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Great Expectations | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Charles Dickens | Biography


Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, into a lower-middle-class family living in Portsmouth, England. Charles's father, John Dickens, earned a decent income working as a Navy Pay Office clerk. However, John squandered much of his earnings on extravagant living and accrued large debts, landing him in 1824 in Marshalsea, a debtors' prison. As a result, the Dickens family suffered through constant financial instability.

Because of his family's financial straits, the 12-year-old Dickens was forced to find work in a boot-blacking factory (before child labor laws came into effect). When he turned 15, Dickens pursued work as a clerk in a legal office. Soon after, he became a newspaper reporter who covered legislative actions and debates in Parliament. This experience sharpened Dickens's skill as a writer, especially in regard to writing believable dialogue. Dickens also acquired a dislike for the law and the government.

Dickens followed his success in magazine publications by writing novels. Despite uneven critical response throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Dickens continued to be widely read during this period, establishing himself as a literary giant throughout much of the world, though his own critics continued to offer only tepid reviews, especially of those books that offered dark depictions of contemporary British society. Nevertheless Dickens began to give public readings of his works, and he became a champion of social reform.

In the late 1850s Dickens became the editor of a journal called All the Year Round. To boost sales he began to publish the chapters of a new novel called Great Expectations in 1860. Because this work was being published in a weekly journal, Dickens had to make the story more succinct than his longer novels. Some critics claim that this constraint helped Dickens make Great Expectations more focused than many of his other works. Either way the novel was a critical success and won him back readers and critics who had been put off by the "darker" books.

Great Expectations was published in book form in three volumes by Chapman and Hall in October 1861. It reflects many of the major influences on Dickens's life. Dickens knew people from various social classes in Victorian society. Great Expectations shows the full gamut of this society, from the wealthy Miss Havisham to the destitute prisoner Magwitch.

In addition Great Expectations reveals Dickens's interest in social conditions. In previous works such as Oliver Twist (1837–39), the author often focused on the horrible conditions of child labor. In Great Expectations, though, Dickens concentrated on the characteristics of working-class and lower-middle-class people, such as a blacksmith, a legal clerk, and a grinder.

Also in Great Expectations Dickens shows his ambivalent feelings for the law through his depiction of Mr. Jaggers—a hardened man who deals with every person he meets as if he is cross-examining him or her in court. Mr. Jaggers bases all his interactions with people on cold, hard facts, leaving no room for sentiment.

Even though Dickens received high praise for Great Expectations, for 70 years after his death this work and other novels by him were largely ignored by critics. In the early 1900s critics lauded "serious" novels by authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Many of these critics found Dickens's novels to be shallow and carelessly constructed. However despite the negative pronouncements, the tide of criticism toward Dickens began to shift in the mid-1900s, when key critics such as George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, and Humphrey House wrote studies praising Dickens's work.

By 1970 attitudes toward Dickens's work had made a complete shift. Critics began to admire how Dickens combined entertaining storytelling with significant social criticism. During Dickens's life his more popular novels, such as The Pickwick Papers (1836–37) and David Copperfield (1849–50), received the most praise. But starting in the mid- to late 1900s, critics focused more on his later work, such as Great Expectations, which had tighter plots and more insightful social criticism. In fact many critics claim that Great Expectations contains some of Dickens's most accomplished writing because it is less sentimental and more focused than many of Dickens's other works.

By the time Dickens wrote Great Expectations, he had already written 12 novels. Because of this output, Dickens was keenly aware of the danger of repeating himself. The author wanted to make sure Great Expectations established new ground. The structure of the novel poised an immediate challenge. With its first-person narrator and coming-of-age story, Great Expectations shows a strong surface similarity to David Copperfield. Keenly aware of the similarities, Dickens wrote to his friend John Forster, "To be quite sure I had fallen into no unconscious repetitions, I read David Copperfield again the other day." Dickens had to make the protagonist, Pip, different enough from David Copperfield. Many critics assert that Dickens succeeded in doing this to a remarkable degree. Although both Pip and David learn important lessons about life, the way in which each character responds to life's challenges is markedly different. Pip tends to be more seduced by the glimmer of high society and, as a result, deals with more guilt about his choices than David.

Dickens wrote his final novel, Our Mutual Friend, from 1864 to 1865. Soon after the publication of this work, his health began to decline. In 1870 he began work on another novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but he died of a stroke on June 9, 1870, before he could finish it.
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