[The decorative initial comes from George Cruikshank's Comic Alphabet, where it wryly represents “'G' for Gentleman" — very much in keeping with Dickens's novel. Cruikshank also illustrated some of Dickens's early work. GPL]

reat Expectations by Charles Dickens contains an intricate set of characters, many designed to parallel and contrast one another. Pairs of the novel's main characters, or doubles, serve to reveal both the effects of social class and the presence of common human traits in vastly different people.

Compeyson and Magwitch, criminals charged with the same offense, often appear together in the text. When Pip mentions one, the other often soon appears, highlighting the ways they differ. Compeyson is evil, educated, manipulative, and eloquent while Magwitch is kind hearted, uneducated, and slovenly — representatives of two different social classes dealing with the same crime. Compeyson's articulate plea convinces the judge to give him a reduced sentence, whereas he sentences Magwitch to a much longer term. Magwitch explains that Compeyson was “set up fur a gentlemen...he'd been to a public boarding-school and had learning. He was a smooth one to talk, and was a dab at the ways of gentlefolks. d-looking too." Though distinguished, nothing about his evil, scheming character appears likeable. Dickens portrays Magwitch positively, making him a sympathetic character and causing readers to feel furious when Compeyson evades greater punishment. Dickens assigns Magwitch the role of narrator while he describes these trials to Pip:

At last, me and Compeyson was both committed for felony — on a charge of putting stolen notes in circulation — and there was other charges behind. Compeyson says to me, defences, no communication,' and that was all. And I was so miserable poor, that I sold all the clothes I had, except what hung on my back, afore I could get Jaggers

When the prosecution opened and the evidence was put short, aforehand, I noticed how heavy it all bore on me, and how light on him. When the evidence was giv in the box, I noticed how it was always me that had come for'ard, and could be swore to, how it was always me that the money had been paid to, how it was always me that had seemed to work the thing and get the profit. But, when the defence come on, then I see the plan plainer; for, says the counsellor for Compeyson, 'My lord and gentlemen, here you has afore you, side by side, two persons as your eyes can separate wide; one, the younger, well brought up, who will be spoke to as such; one, the elder, ill brought up, who will be spoke to as such; one, the younger, seldom if ever seen in these here transactions, and only suspected; t'other, the elder, always seen in 'em and always wi'his guilt brought home. Can you doubt, if there is but one in it, which is the one, and, if there is two in it, which is much the worst one. [Chapter 42; location in complete text of the novel]

Magwitch's social status and lack of education make it difficult for him to stay out of trouble. In the end the judge sentences them to the same prison ship, where they constantly fight one another, as they will for the rest of their lives. This scenario serves to show how class indicates little about character, since the more likeable, moral, and well intentioned character, Magwitch, ends up with the harsher punishment. The longer sentence also emphasizes of the unfairness of a class-based justice system.

Dickens portrays Mrs. Joe and Miss Havisham as women seemingly bound to their homes. Both monstrous mother figures for Pip have similar fates, since they end their dominating presence in Pip's life by becoming invalids. Both treat Pip selfishly. Though Miss Havisham occassionally acts kindly, she does so to manipulate him into falling in love with Estella, who then can practice breaking his heart. A pawn in her game, Pip views Miss Havisham with fear and respect. Dickens does not make clear the intentions of Mrs. Joe, who physically and mentally abuses her little brother. She dominates the household, forcing even her husband into fear and compliance. The ways that the women behave in their settings also helps characterize them:

She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two loops, and having a square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles. She made it a powerful merit in herself, and a strong reproach against Joe, that she wore this apron so much. Though I really see no reason why she should have worn it at all; or why, if she did wear it at all, she should not have taken it off, every day of her life. [Chapter 2]

I glanced down at the foot from which the shoe was absent, and saw that the silk stocking on it, once white, now yellow, had been trodden ragged. Without this arrest of everything, this standing still of all the pale decayed objects, not even the withered bridal dress on the collapsed form could have looked so like grave-clothes, or the long veil so like a shroud. [Chapter 6]

Whereas Mrs. Joe compulsively cleans her house, demanding a spotless home, Miss Havisham leaves dirt, dust, and the remnants of her past lying around. Both spend a great deal of time focusing on the past or what could have been. Miss Havisham remains in her “withered bridal dress," the dress she was wearing when her fiancé left her, and Mrs. Joe talks about what she could have been had she not married a blacksmith. Like Miss Havisham, Mrs. Joe always wears the same outfit. Mrs. Joe wears an apron, a defining characteristic of her class (a blacksmith's wife and in a working class) whereas Miss Havisham always wears a wedding dress. This dress and her enormous wealth define her character. Both women claim they wore their clothes in spite of a man, as Mrs. Joe dressed as a “strong reproach against Joe, and Miss Havisham to mourn her lost marriage. Further, Pip has little explanation in his childhood as to why these women dressed in the ways that they did, only understanding their actions in retrospect. The emphasis on the clothing of these two characters emphasizes the theme of the importance of appearances, the link between social class and lifestyle, and the physical embodiment of metaphorical character traits. For example, Miss Havisham's rotting clothing represents an obsession with holding on to the past while Mrs. Joe's outfit indicates her desire for cleanliness and control. Their doubling serves multiple literary purposes.

Dicken's has disaster befall these women as soon as their role in Pip's life diminishes. Around the time Pip leaves his home, Orlick attacks Mrs. Joe and causes permanent brain damage. After Miss Havisham tries to make amends with Pip and all is revealed about her past, she becomes inured in a fire. When Pip was a child, Mrs. Joe loomed over him, controlling him and causing him fear and suffering. As he grew up, Miss Havisham took the same role in a more complex way, orchestrating the emotional suffering Pip goes through for Estella. The moment these characters lose their power over Pip, they lose their minds. Both women are faced with fire upon their injuries. Mrs. Joe is described as, “lying without sense or movement on the bare boards where she had been knocked down by a tremendous blow on the back of the head, dealt by some unknown hand when her face was turned towards the fire." Miss Havisham's injuries are from the fire itself. After becoming invalid, they are physically and metaphorically no longer holding power over Pip. After they become injured and bedridden, both take on a habit of repeating the same phrases over and over again. Mrs. Joe asks for Orlick while Miss Havisham dwells on forgiveness. Their lives, though different in social class, education, and events, run parallel in their relation to Pip and meet in their endings.


1. What other doubles exist in the novel? How are Miss Havisham and Magwitch doubles? Estella and Biddy? Pip and Herbert? Wemmick's double life itself? Why does Dickens employ this literary device in “Great Expectations."

2. How do the doubles in this novel compare to the doubles in Jane Eyre. For example, Bertha and Jane? What do the doubles bring out in each other in the two novels?

3. How were invalids typically seen or treated in the Victorian era?

4. The motif of fire and candles appears throughout the novel. Miss Havisham is injured in a fire while Mrs. Joe faces one after her attack. Candle sticks show up in both of these scenes and in many others. What symbolic significance do fire and candlesticks have?

5. Why does Dickens choose to narrate story through Magwitch's voice? Why not continue with Pip's perspective? This is the only time in which the entire chapter is shifted to the perspective of another character. What purpose does this serve? How does the way that he talks, the language and word choice effect the tone of his story?

6. Magwitch and Compeyson are charged with the same crime but receive different sentences. How were their punishments typical of the stereotypes and treatment received by men in their respective social classes? How did the role of education help criminals in that time period?

Last modified 18 February 2008