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19th Century Novels
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Themes in Great Expectations

Role Models and Family

Pip experiences conflicting kinds of role models within Great Expectations (first published 1860-1861). On one hand, characters like Joe Gargery and Magwitch (perhaps ironically) represent ‘good’ role models (the closest to ‘family’ Pip seems to experience). Pip realises in chapter 7 that he “[looked] up to Joe in [his] heart.”

Meanwhile, the character of Miss Havisham tries to give the appearance of a role model, but is in fact using and manipulating Estella and Pip to avenge her own sadness and bitter experiences. Pip comments:

“There was such a malignant enjoyment in the utterance of the [mocking] last words… that I was at a loss what to say.”

Dickens seems to provide a commentary on the ‘power of influence’. Estella is arguably a role model to Pip, because she drives his ambition to climb socially. The first-person perspective allows us, as readers, to identify with Pip’s discovery of other characters. It also tells us whether or not to trust them.

Danger and Crime

Abel Magwitch, despite his absence for much of the novel, most prominently portrays criminality. He is a character with a dual nature. At first, he is presented as frightening in “coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg,” whilst later presented as fatherly and compassionate.

Dickens challenges the justice system of Victorian England through Magwitch, by blurring lines and creating a likeable character for his readers. The novel is also structured in a way that allows Magwitch’s details to be slowly revealed, and we later learn why he turned to crime:

“what the Devil was I to do? I must put something into my stomach.”


Dickens intends for his readers to acquire a better understanding of poverty factors, instead of being dismissive like many people were (especially after the Poor Law passed as a supposed ‘solution’). When Magwitch later dies, we see Pip’s true integrity revealed when he declares:

“I will never stir from your side.”

Also, Jaggers (the lawyer) links to the theme of danger and crime. He is involved in the lives of various characters, where he pragmatically (logically) pursues legal success.

Social Class

Pip’s ‘great expectations’ arise from the generosity of an initially unknown benefactor, who is later revealed to be Magwitch. These finances pave the way for Pip to become a ‘gentleman.’ Pip, starting as a young, vulnerable, and orphaned child, experiences social ascension in this bildungsroman (a narrative following childhood into adulthood) – but to the detriment of happiness.

Dickens critiques wealth and social class divides, suggesting that to “be moral” and “work hard” are better qualities. Dickens was a ‘humanist’ writer – someone who promoted the importance of human connection. Perhaps this is also why Joe Gargery is presented in such a positive light. This is especially the case when he rejects a financial offering from Jaggers on losing Pip as his apprentice:

“But if you think as money can make compensation to me for the loss of the little child…and ever the best of friends!”

Gargery (in contrast with Miss Havisham) channels Dickens’ own beliefs that earnest relationships are more important than fast-tracking wealth and social status.


Our protagonist’s ambition is one of the central threads of the novel, but it is noteworthy that becoming a gentleman is not what Pip expected. He declares:

“it [felt] very sorrowful and strange that this first night of my bright fortunes should be the loneliest I had ever known.”

In true Dickensian style, wealth and status bring distance from true relationships in the novel. In a similar tone, Miss Havisham’s ambition causes destruction. She could have had a mother-daughter relationship by adopting Estella, but instead chooses to manipulate her.

In one of her most well-known pleas, repetition is used in the dialogue aimed at Pip: “Love her, love her, love her! …If she wounds you, love her” showing how desperately she pushes her emotional ‘game.’

Mr. Pocket and Drummle, depicted as “idle, proud… and suspicious,” signify the extent to which individuals might go to attain higher status. It is often to the detriment of their relationships and moral values.

Education and Growing Up

In the novel, Pip lacks a formal education in the same way that many children of the time period did. Biddy aids in his development, but it is only with his financial progression that Pip is able to “learn more.” This is again Dickens’ commentary on his own money-centred, industrially-focussed society.

At the end of the novel, Pip reflects:

“swindlers [cheats] upon earth are nothing to the self-swindlers, and with such pretences did I cheat myself…”

Through this line, he grasps that his rush for materialism – where he quickly grew into a learned gentleman – only hurt himself in the end. Ultimately, Great Expectations is about an impressionable young boy who grows into a rich adulthood, but learns to humble himself by the ending.

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