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Understanding Great Expectations

Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations (1860), is a bildungsroman following the life of an orphan. Philip Pirrip, known as “Pip”. Raised in harsh circumstances, Pip receives unexpected monetary support and, as an adult, pursues opportunities for upward social mobility.

The protagonist also becomes romantically infatuated with a character named Estella (who was adopted by the manipulative Miss Havisham). As he navigates life and the challenges of Victorian society and class, he realises the importance of love, morality and humility. This transformation is further exaggerated when Pip discovers that the true source of his financial gain is from a criminal character, Magwitch.

There are 59 chapters within Great Expectations, but Dickens overarches the novel using a three-part structure to tell Pip’s tale.

Character List

Below is a list of the main characters, along with a brief description, to help you navigate the novel:

  • Pip (Philip Pirrip): The protagonist and narrator of the novel. An orphan raised by his sister and her blacksmith husband.
  • Estella Havisham: Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter, raised to break men’s hearts as a form of revenge.
  • Miss Havisham: A wealthy, eccentric woman who was left at the altar. She seeks revenge against men by raising Estella to be cold and heartless. She invites Pip to her home, Satis House, as a playmate for Estella.
  • Joe Gargery: The kind-hearted blacksmith married to Pip’s sister. He acts as a father figure to Pip and represents moral integrity and humility. Despite Pip’s transformation, Joe remains loyal and forgiving.
  • Mrs Joe: Pip’s overbearing and abusive older sister who raises him. She is harsh and treats both Pip and Joe poorly.
  • Abel Magwitch: An escaped convict whom Pip helps as a child. He later becomes Pip’s secret benefactor, funding his transformation into a gentleman as a way of repaying Pip’s kindness.
  • Herbert Pocket: Pip’s loyal friend whom he meets in London. They share a camaraderie, and Herbert assists Pip in many of his endeavours. He is also the relative of Miss Havisham.
  • Bentley Drummle: A fellow student of Pip’s, who is wealthy but crude and offensive. He eventually marries Estella.
  • Jaggers: A powerful and pragmatic lawyer who handles Pip’s inheritance. He is involved in the lives of many characters in the novel.
  • Biddy: A kind and intelligent friend of Pip’s from his childhood. She helps Pip on his journey to self-realisation and represents genuine goodness and moral rectitude.
  • Wemmick: Mr. Jaggers’ clerk who becomes a friend to Pip. He leads a double life, being stern and business-like at work, but warm and friendly at home.

Plot Summary

Volume 1: chapters 1-19

The main protagonist, Pip, is introduced, and readers learn of the abuse he faces living with his sister, Mrs Joe, and her gentle blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery, in the English countryside. In the novel’s gothic opening, where Dickens uses pathetic fallacy to build tension and create an eerie atmosphere, Pip encounters an escaped convict, Magwitch, out on the marshes.

Upon returning home after his unsettling encounter, Pip, burdened with guilt and fear, fabricates a story about his whereabouts to hide the truth and the items he has reluctantly stolen—a file and some food—to help the convict. In the midst of the familial turmoil, young Pip becomes a silent witness to a severe, yet common, argument between Mrs Joe and Mr Joe Gargery. The guilt of his actions deeply affects Pip, portraying his vulnerability and moral conscience from early on.

The suspense escalates, as Pip’s fear of being caught grows. Pip joins Joe and others in the pursuit of catching two escaped convicts. There is relief for both Pip and the (typically) sympathetic readers when the convicts are caught and Pip is not found out. However, because Pip’s character shows a good moral conscience, he continues to feel remorse and regret.

After receiving an invite, Pip visits Satis House, which is owned by Miss Havisham, an eccentric character. There, he meets Estella (Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter) and Pip is instantly drawn to Estella. He feels a mix of attraction and intimidation by her beauty and cold detachment.

Becoming very self-conscious and aware of his low social standing, Pip is plagued with an infatuation for Estella. He desperately wants to propel his social standing so that he can become a suitor for Estella’s affection. However, Miss Havisham treats Pip cruelly and Estella is likewise harsh and scornful to him.

During volume 1, Pip is given a large sum of money and begins to view his home and upbringing as “such a coarse and common business.” He is misled into believing Miss Havisham to be his generous benefactor, fueling his hopes of being groomed to be a suitable match for Estella.

Volume 2: chapters 20-39

Pip begins a new life as a London gentleman, under the direction of Mr. Herbert Pocket. Herbert is related to Miss Havisham and Pip initially meets him at Satis House. A camaraderie builds with this new roommate, Herbert, and Pip is able to assimilate further with the upper-class society. He also spends more time with Estella’s acquaintance, Bentley Drummle. However, financial hardship soon builds, as Pip becomes an extravagant spender and plummets into debt.

Despite his financial troubles, Pip continues to hold on to the belief that his new lifestyle will eventually lead him to win over Estella. A reality check is provided by Joe’s visit, urging Pip to reflect on his life choices and the values he seems willing to compromise for his aspirations. During this middle section of the novel, Pip also gains insight into the corruption of the world he is inhabiting as he becomes more involved in Jaggers’ law firm.

Pip returns to Satis House and finds out that Miss Havisham manipulated Estella by nurturing her to break men’s hearts in revenge for Miss Havisham’s own abandonment at the altar. Despite learning the truth about Estella’s upbringing and her continued coldness, Pip continues to harbour hopes and illusions about her. Drummle makes it clear he wishes to pursue Estella.

At the end of this volume, Pip also learns that Magwitch is his true benefactor. He feels manipulated by Miss Havisham who misled him on the matter.

Volume 3: chapters 40-59

Pip receives a letter unexpectedly, warning him that Magwitch is potentially in danger, and Pip wishes to protect him. Using Herbert as his accomplice, the men plan to meet Magwitch and smuggle him out of London. Tension is yet again heightened when the plan is set in motion. The group set off on a boat down the treacherous river. During the journey, a fight takes place with a rival group, and the mission is in jeopardy. Pip is injured, but the group remain devoted to succeeding for the sake of Magwitch’s safety. Finally, they reach a safe house to rest and recover.

Pip must then visit Magwitch in prison, as he ends up arrested, and there is an emotional scene when Magwitch dies peacefully. Once Pip realises Magwitch has died, the words that come to his mouth are “O Lord, be merciful to him a sinner!” Afterwards, he learns that Magwitch was Estella’s true father. At this low point, Pip reunites with Joe and realises the genuine, honest value of their relationship.

Progressing further, Pip makes a return to his childhood home, but his good relationship with Joe is challenged as the gap has widened between Pip’s “great expectations” and his reality. He seeks help from Wemmick, and seeks assurance that all hope is not lost. Pip and Estella reunite, and Pip is able to confront her about her future marriage to Drummle.

Pip makes another return to Estella and learns that Miss Havisham has died; Satis House is decaying. At this point, Pip and Estella go separate ways and Pip must come to terms with the reality of the circumstances. As a character, Pip is growing and learning that perhaps he would not have been happy should the relationship ever have developed with Estella.

Pip intends to propose to Biddy but discovers she is marrying Joe. As a result, he returns home and seems reformed, declaring: “I am greatly changed.” Pip learns how Estella has suffered in her abusive marriage to Drummle, who dies in an accident with a horse he mistreated. He sees changes in her character, hinting at the possibility of a future relationship between them, although the narrative leaves this possibility open-ended. By the novel’s close, Pip and Estella’s friendship softens.

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