Summary of Great Expectations
This Edition: 1861
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- Coming-of-age story
- Victorian literature
What It’s About
What Makes a Gentleman?
Great Expectations is a coming-of-age tale with strong moral lessons about wealth and nobility, guilt and criminality, and conscience and self-deception. Throughout, various shadowy intrigues, a classic madwoman-in-the-attic, sinister plots and even a chase on the River Thames enliven the story. Its author, Charles Dickens, characteristically paces his narrative with plentiful mysteries and twists, including the true identity of Pip’s generous benefactor – the creator of Pip’s “great expectations.” The novel is simultaneously a bleak love story that pits the hero’s warmth and devotion against his love interest’s cynicism and cruelty. Pip’s very love for Estella drives his doomed pursuit of gentility and wealth. Despite its social satire, Great Expectations is, like most of Dickens’s oeuvre, ultimately a story of redemption – a feel-good tale apt to bolster your faith in humanity.
- Great Expectations is a coming-of-age tale with strong moral lessons about wealth and nobility, guilt and criminality, and conscience and self-deception.
- A mysterious benefactor transforms poor, country boy Pip into a high-society, London gentleman. But it’s only when Pip loses everything that he understands what’s truly noble: honesty, humility, hard work, selflessness and a pure heart.
- The novel contains many elements of social satire and caricature, but ultimately, the tale is a redemptive one.
- Pip’s penitence and his family’s forgiveness enable Pip’s redemption. Conversely, Compeyson’s lack of remorse and Miss Havisham’s inability to forgive him keep Satis House frozen in time and darkness.
- Criminality and prison shadow Pip’s life, beginning with his boyhood home near the prison ships and through to the origins of his great expectations.
- When Charles Dickens was 12 years old, his father spent three months in debtors prison. This experience greatly influenced his future writing.
- Dickens’s writing helped shift Victorian-era opinion about class inequalities.
- The novel as it exists today contains a revised, happier ending. In the original conclusion, Pip remains single and Estella remarries after Drummel’s death.
- Great Expectations was Dickens’s 13th and final finished novel before his death, and critics have called it his best romance and most honest story.
- “Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching.” (Estella, to Pip)
The Orphan and the Convict
Young orphan Philip Pirrip – who goes by “Pip” – grows up in the household of his violent older sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, and her kind, docile husband Joe, a blacksmith. They live in a marshy area not far from some of England’s prison hulks – decommissioned ships used as floating prisons for the worst criminals. One Christmas Eve, Pip visits his parents’ graves in a lonely churchyard. He chances upon escaped inmate Abel Magwitch, who uses the threat of violence to force Pip to steal food and a file for removing a leg shackle. He forbids Pip from telling anyone of the encounter, leaving the boy overwhelmed with fear and guilt.
On Christmas Day, soldiers arrive at Joe’s forge and ask him to fix handcuffs for two prison escapees. At Joe’s bidding, Pip joins their pursuit on the marsh. Distant shouting leads the searchers to two grappling fugitives, Magwitch and another man. Magwitch reveals that the two are longtime enemies and exults in bringing about the other fugitive’s capture, though they must both return to prison. Neither Magwitch nor Pip admits to their encounter, and their secret forever binds them.
In the evenings, Pip attends a village school where the teacher sleeps through the lesson. Slowly, with the help of another village orphan, Biddy, he gains a meager education. One night, his fortunes seem to change. Mrs. Joe announces that she’s sending Pip to play regularly at the house of Miss Havisham, a legendary recluse who lives in an old brick manor uptown. Mrs. Joe believes that the visits will endear Pip to the wealthy Miss Havisham, who may then become his benefactor.
“I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong.” (Pip)
Upon ringing Miss Havisham’s bell, Pip meets her charge – the beautiful, proud Estella. As the girl ushers Pip through the estate, she explains that its name, Satis House, means “Enough House.” The manor was meant to leave no want unfulfilled for its owner. In contrast with this description, Pip observes the surrounding ruin. They pass through darkened corridors to reach an upper room blocked from daylight, where Estella leaves him. Here, amid candlelight, he sees the elderly Miss Havisham dressed in yellowed bridal attire, including a veil. Around her, the room is transfixed in time, all the clocks stopped. The woman tells Pip she’s heartbroken – then orders him to play. When Pip falters, she has him summon Estella and begins choreographing their interactions, even directing Estella to break Pip’s heart. Though Pip and Estella are of similar age, the girl scorns Pip as her inferior – a commoner – and objects to playing with him. In turn, Pip becomes ashamed of himself and his manners. At the end of the visit, Miss Havisham directs Pip to return in six days, and despite his humiliation and ready tears, he agrees.
Estella’s “contempt for me was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.” (Pip)
When Pip returns home to the forge, his sister presses him for details about Miss Havisham. He fabricates lofty, whimsical descriptions of the woman and her activities, which Joe later hears with great wonder. Feeling guilty for misleading his friend Joe, Pip confesses his lies and reveals his shame about being common. Joe gently advises him that dishonesty isn’t the way to elevate his station. Pip listens to his brother-in-law but lies awake that night with the realization that Estella would think Joe common, too. A schism has begun to develop between Pip’s old life and his new one at Miss Havisham’s.
One evening, Pip stops at the local pub to find Joe sitting beside a mysterious stranger. The stranger is an associate of Magwitch and discreetly tries to signal this connection to Pip. Finally, when the stranger stirs his drink with Joe’s file that Pip stole from the forge, Pip understands. The stranger gives Pip a shilling wrapped in paper, which Pip opens later. The paper is two £1 notes, a considerable sum that triggers Pip’s guilt and shame for being secretly linked to a convict.
Meanwhile, Pip’s visits to Satis House become more frequent, and he is subjected to continued social humiliation and Estella’s cruelty. One day, Miss Havisham notices that Pip has grown and announces that he must be apprenticed to Joe at the forge. She summons Joe and gives the blacksmith a bag of gold coins for Pip’s apprenticeship. Pip’s time at Satis House has ended. The coins, she says, are the totality of the payment. The Gargerys celebrate the financial windfall, but Pip is quietly unhappy and ungrateful. He no longer wants to be a blacksmith. Pip wants to be a gentleman.
After a time, Pip contrives a way to see Estella: a thank-you visit to Miss Havisham. However, Miss Havisham delights in telling Pip that Estella’s gone abroad, and Pip leaves disheartened. On returning to the forge, he learns that someone has bludgeoned his sister and a left a filed-through leg shackle beside her. Pips attributes the shackle, though not his sister’s injuries, to Magwitch. Because Mrs. Joe suffers permanent injuries, Biddy joins the household and proves herself capable and clever. Though Mrs. Joe can no longer communicate well, she insists each day on fawning over Orlick, Joe’s journeyman with whom she’d bitterly fought before her attack.
“It is not possible to know how far the influence of any amiable, honest-hearted duty-doing man flies out into the world, but it is very possible to know how it has touched one’s self in going by.” (Pip)
Meanwhile, Pip continues his apprenticeship, visiting Satis House only on his birthdays. As he spends more time with Biddy, Pip’s admiration begins to waver between the lofty, hateful Estella and the humble, wholesome Biddy, as well as the worlds each woman represents.
In Pip’s fourth year as an apprentice, the lawyer Mr. Jaggers arrives at the village pub and announces that Pip has great expectations. The young man is the designated heir of a large sum, and his anonymous benefactor – whom Pip assumes is Miss Havisham – wants him to leave his apprenticeship and become a gentleman.
“We need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of Earth, overlaying our hard hearts.”
Pip is eager to shed his former life, despite his close bonds with Joe and Biddy. At the advice of Mr. Jaggers, Pip moves to London to start his formal education. He learns from Matthew Pocket, who is Miss Havisham’s cousin and also a great scholar. The city’s ugliness and grime surprise him. Pip first stays with Matthew’s honest, amiable son, Herbert Pocket, who, as a boy, once sparred with Pip at Satis House. Herbert and Pip become fast friends over shared secrets, while Herbert gently teaches Pip about London manners. Herbert reveals that Mr. Jaggers is also Miss Havisham’s lawyer and unveils the mystery behind Miss Havisham and the ruined manor: Her jealous half-brother had set her up with a suitor, with whom she became smitten. After the two men manipulated Miss Havisham for money, her groom left her at the altar. Her house has been forever frozen to the hour and minute she received word that her beloved had gone.
Pip soon moves in with Matthew while retaining his flat in London with Herbert. Pip’s London associates now include Matthew’s two other gentleman pupils – Startop and Drummel – and Mr. Jaggers’s clerk, Wemmick. Pip is friends with all but the unintelligent, brutish Drummel. One evening, the gentlemen dine at the home of the powerful Mr. Jaggers. Midway through the meal, Jaggers shocks his guests by forcibly revealing the deep scars on the wrists of his housekeeper, Molly. Soon after, Pip receives a letter from Biddy explaining that Joe is coming to London to see him. At the end of their awkward visit, Joe conveys a message from Miss Havisham: Estella is home and wants to see Pip.
Coming of Age
When Pip reunites with Estella, he finds her grown and beautiful, though Estella asserts that she’s heartless. Later, Pip meets Estella in London and accompanies her to Richmond, where she’ll enter society via the home of a wealthy widow. Along the way, Estella confides in Pip about some of the horrors of growing up in Satis House and resigns herself to Miss Havisham’s plans for her.
“No man who was not a true gentleman at heart, ever was, since the world began, a true gentleman in manner.”
Pip begins to realize that his great expectations are corrupting him. He’s been neglectful of Joe and Biddy, and the promise of wealth has made him miserable, though he feigns happiness. His free spending has landed him in debt and led Herbert there, too. One afternoon, while tabulating debts, Pip receives a letter: Mrs. Joe has died. The funeral brings Pip back to the forge at last. He reconnects with Joe and, to Joe’s delight, even asks to stay in his boyhood room.
“No varnish can hide the grain of the wood…the more varnish you put on, the more the grain will express itself.”
When Pip returns to London, he anticipates his 21st birthday, when he’ll socially come of age. On that day, hopes Pip, Mr. Jaggers will reveal and bestow the extent of Pip’s fortune. Instead, on Pip’s birthday, Mr. Jaggers gives him £500 and explains that Pip is to manage this yearly income independently until his benefactor appears with the full endowment. Wemmick privately helps Pip make generous stealth payments toward a shipping-brokerage career for Herbert.
Meanwhile, Pip keeps visiting Estella, though she sometimes tries to warn him away from her. He still believes Miss Havisham intends Estella to marry him – even after breaking many hearts. When Pip learns at a social club that Drummel has joined the ranks of Estella’s admirers, Pip is incensed that she would stoop so low. Estella later explains that she’s purposefully deceiving Drummel and many others but won’t deceive Pip.
On a stormy night when Pip is 23 years old, Magwitch resurfaces and visits Pip at home. The man greets Pip with affection and pride. Pip is repulsed, but, at seeing the man’s tears, sits down with him. When Pip tries repay the £2 from his boyhood, the fugitive reveals that he is Pip’s generous patron. Magwitch has toiled abroad to earn his fortune in cattle. He has devoted his wealth to making Pip a gentleman – in gratitude for Pip’s kindness on the marsh. The older man has come to see Pip as his son, which horrifies Pip. However, by returning to Pip in England, the exiled Magwitch risks being hanged, so Pip crafts him the guise of a country uncle, taking only Herbert into their confidence. Pip and Herbert plan to protect Magwitch by evoking his longtime enemy from the marsh as reason to go abroad. To this end, they press Magwitch for details of the enmity. As Magwitch describes the seeming gentleman, Compeyson, who enlisted him as a lackey in several cons and then made him a fall guy, Herbert identifies the same man as Miss Havisham’s spurious groom.
“All other swindlers on Earth are nothing to the self-swindlers.”
Before leaving England, Pip visits Satis House to say good-bye. By the end of his visit, he has confronted Miss Havisham, declared his love to Estella, and learned that Drummel and Estella are engaged. Pip’s subsequent grief and pain leave Estella unmoved but push Miss Havisham to true remorse for her role in his heartbreak.
Escape on the River Thames
When Pip returns to London, his gatekeeper hands him a note from Wemmick – a warning not to return home. Something sinister is afoot: Wemmick has heard at Newgate Prison that Pip’s home is under watch. Moreover, Pip learns that Compeyson is still in London. Thus, Herbert and Magwitch hide in a room by the River Thames, a waterway with convenient access to steamers abroad. During weeks of nervous waiting for Wemmick’s signal that it’s safe to depart London, Pip learns that Compeyson is shadowing Pip. One night, Pip and Wemmick dine at the home of Mr. Jaggers. While there, a subtle mannerism of Molly’s allows Pip to identify her as Estella’s mother. After the dinner, Pip learns from Wemmick that Molly is a murderer whom Mr. Jaggers nonetheless got acquitted.
“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.” (Mr. Jaggers)
During the dinner, Wemmick conveys to Pip a summons to Satis House. There, Miss Havisham seeks Pip’s forgiveness, and he gives it. She agrees to continue Pip’s anonymous effort to fund Herbert’s professional advancement. Before Pip leaves the property, Miss Havisham, who is sitting close to the fire, catches flame. Pip saves her life by wrapping her in coats, burning his own arms and hands.
Back in London, Herbert nurses Pip’s injuries and describes how Magwitch has become more gentle and open, even sharing the story of a young woman he once loved who became a murderer. Upon hearing the details, Pip realizes Magwitch is Estella’s father.
As Pip’s burns continue to heal, he at last receives Wemmick’s signal. While Pip and Herbert plan the final, covert details, Pip receives an anonymous letter promising information about Magwitch. Pip appears at the appointed time and place – the marshes of his boyhood – and is taken captive by Orlick, who intends to kill him. Orlick has always been jealous of Pip and even bludgeoned Mrs. Joe because of this hatred. What’s more, Orlick is now working with Compeyson. When Orlick raises his hammer for a murderous blow, Pip gives a shout, which brings his nearby friends Herbert and Startop to his rescue. The next morning, they and Magwitch are on the Thames, tense and fearful of potential interceptors. Their unease proves warranted. As Pip and Magwitch say their good-byes before climbing aboard an outbound steamer, Compeyson and some lawmen appear by boat and arrest Magwitch. The two longtime adversaries go overboard, and only Magwitch, severely injured, resurfaces. Compeyson has drowned.
Forgiveness and Redemption
As Pip accompanies Magwitch back to London, he realizes that the convict no longer repulses him. Pip sees in Magwitch a loyal friend and a good man. Magwitch advises that Pip, a gentleman, should distance himself after the arrest, but Pip pledges to remain by Magwitch’s side. Magwitch’s injuries place him in the infirmary, so Pip is able to make good on his promise by visiting daily. He holds Magwitch’s hand during the trial, when Magwitch is sentenced to death, and during the man’s quiet dying moments in his prison bed before his execution date arrives. Just before his friend dies, Pip reveals that Magwitch’s daughter with Molly – a daughter Magwitch long mourned as dead – is alive and that Pip loves her. He never tells Magwitch that because of the arrest, the government will seize Magwitch’s fortune and end Pip’s great expectations.
“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be.” (Estella, to Pip)
Following Magwitch’s death, Pip is gravely ill, deeply in debt and alone. Herbert has gone abroad after inviting Pip to follow him. However, Joe arrives and nurses Pip back to health, for which Pip is grateful and penitent. Joe tells Pip that Miss Havisham has died and that Orlick is in jail for robbery. Pip and Joe recover their deep friendship, but when Pip becomes stronger, Joe leaves quietly one morning. Afterward, Pip discovers that Joe has paid debts that would have landed Pip in prison.
Pip returns to the forge to thank Joe and with an idea of proposing to Biddy, but when he arrives, he finds the two married. He has arrived on their wedding day. Recovering from his shock, Pip delights in their happiness and announces that he’s going abroad. He asks them to forgive his former ingratitude, and they do. Pip then sells his belongings and accepts Herbert’s offer of a humble clerking position abroad. For more than a decade, he advances slowly in profession and lives an honest, frugal, happy life in the home of the now-married Herbert.
After 11 years away, Pip returns to the forge. Biddy and Joe now have children, including a son named Pip. The elder Pip reveals to Biddy that he still thinks often of Estella, who is now single after a violent, unhappy marriage and Drummel’s accidental death. In the evening, Pip walks to the grounds where Satis House once stood. He encounters Estella, sadder and kinder than before. She has come to say good-bye to the property, which she has been forced to sell. Estella’s hard life has taught her compassion and penitence, and she now says that Pip has a place in her heart. They leave the ruins of Satis House hand in hand, with Pip hopeful of a future together.
About the Text
Structure and Style
The tale of Great Expectations first appeared serialized in a weekly magazine and was later published as a novel in three volumes. The structure and pacing of the book reflect this. Being a bildungsroman – a coming-of-age tale – the plot follows a linear progression from childhood to maturity. However, mysteries are dredged from the pasts of some characters, and various past and present subplots interweave. Pip, the first-person narrator, relays the story as an adult, allowing him to view his youthful encounters and choices with experience and wisdom.
Great Expectations contains many elements of social satire and caricature, but ultimately, the tale is a redemptive one. Characteristically, Dickens interweaves many comedic elements and characters. Wemmick, for example, first appears as a dry, impassive legal clerk but is revealed to live in a strange cottage he’s fashioned into a castle – including drawbridge, turrets and working cannons – with a beloved, extremely deaf parent. Wemmick’s double life brightens the plot in some of its bleakest moments.
Dickens’s writing style is elaborate, detailed and erudite, containing frequent literary and social references. Because Great Expectations is told from the point of view of a gentleman, much of the novel adheres to this refined style. However, several main characters are uneducated – including Joe and Magwitch – so the learned prose is interspersed with slangy dialogue and humor.
- Pip’s yearning to be noble – a gentleman – takes him into high society and back again to the working class. Though society emphasizes status and wealth, when Pip meets the embodiments of those qualities, he finds the individuals self-absorbed, greedy or purely ornamental. The novel’s most noble characters – Joe and Magwitch – have no social status, fine manners or school learning. Yet their honesty, humility, hard work, selflessness and pure hearts make them true gentlemen.
- Criminality and prison shadow Pip’s life. He grows up hearing the occasional boom of the prison-ship cannons on the marshes, and the convict Magwitch and his associates haunt Pip’s boyhood. Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe, is mysteriously bludgeoned by a leg shackle – Magwitch’s very own. Pip’s eventual lawyer-guardian, Mr. Jaggers, is famous throughout Newgate Prison and London’s crime world. And Pip’s great expectations trace back to an exiled felon. Pip himself nearly lands in prison for his unpaid debts, but Joe rescues him. This lifelong shadow links to Pip’s seemingly inherent sense of guilt.
- Relatedly, Pip struggles to understand a justice system where the murderer Molly goes free simply because her lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, argues cunningly, and where the reformed, noble Magwitch must perish in a cell. Pip’s journey from being repulsed by Magwitch to loving the man corresponds with Pip’s learning to trust his own conscience and judgment above all.
- Pip’s penitence for wronging Joe and Biddy and their ready forgiveness allow all three to move on and thrive. Conversely, Compeyson’s lack of remorse and Miss Havisham’s related inability to forgive Compeyson keep Satis House frozen in time and darkness and, further, allow the injury and pain to pass to a new generation.
- Throughout Great Expectations, Dickens uses darkness and light as classic metaphors of evil and good, as well as obscurity and truth. Light typically signifies clarity or virtue, and darkness signifies that Pip is wandering astray. However, Dickens uses the terminology of both darkness and light to describe Estella. In the final sentence of the novel, Pip describes walking hand in hand with Estella into a “tranquil light,” where he “saw no shadow of another parting from her.”
A Nation in Flux
Great Expectations describes Pip’s life and experiences from 1812 to 1840, with 1812 coincidentally being the year of Charles Dickens’s birth. The novel spans a time of dizzying political shifts in England. Just before that period, in 1811, a regency was established under England’s “Mad King George,” George III, allowing the ill monarch’s oldest son to rule as his proxy. Following England’s Regency Period (1810–1820), the Regent was crowned King George IV. However, George IV, a corpulent man given to excess, ruled just one more decade until his death from gastrointestinal bleeding in 1820. Thereafter, King William ruled, followed by Queen Victoria in 1837.
The novel’s time span also coincides with the latter part of the Industrial Revolution, when machine tools, steam power, and other innovations brought many farmers from the countryside to work in the factories of England’s cities. These laborers, including women and children, worked long hours under difficult conditions, yet earned meager incomes. The factory owners, by contrast, profited handsomely. Social reforms became necessary. For example, by 1842, laws passed to prevent boys younger than age 10, as well as any female, from working in an underground mine.
The Industrial Revolution produced the first steamboat on the Thames in 1815. These vessels play an important role in the plans of Pip, Herbert and Magwitch at the end of the novel. However, most other dramatic modernizations of the Industrial Era don’t factor into Pip’s story.
Dickens started drafting Great Expectations in the fall of 1860. Though he originally intended to tell the story in monthly installments, his weekly magazine All the Year Round began to falter. Thus, he revised the estimated length of his novel to serialize it in the weekly publication, thereby boosting its readership. Mere months after he began writing Pip’s tale of fortune and misfortune, Dickens started publishing it. He finished writing it by June 11, 1861.
The novel as it exists today contains a revised ending. In the original conclusion – which never made it past the proof stage – Pip remains single and Estella remarries after Drummel’s death. However, Dickens’s literary friend Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton warned him that such a conclusion would disappoint readers. Thus, Dickens crafted a new ending – one that opens the possibility of a future for Pip and Estella.
Reviews and Legacy
Great Expectations, Dickens’s last finished book, was somewhat a return to his old form – which pleased many critics at the time of its publishing. A review published in The Atlantic in September 1861 raved, “The plot of the romance is…universally admitted to be the best that Dickens has ever invented.” Much later, in 1937, playwright George Barnard Shaw called Great Expectations the author’s “most compactly perfect book…all of one piece and consistently truthful as none of his other books are.”
Today, Dickens remains a lasting literary lion whose works have never gone out of print. Many of his novels drew attention to the plight of the working poor at a time of needed social reform and also helped shift public views about class disparities. Karl Marx once said that Dickens “issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.” Charles Dickens remains one of most famous – and most read – English authors.
About the Author
Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, England, where his father clerked in the Navy Pay Office. When Dickens was 12, his father spent three months in debtors’ prison – a hardship that Great Expectations’ Pip escapes only through Joe’s humble generosity. With a father in prison, young Charles toiled in a shoe-polish factory. His experience of the inhumane conditions of the working-class life would inform many of his works. After little formal education, Dickens became a solicitor’s clerk at age 15. At age 21, he published his first story, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk” – later republished as “Mr. Minns and His Cousin” – in a magazine. He married Catherine Hogarth, daughter of a newspaper editor, in 1836 and published his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, in 1837. The book earned him a following as a talented satirist and writer. As he would do with many of his major works, Dickens serialized the publication – that is, he published installments in a monthly journal, thus making the novel more affordable and accessible to all. The next year, in 1838, after the first of his 10 children was born, Dickens began publishing Oliver Twist. The laboring class and high society equally loved this book, launching Dickens to literary fame. Just a year later, in 1839, Dickens published Nicholas Nickleby. From 1843 to 1853, he published prolifically, including the novella A Christmas Carol and the novels David Copperfield and Bleak House. During the end of that decade, when Dickens was 39, he acted in a play with young writer Wilkie Collins, who would become his protégé. The two men formed a lasting – and quite famous – friendship. Great Expectations was Dickens’s 13th and last finished novel, following one year after his A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens began publishing The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1870, but on June 9, 1870, at age 58, he died of a stroke. He is buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.
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