Great Expectations | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the themes in Charles Dickens's novel Great Expectations.

Great Expectations | Themes


In Great Expectations Charles Dickens explores many universal ideas. Although there are many concepts addressed in the novel, the author focuses on three major themes: social class and ambition, guilt and redemption, and uncertainty and deceit. Each theme consists of a pairing that interrelates. Pip's uncertainty over his origins or identity and his guilt about his ambition reflects Dickens's own suspicion of social classes and the true meaning of being a gentleman or a person of true worth.

Social Class and Ambition

Dickens conveys the theme of social class and ambition throughout Great Expectations. Indeed the novel could be seen as an exploration of social class in Victorian England, from the lower class to the upper class. Members of the lower and middle classes often have the ambition to rise to a higher class. In contrast members of the upper class want to maintain their superiority and use it control other people for their own ends.

Magwitch is the main representative of the lower class. He was born in poverty and, because of these circumstances, fell into criminality. As Dickens shows, some lower-class people become caught in a trap of poverty that makes it difficult for them to improve their lives. In fact, when Magwitch is given half a chance to better himself in Australia, he does so with great success. Magwitch realizes he will never become a gentleman, but he has ambitions to make Pip a gentleman and thereby attain upper-class status.

The main representative of the working class is Pip. Because of the influence of the upper-class Miss Havisham, Pip comes to view being a blacksmith as inferior work and has the ambition to become a gentleman. By doing this he hopes to receive the approval of Miss Havisham and Estella and thereby validate himself as a human being. However as Pip is educated as a gentleman, he becomes a dandy, who focuses on having a refined appearance and doing leisure activities instead of accomplishing something worthwhile. Mrs. Joe is also an example of a working-class person who has ambitions to rise in status. Even the brutish Orlick shows sensitivity concerning class by his resentment about being demoted to the lower class. The only main working-class character who doesn't have ambitions is Joe. Also Biddy, who is a member of the lower-middle class, has no desire to rise in status. The main representative of the middle class who strives to improve his social standing is Pumblechook.

Miss Havisham shows many traits of the upper class. She is a proud woman who views herself as being superior to most people, and she cannot bear being humiliated by her lover. As a result she becomes a recluse and exerts her control over the people in her sphere, especially Estella. Miss Havisham's control is backed by her money. When Estella arrives in London, she makes a point to tell Pip that Miss Havisham is paying for Estella to do exactly what the recluse wants. For Miss Havisham, her ambition is to have Estella break the hearts of men.

Guilt and Redemption

Dickens shows the theme of guilt and redemption mainly through the characters of Pip and Miss Havisham. Although Pip wants to be a gentleman, he is plagued by guilt as he becomes one. This guilt starts soon after Pip learns that he will be educated as a gentleman. Pip starts to view himself as superior to the people in the village and even becomes ashamed of Joe. As a result, Pip, dressed in a nice suit, doesn't want Joe, dressed as a common laborer, to accompany him on his way to the carriage. Later Pip acts awkwardly and impatiently toward Joe in London. Pip rarely writes to Joe and Biddy, even though he promises to do so. Even though these actions cause Pip to feel intense guilt, he does not change the way he treats Joe.

Pip resolves the problem of his guilt through redemption. However, he can attain redemption only when his dream of marrying Estella and gaining Miss Havisham's approval crumbles. This process begins when Pip learns that Magwitch, not Miss Havisham, is his benefactor. Pip comes to realize the sham of his existence as he adopts a dandyish lifestyle based on having a superior attitude to the lower classes and doing pleasurable leisure activities while accomplishing nothing of worth. Soon he starts to do redemptive acts, such as helping Herbert get started in business and being a loving surrogate son to Magwitch. Eventually Pip realizes he can gain self-worth not by becoming a gentleman but rather by working for it. As a result he works for many years in Herbert's business.

For most of the novel Miss Havisham shows no signs of guilt. However, she begins to feel regret when Estella acts coldly toward her. Miss Havisham realizes that she has trained Estella to break not only the hearts of men but also her own heart. Miss Havisham cares for Estella. As a result she doesn't want Estella to marry Drummle. However, because of the recluse's influence, Estella marries this brutish man knowing she will face years of pain and abuse. Miss Havisham and Estella have also caused great pain for Pip. Miss Havisham comes to realize the horror of what she has done. Because of this she asks for Pip's forgiveness. However, consumed by feelings of guilt, Miss Havisham is unable to grasp the solution; namely, redemption through accepting Pip's forgiveness.

Uncertainty and Deceit

The theme of uncertainty and deceit infuses most of Great Expectations. Dickens starts the novel with Pip uncertain about what his parents look like. Pip continues to feel uncertainty about the convicts. This uncertainty leads to his deceitful act of stealing food and a file. Pip's uncertainty about his benefactor is in part caused by Miss Havisham's deceit. She makes Pip believe that she is his benefactress. Also Dickens often combines uncertainty with deceit in the same event. For example, Pip becomes involved in the deceitful act of trying to sneak Magwitch out of the country while feeling uncertain whether Compeyson is following him.

In addition Dickens shows how removing deceit can also eliminate uncertainty. For instance, Pip feels uncertain about the identity of Molly, Mr. Jaggers's housekeeper. Pip becomes surer of her identity as he learns about Mr. Jaggers's deceitful act of secretly giving Estella to Miss Havisham to raise as her adopted daughter. As Pip and readers discover, Estella is Molly and Magwitch's biological daughter.

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