Great Expectations


Charles Dickens


(Pip tells us of his lifelong love, the unexpected rise and fall of his fortune, and the lessons he learned about what makes a gentleman.)

MissHavisham&PipDetail from an 1860s illustration by John McLenan, "'Who is it?' said the lady at the table. 'Pip, ma'am.'" Courtesy of The Victorian Web


In describing a novel, everyone, myself included, seems to have as the central focus an explanation of what the book is about, whether plotwise or themewise. So it has always been a curiosity to me that such a description rarely lures me to a novel, or, if I have already read it, rarely captures what I loved about it. Tell me that Great Expectations is Pip’s life story where such and such happens, and I will probably not care too much. Tell me that it is a story of foolish desires and their detriment to our good and healthy existence, or of the confusion we often suffer between our expectations and reality, or of the functions and effects of guilt or love or human sympathy-- tell me that the book is about these things and I am likely to nod in agreement, but I’ll not be for the sake of those things very much impassioned to read the novel. It is not because I do not care about these things. In fact, I loved the novel and these are precisely what the novel is about, and I loved it at least partially because of them. But I suspect that there are situations where our experience of reading the novel results in our loving the novel for what it is, as distinct from what it is about. I think Dickens is one of those authors for whom this is regularly the case. Another orphan novel? the uninitiated might ask, having read David Copperfield. And we would have to say “Yes, Dickens is returning to theme of our human condition being one in which we are as orphans, trying to find our way through a world filled with few safe people and places but many threatening people and places. We must learn life’s lessons for ourselves, for our parents are not here to help us.” Now, as true and interesting as this is, does this statement shake the cynic from his negativity towards Dickens? Or, for the person who has read Great Expectations, does it nail down what is so endearing about the book? Probably not.

The problem is in finding out what can be said about a novel besides what it is about. “Writing style” is a possibility, but this is going in the wrong direction-- the opposite direction, actually. The shortcoming lies precisely in describing the novel from a distant and uninvolved perspective, like a teacher putting proofreading marks on a student’s manuscript without caring for it in the least; whereas when we read the novel we are in it, as an invisible but intimate participant. If I tell you something about Pip and the convict on the marshes, you’ll be mildly interested at best. (I can’t help thinking here that the same goes for stories about other people’s vacations and kids...). But if you are there, things are very different, and “interesting” becomes an understatement. Talking about “writing style” or “description” or “dialogue” is good-- I like doing this (for instance, I adored Pip’s final profession of love for Estella in ch.44, an amusing description of the creepy-crawleys in ch.45, and the word-painting of the Thames shoreline in ch.54 where the word “mud” is used 7 times in as many lines). However, all of this is concentrating on the text, and when we are reading the novel the way I think Dickens would like us to read it, there is in an important sense no text, just experience. When we are looking at things this way, in a sense like a child, then we like “writing style” and “description” not for their own sakes but insofar as they grant us immediate and seamless access to the experience the author is offering to us. Incidentally, Dickens was a big fan of publicly reading his works, which takes the text away from us and prevents us from dwelling on it as a text per se.

So, what to say in this vein about Great Expectations? I was cold in the presence of the crazed Miss Havisham, torn at heart at the dreadful power of Estella’s hold over Pip, uneasy in the surroundings of his new home in the city, sympathetic to Pip’s vicious excitement at becoming what he thought a gentleman was (i.e., a rich man), guilty and sad for the plight of poor Joe, and amused and fascinated by some of the strange characters I met. I gradually saw the good in old Abel Magwitch, and was beset by mixed emotions-- including relief-- when the fortune evaporated and Pip returned home. I thought that justice was done when Pip made up with Joe and finally learned (as he should have from Herbert long before (ch.22)) that a real gentleman was a gentle man, not necessarily a wealthy one. I was thrown into a state of eerie confusion at Pip’s last meeting with Miss Havisham, and was half disgusted with her and half forgiving and pitying of her. I must have heard her ironic words to Estella a hundred times-- “But to be proud and hard to me!” and “What have I done!”-- and the sight of her going into those flames is not likely to leave me. Hate was a monster she could not control once she had raised it, and its indiscriminate violence turned back against herself in the end. I was flabbergasted to find that Magwitch was the father of my-- I mean Pip’s-- true love Estella, I was floored by her marriage to that dolt Drummle, I was touched to see her broken and kinder after all those years, and I was of course unexpectedly gratified to watch Pip and her walk away together. I know them, I lived their story, and I enjoyed the experience. But, if this is all ho-hum too, then in order for you to really know what I’m talking about you’ll just have to go ahead and live it for yourself!



Philip Pirrip, known as “Pip”, is a young orphan raised by a bear of a sister (known only as “Mrs. Joe”) and her gentle husband Joe Gargery, a village blacksmith.  While reading his parents’ tombstones, Pip is accosted by an escaped convict, who convinces the boy to help remove his chains.  Later, Pip visits an old pixilated Miss Havisham, who wears a faded wedding dress and keeps a rotten feast on her table in commemoration of the day she was jilted at the altar.  There Pip meets a beautiful girl Estella, and falls in love with her despite her coldness to him.

Mr. Jaggers, a powerful London lawyer, visits Pip. “And the communication I have got to make is,” he says, “that he has Great Expectations” (ch.18)-- that someone has given Pip a fortune, and that he must come to London to be trained as a gentleman.  Pip makes the journey, assuming that Miss Havisham is his benefactress.  In London he befriends the kind Pocket family, especially Herbert, who calls him “Handel” and makes him feel somewhat at home in his new circumstances.  He also gets to know Wemmick, Jaggers’ clerk, who has an odd dual personality: dry, stern, and miserly at work (see his advice against lending money to friends in ch.36); and goofy, exuberant, and compassionate at home (the way in which he takes care of “the Aged Parent” is touching and amusing).  Two other minor characters are Orlick, a violent worker at Joe’s forge who maims Pip’s sister and tries to kill Pip; and Pumblechook, Joe’s pompous uncle who spreads the rumor that he in fact is Pip’s benefactor.  As for the lawyer Jaggers, he is harsh with just a dash of sympathy.  He “smells of soap” from his (only partially successful, it seems) attempts to clean himself of the taint of the criminals he defends.

When in London, Pip immediately senses the loss of his humbler country life.  The dirty inn in which he spends his first night is the first of a series of disillusionments about the greatness of his expectations (ch.21).  After several months he feels guilty for the ease with which he seems to have emotionally detached himself from his home (ch.22).  Nevertheless, he is preoccupied enough with his expectations to ignore his family and friends back in the country, and even to treat Joe coldly.  He still loves Estella, though, and wants to marry her when he blossoms into a wealthy gentleman.  Chapter 29 is wonderful in its depiction of Pip’s first love, Estella’s deadly beauty and coldness, and Miss Havisham’s cruelty and obsession.

Download this SPOILER if you want the ending revealed.

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My sister’s bringing up had made me sensitive. In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to; but the child is small, and its world is small, and its rocking-horse stands as many hands high, according to scale, as a big-boned Irish hunter. Within myself, I had sustained, from my babyhood, a perpetual conflict with injustice. I had known, from the time when I could speak, that my sister, in her capricious and violent coercion, was unjust to me. I had cherished a profound conviction that her bringing me up by hand, gave her no right to bring me up by jerks. Through all my punishments, disgraces, fasts and vigils, and other penitential performances, I had nursed this assurance; and to my communing so much with it, in a solitary and unprotected way, I in great part refer the fact that I was morally timid and very sensitive.



If a dread of not being understood be hidden in the breasts of other young people to anything like the extent to which it used to be hidden in mine-- which I consider probable, as I have no particular reason to suspect myself of having been a monstrosity-- it is the key to many reservations.



"There’s one thing you may be sure of, Pip," said Joe, after some rumination, "namely, that lies is lies. Howsoever they come, they didn’t ought to come, and they come from the father of lies, and work round to the same. Don’t you tell no more of ‘em, Pip. That ain’t the way to get out of being common, old chap."



"Dissatisfied, and uncomfortable, and-- what would it signify to me, being coarse and common, if nobody had told me so!"

-Pip, to Biddy, ch.17.


...feeling it very sorrowful and strange that this first night of my bright fortunes should be the loneliest I had ever known.

-Pip’s thoughts on the night he learned of his “Great Expectations”, ch.18.


I put my light out, and crept into bed; and it was an uneasy bed now, and I never slept the old sound sleep in it any more.

-of Pip, ch.18.


" is a principle of his that no man who was not a true gentleman at heart, ever was, since the world began, a true gentleman in manner. He says, no varnish can hide the grain of the wood; and that the more varnish you put on, the more the grain will express itself."

-Herbert Pocket, of his father, to Pip, ch.22.


"...throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise."



"Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one man’s a blacksmith, and one’s a whitesmith, and one’s a goldsmith, and one’s a coppersmith. Divisions among such must come, and must be met as they come."

-Joe, ch.27.


Yet the room was all in all to me, Estella being in it. I thought that with her I could have been happy there for life.



"Mr. Pip," said Wemmick, "I should like just to run over with you on my fingers, if you please, the names of the various bridges up as high as Chelsea Reach. Let’s see; there’s London, one; Southwark, two; Blackfriars, three; Waterloo, four; Westminster, five; Vauxhal, six." He had checked off each bridge in its turn, with the handle of his safe-key on the palm of his hand. "There’s as many as six, you see, to choose from."

"I don’t understand you," said I.

"Choose your bridge, Mr. Pip," returned Wemmick, "and take a walk upon your bridge, and pitch your money into the Thames over the centre arch of your bridge, and you know the end of it. Serve a friend with it, and you may know the end of it too-- but it’s a less pleasant and profitable end."

I could have posted a newspaper in his mouth, he made it so wide after saying this.

"This is very discouraging," said I.

"Meant it to be so," said Wemmick.

"Then is it your opinion," I inquired, with some little indignation, "that a man should never--"

"--Invest portable property in a friend?" said Wemmick. "Certainly he should not. Unless he wants to get rid of the friend-- and then it becomes a question how much portable property it may be worth to get rid of him."



"But to be proud and hard to me!" Miss Havisham quite shrieked, as she stretched out her arms. "Estella, Estella, Estella, to be proud and hard to me!"



"Nonsense," she returned, "nonsense. This will pass in no time."

"Never, Estella!"

"You will get me out of your thoughts in a week."

"Out of my thoughts! You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since-- on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil. But, in this separation I associate you only with the good, and I will faithfully hold you to that always, for you must have done me far more good than harm, let me feel now what sharp distress I may. O God bless you, God forgive you!"

-Pip to Estella, ch.44.


But that, in that, in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences; that, her mind brooding solitary, had grown diseased, as all minds do and must and will that reverse the appointed order of their Maker; I knew equally well. And could I look upon her without compassion, seeing her punishment in the ruin she was, in her profound unfitness for this earth on which she was placed, in the vanity of sorrow which had become a master mania, like the vanity of penitence, the vanity of remorse, the vanity of unworthiness, and other monstrous vanities that have been curses in this world?

-of Miss Havisham, ch.49.


"If you knowed, dear boy," he said to me, "what it is to sit her alonger my dear boy and have my smoke, arter having been day by day betwixt four walls, you’d envy me. But you don’t know what it is."

"I think I know the delights of freedom," I answered.

"Ah," said he, shaking his head gravely. "But you don’t know it equal to me. You must have been under lock and key, dear boy, to know it equal to me-- but I ain’t a-going to be low."

-Magwitch to Pip, ch.54.


It was like my own marsh country, flat and monotonous and with a dim horizon; while the winding river turned and turned, and the great floating buoys upon it turned and turned, and everything else seemed stranded and still. For, now, the last of the fleet of ships was round the last low point we had headed; and the last green barge, straw-laden, with a brown sail, had followed; and some ballast-lighters, shaped like a child’s first rude imitation of a boat, lay low in the mud; and a little squat shoal-lighthouse on open piles, stood crippled in the mud on stilts and crutches; and slimy stakes stuck out of the mud, and slimy stones stuck out of the mud, and an old landing-stage and an old roofless building slipped into the mud, and all about us was stagnation and mud.


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READ THIS WHEN... are wracking your brains with self-expectation and fortune-building and could use an entertaining dose of serenity and perspective;

or, want to follow the adventures of a boy who must learn from experience what is important in life.



(for the sympathetic to the young loner trying to find his place in the world:)

  • Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1849-1850).
  • Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).
  • James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915).
  • J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (1951).

 (for the enjoyer of the later, more contemplative Dickens:)

  • Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854).
  • Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1855-1857).
  • Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859).
  • Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865).



The incomparable Easton Press:

Everyman Library! One of my favorite publishers:



Penguin-- can't go wrong.

The Norton Critical Edition, with commentary and notes

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