even the items on her dressing table. The great room across from her chamber is likewise untouched; the cake, now eerily covered with spiders and dusty cobwebs, is in the middle of the long dining table. Her wish that this table be cleared only when she is dead (so that she may be laid on it for her wake) is granted when the old lady’s clothing accidentally catches on fire.

She is saved by Pip who rolls her in the tablecloth from the great room. Before she dies, she honors Pip’s request to make his friend, Herbert Pocket, her heir, amazed that Pip wants nothing for himself. Her nightmares of dying without forgiveness are laid to rest when she dies with Pip’s kiss on her wrinkled forehead.

There is little forgiveness for crime in the time the novel is set. All Londoners on the wrong side of the law know Mr. Jaggers is the lawyer with the best chance of keeping them out of Newgate Prison. Jaggers will not take a case he cannot win, or if his fee cannot be paid, and says so. He has moved many a judge and jury to tears with his courtroom drama. Outside the court, he never lets down his guard. Since he is Miss Havisham’s lawyer and is bound by Pip’s unnamed benefactor’s desire to remain unknown, Jaggers bolsters Pip’s belief that Miss Havisham is his benefactor.

Jaggers can be contrasted with his clerk, Wemmick. A true friend to Pip in London, John Wemmick is a dual personality. In London, where he is a chief clerk at Jaggers’s law office, Wemmick is as coldly business-minded as his employer. However, he takes a liking to Pip and invites him to his house, a miniature castle complete with a tiny moat, drawbridge, and a cannon that Wemmick fires each evening because it delights his deaf father. In his own odd household, Wemmick becomes close friends with Pip, who grows to value their friendship deeply. Wemmick keeps one ear open at all times at the office to determine the best time to get Magwitch out of the country, and Wemmick sends word to Pip when he thinks the London underworld is unaware. Also, Wemmick thinks so much of Pip that Pip is the only wedding guest at the marriage of Wemmick and Miss Skiffins. Even so, when Pip sees him at the office, Wemmick is curt and businesslike again. Wemmick keeps both of his worlds separate from each other.

Another stereotype is Wemmick’s father, who is old and deaf, and he responds to almost all conversation by smiling and yelling, “All right, John!” In his odd house and landscape, the elderly parent provides relaxation and comic relief for Pip, who enjoys visiting Wemmick’s place as a world apart from the threats of London.

One of Wemmick’s and Jagger’s clients, Abel Magwitch is also known as Pip’s convict and as Provis, his benefactor. In trouble from the day he was born, Abel Magwitch is an orphan like Pip but without Joe or any loving family member to befriend him. All he can recall of his early days is his name. Banished to Australia, he tends sheep and saves his money to one day make an English gentleman of the boy named Pip who once was kind to him while he was running from the police on the marshes. When he re-enters Pip’s life in London, Magwitch holds the key to many mysteries. As Provis, he spends many happy hours with Pip, in spite of Pip’s discomfort at learning that his benefactor has not been Miss Havisham, but a criminal.

Magwitch is the link between more characters in the novel than anyone but Pip himself. Magwitch dies content to have lived out his dream of creating in Pip the respectable man that he himself could never be, as well as assuring that his former crime partner and arch-enemy Compeyson drowns. In his last days, Magwitch reveals to Pip the confidence scheme that he was drawn into with Arthur and Compeyson. However, it is only after Magwitch’s death that Pip discovers that Magwitch was also Estella’s father.

Jaggers’s maid Molly who serves dinner to Pip, has the scars of shackles on her wrists. As her lawyer, Jaggers once saved her from being sent to Newgate Prison, and he shames her in front of Pip to remind her of her old life, her reform, and her alternative to serving in his house. At another dinner with Mr. Jaggers, Pip is fascinated by Molly’s hands for another reason. He has seen them somewhere before. Eventually, Pip notices other resemblances between Molly and Estella and forces a stilted admission out of Jaggers that Molly was once married to a convict and that Jaggers arranged for their child to be adopted by a rich woman. Taken together with Magwitch’s story, it is obvious that Molly was Magwitch’s wife and Estella’s mother.

Magwitch worked hard and achieved his goals, while Molly gave up their daughter to be raised in hopes of a better future, then worked as an honest maid. By contrast, Orlick is a character with no redeeming qualities. After being fired by Joe for insulting Mrs. Joe, Orlick bears a grudge against Pip. Years later, when Orlick lures Pip to the limekiln out on the marshes and ties Pip up, he tells Pip of the scene of his attack on Mrs. Joe’s skull with a convict’s (Magwitch’s) leg irons he found on the marsh. Since Pip brought a file to Magwitch to remove his shackles, Orlick’s deed may be only the delayed result of Pip’s childhood crime of aiding a convict. However, help arrives and Orlick is arrested before Pip is harmed. These convolutions of motives, actions, and consequences are pretty much standard throughout the novel; no act happens in isolation, as everything has eventual consequences and relates back to Pip and his circle of acquaintance, and his own less-than-happy life.

The warmest among Pip’s circle of acquaintance is his roommate in London, Herbert Pocket, who is also his best friend. Herbert nicknames Pip “Handel” because it is the name of a famous man, as a compliment to Pip. An easygoing youth and not bright, Herbert is nonetheless loyal and persevering. While they are students together, Herbert tries to help Pip figure out where all of their money is going. Later, he invites Pip to share in his inheritance, before finding out that Pip is the reason for it. Herbert is the receiver of Pip’s only request of Miss Havisham for money. Tolerant and kind, even to the irritating alcoholic and gout-ridden Mr. Barley, Herbert falls in love with and marries the equally kind and patient daughter Clara Barley. Also, he is trusted with helping Pip try to get Magwitch out of England. Herbert’s most heroic hour is finding Orlick’s letter that Pip had dropped and rushing off to save Pip at the moment that Orlick would have surely killed him. At last, Herbert provides a job for Pip when all of his fortune is gone. In the original ending of the novel, Herbert names his son Pip.

The two different endings to the novel have gathered much critical attention. In the original serial ending, which Dickens revised on advice from his friend, novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Estella marries a benevolent doctor after the death of her first husband and she and Pip have one melancholy but friendly meeting years later. In the ending that Dickens decided to use when the novel was printed as a book, the two walk off hand in hand, apparently destined for marriage. Some critics claim that the latter ending is in keeping with Dickens’s general hopeful nature, while others claim that it represents an unfortunate concession to his audience’s desire for a happy ending and is true to neither Pip’s nor Estella’s character.


“The very title of this book [Great Expectations] indicates the confidence of conscious genius,” said an unnamed critic in a review. “The most famous novelist of the day, watched by jealous rivals and critics, could hardly have selected it, had he not inwardly felt the capacity to meet all the expectations he raised.” The critic had read this novel and all of Dickens’s previous works, in installments, and was impressed by “the felicity with which expectation was excited and prolonged, and to the series of surprises which accompanied the unfolding of the plot of the story.”

Dickens succeeded perfectly in stimulating and baffling the curiosity of his readers. In Great Expectations, he seemed to attain the mastery of powers which formerly more or less mastered him. He could not, like Thackeray, narrate a story as if he were merely looking on, a mere “knowing” observer of what he describes and represents; he therefore took observation simply as the basis of his plot and ran with his own particular talent for characterization. In this novel, Dickens was in the prime, and not in the decline of his great powers.

Dickens always had one weakness, and this novel is strongly marked with it. He would exaggerate one particular set of facts, a comic side in a character, or a comic turn of expression, until all reality faded away, and the person became a mere frame for an elaborate, fluttering construction. Miss Havisham is an example of Dickens’s exaggeration.

But what was the peg on which the entire novel, this elaborate fluttering construction, was hung? It may have been the January, 1850, issue of Household Narrative of Current Events.

In the January, 1850, issue of Household Narrative of Current Events, there appeared an account of Martha Joachin, who always wore white after her suitor committed suicide in front of her. Also in that issue was a description of the transportation of convicts to Australia, and the story of a woman whose gown is set on fire. Peter Ackroyd suggests in his biography Dickens that the germ of the novel may have been planted by Dickens’s casual reading of some journalism 11 years before he began writing the serial. “It is possible to understand how heterogeneous themes and ideas seem to attach themselves one to another, acquiring fresh power and resonance as they do so; it is in this very act of combining, perhaps, that the story itself begins to emerge,” says Ackroyd. “As if storytelling itself were part of the process of consciousness rather than some neatly defined and independent activity.”

It may be that storytelling, for Dickens and others, is a way of creating a pattern from random data fortuitously lodged in one’s consciousness. Whether Dickens overtly intended to combine these particular elements into an epic-length novel (incorporating elements of his own experience as a frustrated boy) cannot be determined; he left no notes outlining his plan. But it is fascinating to look from the viewpoint of a reader over a hundred and forty years later, at a popular novel still in print, written by a man very nearly as self-centered as Pip, and to have some understanding of where he got his ideas.

This work, Dickens’s second-to-last complete novel, was first published as a weekly series in 1860 and in book form in 1861. Early critics had mixed reviews, disliking Dickens’s tendency to exaggerate both plot and characters, but readers were so enthusiastic that the 1861 edition required five printings. Victorian-era audiences appreciated the melodramatic scenes and the revised, more hopeful ending.

Modern critics have little but praise for Dickens’s brilliant development of timeless themes: fear and fun, loneliness and luck, classism and social justice, humiliation and honor. Some still puzzle over Dickens’s revision that ends the novel with sudden optimism, and they suggest that the sales of Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round, in which the series first appeared, was assured by gluing on a happy ending that hints Pip and Estella will unite at last. For some, the original ending is more realistic since Pip must earn the self-knowledge that can only come from giving up his obsession with Estella. However, Victorian audiences eagerly followed the story, episode by episode, assuming that the protagonist’s love and patience would win out in the end. Modern editions contain both denouements allowing the reader a choice.

In this novel, Dickens surpasses his previous works in one point. This is “a more profound study of the general nature of human character than Mr. Dickens usually [portrays],” decently distinct from David Copperfield, according to G.K. Chesterton. “Pip thinks himself better than every one else, and yet anybody can snub him; that is the everlasting male, and perhaps the everlasting gentleman. Dickens has described perfectly this quivering and defenceless dignity . . . how ill-armed it is against the coarse humor of real humanity . . . the humanity of Trabb’s boy,” Chesterton insists. In describing Pip’s weakness, Dickens is as true and as delicate as Thackeray, but Thackeray and others also possessed a quick and quiet eye for the tremors of mankind. “George Eliot or Thackeray could have described the weakness of Pip. Exactly what George Eliot and Thackeray could not have described was the vigour of Trabb’s boy.”


Dickens has been praised for having created in Pip a decidedly unheroic hero, a figure who, while basically good, must learn to recognize and conquer serious weaknesses within himself. As the young Pip grows from a powerless dreamer into a useful worker and then a moderately educated young man, he reaches an important realization: grand schemes and dreams are never what they first seem to be. Pip himself is not always honest, and careful readers can catch him in several contradictions between his truth and fantasies. In chronicling the maturation of its likeable young hero, whose great expectations prove illusory, the novel promotes generosity, friendship, and love rather than the shallow virtues of wealth and social status.

It is generally acknowledged that Dickens based Estella, who has been called his most sexually viable female character, on the Irish actress Ellen Ternan, who eventually became his mistress. Pip’s helpless attraction to Estella and the mingled hopelessness and intensity of his love for her mirror the emotions reportedly experienced by the author when he fell in love with Ternan.

Charles Dickens never lost an awareness of his own experiences working as a boy, bottling boot-black, but he spoke of these days and his emotional horror, only once to his trusted friend and executor John Foster. With that knowledge, it is easier for the reader to understand the origins of the characters Pip, David Copperfield, and Oliver Twist—created by Dickens to give voice to young children like he had been.

Dickens was always acutely aware of the suffering endured by the poor, and made every endeavor as an adult not to be poor. His novels were the first modern codification of the concept that children ought not to be put to tedious, repetitive work at an early age, but should be helped to grow and learn and play. Dickens was not a political activist, nor did he campaign for child welfare laws. He brought these issues to the hearts and minds of his readers through his popular fiction, rather than writing overt autobiography or political tracts. His novels were part of the process by which it became common in much of the world to believe that all children, not only those of the wealthy, should be given education and leisure to play; that children who do labor should be given work less onerous and shorter in duration than adults; and ultimately that it is as abominable to deprive children of care, comfort, and education as it is to deny them adequate food and shelter.


1. What are labor practices and working conditions?

2. How does social status at birth affect a child’s future? What effect did it have in Dickens’s lifetime?

3. From where does Pip get his expectations?

4. What does Pip do with his expectations? Are they so well-formed as to be called ambitions, or plans?

5. What influence does being paid by the word have upon an author?

6. How does a popular author reflect the mores of his or her culture?

7. What is least admirable about Pip? When is he most virtuous? Does he know when he has done right or wrong?

8. How much does young Herbert Pocket actually accomplish? Is he as worthy a young man as he could be? Where does his loyalty and generosity come from?

9. What expectations does Estella have? Does she accomplish what she expects? Has she achieved peace by the novel’s end?


1. What human miseries are avoidable, by honest individual effort, by luck, and by community resolution? What human miseries are unavoidable, and can only be partially remedied after the fact?

2. Compare Great Expectations with Jack Maggs by author Peter Carey. What does Carey do with the character of Abel Magwitch that is a fulfillment of the character as invented by Dickens? What changes does Carey ring on Magwitch in his creation of Jack Maggs? Is this appropriation of character a sensible comment on post-colonial attitudes? How does Carey reinvent the “felon history” of Australia, which seems a necessary assumption of Dickens’s time?

3. Why does Dickens populate this novel so thickly with characters, most of whom are not aristocratic to any degree? Is he making a statement by writing about working people, and villagers, and people with small ambitions? What statement could he be making about gentlemen and other people of moderate status?

4. What are virtues in a character by Dickens? What are vices in his characters? Does the author portray any true heroes in this novel? What does Pip achieve in his life that is worthy? What errors does he commit?

5. Choose a minor character from the novel Great Expectations. Make notes on that character’s physical traits as described by Dickens, and her/his typical actions or gestures or behaviors. Sketch the character as shown in one of the scenes from the novel. Prepare the sketch for display as a triptych, flanked with a copy of the scene and your list of the character’s traits. Can other people who have read the novel identify the character from your sketch alone?

6. Draw a “family tree” chart linking the various characters of the novel Great Expectations. Show which characters have links both to Pip and to each other. Will you differentiate between blood ties and friendships? Close contact or rare meetings? How will you depict the association of Magwitch with his criminal colleagues? What sort of links can you show on your chart?

7. Are there any characters in the novel Great Expectations who interact only once with Pip and never with any other characters? Are the many characters Dickens depicts isolated, or are they interconnected with each other and not merely Pip?

8. As the novel Great Expecations progresses, is Pip interacting more with positive characters who mean to do well for him and themselves, or with negative characters who are cruel? Does he consciously imitate any other characters, in attitude or behavior? Who has the greatest influence upon him?

9. Compare the novel Great Expecations with an English translation of the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Discuss what similarities you find, apart from sheer length: the legions of characters, multiple small incidents, the author’s sense of humor. Do you find any evidence that Dickens may have read Don Quixote in translation?

10. Compare Dickens with modern authors of the late 20th century. Who among the popular authors is much like Dickens? How do these authors make use of available media and technology, as Dickens did?

11. The popular novelist Stephen King has gone to great efforts to emulate the literary successes of Dickens. Compare and contrast their work ethics, the scope of their bodies of work, and the literary merit of their most popular novels.


There have been several adaptations made for audio, feature films and video of Dickens’s novels, including Great Expectations. In 1947 Jean Simmons and John Mills appeared in a film version of Great Expectations.

There is a Monty Python sketch set in a bookshop which includes dialogue about Dickens, imaginary authors with phonetically similar names, and novels with titles that are spoonerisms (a transposition of usually initial sounds of two or more words [as in tons of soil for sons of toil]) of Dickens titles. It is a thoroughly amusing sketch with no foul language; it is eminently suitable for audio or video play for young adults.

Motion pictures based on A Christmas Carol have been shown since 1913. The most acclaimed version is the Alistair Sim film made in 1951 and still shown on television today. The film Scrooged which stars Bill Murray is another adaptation.

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