Great Expectations is one of Dickens’s most popular novels: perhaps only Oliver Twist and David Copperfield are equally well-known and well-regarded among his full-length novels (A Christmas Carol, technically a novella, is surely his most famous book of all). Not bad for a novel which Dickens only started writing because another novel, by his now-forgotten contemporary Charles Lever, was proving extremely unpopular with readers of Dickens’s magazine, All the Year Round, and Dickens realised he needed to produce a replacement which would halt the dwindling circulation of the publication.
As this detail demonstrates, the story behind how Great Expectations came to be written is fascinating in itself. But what is the novel about? How should we interpret this tale that blends fairy tale, the Gothic, realism, and ‘rags to riches’? Before we proceed to an analysis of Dickens’s novel, here’s a brief reminder of the plot.
Great Expectations: plot summary
Philip Pirrip, known as ‘Pip’, is an orphan who has been raised by his elder sister and her husband, Joe Gargery. Joe is a blacksmith, and a kind friend to the young Pip.
In the novel’s atmospheric opening chapter, Pip is in the local graveyard on the Kent marshes when an escaped convict named Abel Magwitch approaches him and demands that Pip help him. A terrified Pip agrees, and returns home to get Magwitch some food and a file so he can remove his leg-iron.
The next day (Christmas Day), soldiers arrive searching for Magwitch and another convict who escaped with him (with whom Magwitch had been fighting on the marshes). They ask Joe to accompany them, since as a blacksmith he can help to resecure the convicts’ fetters when they are recaptured. When Magwitch his hunted down and taken back to the convict ship, he tells the soldiers he stole his food from the Gargery home, to save Pip from his sister and the authorities.
A short while after this, the reclusive Miss Havisham, who owns the large Satis House, starts to invite Pip round to play with her young ward, a girl named Estella. Miss Havisham has worn the same wedding dress for years, ever since she was jilted at the altar by her husband-to-be. The clocks have been stopped in her house at the moment he jilted her, and the remains of the wedding feast are still rotting and putrefying. Miss Havisham has trained and conditioned Estella to be a heartbreaker: through her young ward, she intends to exact revenge upon all men for what her betrothed did to her.
A lawyer named Jaggers informs Pip that an anonymous benefactor is providing Pip with the money for him to become a ‘gentleman’ with ‘great expectations’. Pip leaves Joe and the blacksmith’s forge behind and heads for London, where he meets new friends (such as Herbert Pocket) and a few adversaries (the bullying Bentley Drummle). All this time, Pip is convinced that Miss Havisham is his mysterious benefactor.
When Pip’s sister dies and he returns to Kent for the funeral, he realises that he has become a snob who looks down on Joe for being uncouth and illiterate. Pip continues to try to woo Estella, but she remains cold and indifferent to him, and seems more interested in Bentley Drummle.
Then, one night, Pip receives a visit from none other than Magwitch, who had been transported to Australia after he was recaptured on the Kent marshes years ago. He has come back to see Pip, and reveals that he is his mysterious benefactor: having made himself rich in Australia, he wanted to repay Pip for the kindness he showed him all those years before.
Pip also learns that the other convict Magwitch had been fighting with back on the marshes, Compeyson, was the man who jilted Miss Havisham, and ran off with a large sum of her money. Compeyson is chasing Magwitch, and Pip agrees to help him (again). Meanwhile, Miss Havisham dies in a fire at Satis House, having learned that Estella has married Bentley Drummle, who mistreats her.
As if these aren’t enough twists and turns, Pip then learns that Magwitch is Estella’s father – he had a fling with Jaggers’ housekeeper years ago, but assumed the child died in infancy. Pip agrees to take Magwitch to safety on the continent, but as they are escaping on the river, the police intervene, with Compeyson in attendance. Compeyson and Magwitch fight, and Compeyson drowns.
Magwitch is gravely injured and dies, but not before Pip has told him that his daughter survived. Pip then falls ill following this series of traumatic events, but the ever-faithful Joe comes to London to nurse him back to health. When Joe leaves as Pip is feeling better, Pip follows him and asks for his forgiveness. Pip has remembered who he is, and where he came from.
He becomes a clerk in Herbert Pocket’s company, and achieves some level of success. Some years later, he meets Estella at the now-demolished Satis House. Bentley Drummle, her brutish husband, has died, having wasted most of Miss Havisham’s money that was left to Estella. She, too, is contrite for how she has behaved. The novel famously ends on an ambiguous note, with Dickens leaving open the possibility that Pip and Estella eventually get married after all.
Great Expectations: analysis
Great Expectations is a famous example of the Bildungsroman – a German term meaning literally ‘education novel’, which describes novels about a character’s passage from childhood to young adulthood. Great Expectations is a novel about growing up, and Dickens deftly weaves a number of elements together with Pip’s own troubled journey towards adulthood, such as Joe Gargery’s childlike innocence (which is both touching but also all too limiting) and Estella’s own grooming or conditioning at the hands of Miss Havisham, who is determined to turn her young ward into a younger version of Miss Havisham herself, so she can wreak vengeance on all men through her. Even the stopped clocks at Satis House reflect the arrested development of many of the novel’s characters.
Of course, placed in contrast with people like Joe Gargery (a good character who embodies this arrested development) and Miss Havisham (a more sinister version of it) are characters who are determined to change both themselves and others. Magwitch – who has even changed his name to ‘Provis’ after having been literally transported to the other side of the world, made his fortune, and then set about trying to change Pip’s fortunes in return – is the most illustrative example. But Pip, too, is determined to change himself into a ‘gentleman’ so he can (he hopes) impress Estella and win her hand.
Of course, in doing so he forgets who he was: the change has come over too quickly and he becomes ashamed of his roots, and of the stability and constancy – and kindness – Joe represents. The answer is not to relapse to his former ways but to change again into someone who both remembers his roots and reflects his new standing as a gentleman.
Even the title of Dickens’s novel points up the dangers of either rigidly remaining as one is (the Miss Havisham approach) or changing too greatly so that you become unrecognisable. The title Great Expectations encapsulates not only Pip’s financial prospects and social mobility thanks to his mysterious benefactor, but also a whole range of ‘great’ or grand expectations he has for himself: wooing and wedding Estella most of all. Everything he’d been pinning his hopes on – his ‘great expectations’, if you will, that Miss Havisham has been supporting him so he will become a gentleman and marry Estella – turns out to be untrue.
The fairy-tale aspects of Great Expectations are also worth analysing. Dickens was steeped in the magical and enchanted worlds of the Arabian Nights (one of his favourite reads as a child), while the Gothic, macabre, and fantastical had a fascination for him from a young age. Like so many fairy tales, Great Expectations is first and foremost a rags-to-riches story about the hero’s journey from poor orphan to rich and successful professional man: a sort of modern-day Dick Whittington who transforms himself from a penniless orphan into a gentleman thanks to his helper – in his case, his resourceful cat (we have analysed the Dick Whittington story here).
Vladimir Propp’s work on the ‘morphology of the folk tale’ is a useful way into analysing Great Expectations. The hero is Pip, of course, and the princess is Estella, while the helper and donor is Magwitch. However, who the villain is remains a trickier question. Compeyson? Miss Havisham? Although Propp’s work on traditional folk tales provides a good starting point for thinking about how Dickens constructed a fairy-tale plot, deeper analysis reveals how he created a more complex novel out of these raw materials. It perhaps makes more sense to think about how Dickens drew upon the trappings of fairy tales – with Satis House standing in for the enchanted castle of many folk stories – and used them as a backdrop for his exploration of class, money, love, revenge, and rehabilitation.