The great expectations referred to in the title of Dickens's novel are entirely bound up in the class system. When Jaggers meets with Pip and Joe, he describes Pip's future thus:

I am instructed to communicate to him...that he will come into a handsome property. Further, that it is the desire of the present possessor of the property that he be immediately removed from his present sphere of life and from this place, and be brought up a gentleman — in a word, as a young fellow of great expectations. (Great Expectations 141)

Pip has an exaggerated respect for money, as do several of his "gentleman" peers and guardians. Pumblechook, by virtue of being one of the more wealthier inhabitants of Pip's hometown, is as conceited as he is revered among the townspeople. Estella ends up marrying Drummle, although he is of the rudest disposition. Jaggers, famous for getting the most savage of criminals off the hook (or out of the noose), cleans his hands of it with lemon-scented soap at the end of every day. With his eye for portable property and collection of death tokens from murderers and felons, Wemmick is perhaps most disturbing when he sheds his London skin as he walks towards home. Joe and Magwitch, on the other hand, repulse Pip because they lack social status, even though they are the ones who enable him to reach maturity. As Stephen Wall points out, Joe is the meterstick by which the reader judges Pip's outlook:

The Pocket household and the Finches of the Grove prove, morally speaking, poor substitutes for the forge and the Three Jolly Bargemen. Pip's change of fortune does not entirely blunt his moral perceptions, and this is why he can survive his ultimate catastrophe.
("Dickens's Plot of Fortune," 64)

Magwitch is that ultimate catastrophe, as he forces Pip to confront the hollowness of his fashionable accomplishments and overall prosperity.

Yet the reader can sympathize with Pip's shortcomings, as Dickens includes narrative concerning the formation of these prejudices. Although the reader cringes when Pip remarks to Biddy that “Joe is a dear good fellow...but he is rather backward...in his learning and manners" (Great Expectations, 150), the portrait of Pip's overbearing and derisive sister, Mrs. Joe, looms large even after her assault. Curiously, despite Pip's utter misery at her hands, he ends up espousing her biases about money and respect. When she instills these ideas in him, he cannot maintain any self-respect. By encouraging Pip to prostitute himself to Miss Havisham, Mrs. Joe not only pushes him out of his home, but pushes him into a materialistic mindset. Estella takes over from there, switching to the role of would-be lover instead of would-be mother.

Estella is but one of many great disappointments for Pip. He desires her above all else, Miss Havisham leads him to believe that he will have her, she eventually marries Drummle. He desperately wants to become a gentleman, Jaggers magically shows up to proclaim his fortune, he discovers that a murderer has been his benefactor. He forsakes Biddy for being too provincial, at his sister's funeral he chides her for insinuating that he might not return as often as he promises, and when he finally sees the error of his ways and wants to make amends, she is newly wedded to Joe. Each of these events is due to a misunderstanding on Pip's part about the nature of society: that money is the best indicator of virtue. Even as Pip witnesses Jaggers in court, attempting nothing short of raw intimidation, he feels nothing but respect for the power Jaggers wields. This blindness leads Pip to misinterpret the behavior of other characters so often that it borders on delusion. Estella tells him over and over again that he should not become attached to her, yet he believes in the love myth that Miss Havisham feeds him. Jaggers also warns him against speculation with regard to his patron, and that Pip should on no account expect hints of any sort from Jaggers. Pip then twists his interpretation of Jaggers' gestures in such a way as to support his sadly mistaken idea that Miss Havisham is his patron. Biddy never promised that she would wait for Pip, in fact she reacts with disgust when he visits them, but his hubris conceals the source of her dismay from him.

Pip's development climaxes when Magwitch returns. He is the ultimate paradox for Pip: so wealthy that he could finance Pip's education as a gentleman, and yet a dirty, uneducated, lower-class criminal. He is digusted by his patron, but still bound to him not only by the money and power that he has become accustomed to, but by his belief that money and power demand respect. He must first reconcile his repulsion with Magwitch's riches; he comes to terms with the fact that not all wealthy people are good people. More importantly, though, he realizes the converse, that many good people are not wealthy. As the details of Magwitch's life come out, most notably that he is Estella's father, Pip's fear of Magwitch gradually becomes a fear for Magwitch. When the river police arrest him, Pip sees

in the hunted wounded shackled creature,...only a man who had meant to be my benefactor, and who had felt affectionately, gratefully, and generously, towards me with great consistency through a series of years. I only saw in him a much better man than I had been to Joe. (406)

Even though Magwitch's riches are forfeited to to the Crown when he is convicted, Pip nonetheless cares for him through the trial and to his death. Afterwards, Pip endures his own serious illness. When he recovers, he has Joe to thank, and he does thank him for a change. With this gesture, Pip conclusively relinquishes his biases and is reborn into maturity.

Related Material


Victorian Web Overview Great Expectations Charles Dickens

Last modified 1996