Great Expectations Study Guide

Great Expectations

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations is a novel about a poor boy named Pip, who lives with his cruel sister and her blacksmith husband. After years of helping a wealthy reclusive woman named Miss Havisham, he receives a small fortune from an anonymous benefactor. After learning to live like a gentleman and many attempts to court Miss Havisham's daughter, Estella, Pip learns that his fortune was not from Miss Havisham, as he had assumed, but a convict he had helped save when he was a child.


Pip , formally named Phillip Pirrip, serves as the narrator and protagonist of Great Expectations. The central character of this classic bildungsroman, Pip retrospectively narrates his own transformation from boy to man. As a character, Pip's actions drive the novel's plot; as the narrator, Pip's characteristics and attitudes shape the novel's tone and perspective. Although the novel is told by the elder Pip, who reflects on his past experiences from the platform of adulthood, his narration maintains a tone appropriate to his varied ages and positions throughout the text. Masterfully, Dickens creates a careful distinction between Pip the narrator and Pip the developing character. This distinction serves to accurately convey the differences in Pip's thoughts and feelings in childhood, adolescence, and, finally, adulthood.

Pip is extremely self-critical, the result of his overactive conscience. He is a goal-driven idealist, and entertains rosy fantasies that, in reality, are nearly impossible to attain. Pip is characterized by his careful self-examination and desire for self-improvement, which is initially inspired by his love for Estella . After being degraded by Estella for his poor, unrefined manners and commonness, Pip is suddenly self-aware. Estella's belittling remarks awaken in Pip a realization of social differences and status, and act as the catalyst for his desire and active pursuit of class and wealth. Pip creates and tries to adhere to strict expectations of himself; to make himself worthy of his beloved Estella, he spends hours after school learning to read and write like a gentleman under Biddy's tutelage. Pip's sudden realization of social status not only makes him self-conscious of his own class, but of his family's commonness. As a boy, he feels somehow superior to them, and is convinced that he will rise above their menial social status through his own endeavors.

Later, however, Pip feels intensely guilty for acting superior to his family. In particular, he regrets his harsh, condescending treatment of Joe , who has treated Pip with nothing less but care and kindness. He also feels guilty for his poor treatment of Biddy , who has provided him with the beginnings of his gentleman's education, and who is ever upstanding, good, and moral.

Pip is plagued by regrets, but also by a skewed sense of reality. In his youth especially, Pip's faculties of logic and reason are impaired by his fantastic idealism. Pip believes his fantasies to be true, even when all evidence proves otherwise. Although Estella gives no indication that she returns Pip's affections, he continues to pine for her, believing all along that he and Estella are destined for one another, and that, moreover, Miss Havisham intends Pip for Estella's husband. Further, he continues to believe that Miss Havisham is his secret benefactor, despite his friends' discouragement of the unfounded idea.

In spite of the flaws in his character, Pip is ultimately sympathetic. He shows great compassion, best evidenced by his ongoing, changing relationship with Magwitch , the convict and his secret benefactor. When he first meets Magwitch in the marshes, he is terrified of him. Despite Magwitch's threats and harsh treatment of young Pip, the boy does not betray the convict to the police. Instead, he follows through, stealing food and a file, per Magwitch's orders, and delivering them, at great risk to his own safety, the day after their first encounter. Further, Pip fears for Magwitch's safety when he learns that the police are searching for him. Similarly, Pip experiences conflicting feelings for Magwitch, upon learning, later in the novel, that he and not Miss Havisham, as he had long imagined is his secret benefactor. Though he is initially disgusted and terrified by the reappearance of the dreaded convict in his life, Pip's revulsion soon melts to compassion when he comes to know the convict personally, as a friend. Kindly, he protects the convict from the police, and tries to aid in his escape, even planning to escape with him. When the escape fails and Magwitch is arrested, Pip remains faithful to him, and cannot believe that he once intended to desert him. As he sits by Magwitch's bedside, looking on as the convict takes his last breath, Pip prays that God have mercy on the man, who he now looks to as a father figure.

Pip's essential kindness and compassion is also evident in his love for friends and family, namely Joe. Though he treats him with disdain intermittently throughout the novel, Pip ultimately realizes his great love for Joe, and acknowledges that the people in his life are far more important to him than social status and wealth. Also evident of Pip's kindness is his action as Herbert's secret benefactor. He wants to help his friend succeed in business, so that he can marry his beloved Clara, though he does not want to take credit for the help he has provided.

Although Pip's social ambition clouds his compassion for much of the novel, his goodness ultimately triumphs.


Cold-hearted, condescending, and beautiful, Estella hardly fits the mold of a traditional romantic heroine. Orphaned at the age of three and adopted by Miss Havisham, she is trained by the wealthy old woman to break men's hearts -- namely Pip's. Miss Havisham uses Estella as a tool to seek revenge upon men, after being jilted by her beloved fianc during her youth. Estella captures Pip's heart with her beauty, class, and mystique, and crushes it with her cruelty and condescension. Repeatedly, she warns him that she is emotionless and unfeeling, that she has no heart, yet Pip continues to pursue her, his passion for her ever deeper. In warning Pip of her heartlessness, Estella acknowledges her awareness of her emotional void, and of Miss Havisham's having raised her as a heartless woman. Thus, Estella is not entirely unsympathetic, as she almost cannot help her situation. She is not responsible for having been raised to act cruelly and without emotion, and she suffers for it.

Dickens uses Estella's suffering to enunciate one of his major themes: Love and loyalty, not social class, are of primary importance, and, alone, will produce happiness. Estella's harsh criticisms of Pip's commonness lead him to introspection and self-improvement, but become especially ironic when Pip learns, late in the novel, that Estella is even lower-born than he; she is the daughter of Magwitch, the convict, and Molly, Jaggers' housekeeper. Estella's fate as Miss Havisham's ward and a member of the upper class is miserable. She endures a long, unhappy marriage to the detestable Bentley Drummle , who is of a higher class than Pip. Had she though status less important, she may have been happily married to Pip. Further, she suffered at the hands of Miss Havisham, who at once provided her with high social rank, yet stole from the girl her heart and emotion. Had she remained a member of the lower class, she would have been raised by Molly and Magwitch, and her fate and ideals surely would have been different. At the close of the novel, Estella appears a somewhat pitiful character, for her high social class has done nothing but bring her loneliness and misery, thus reinforcing the importance of friends over fortune.

In the final chapter of the novel, when she reunites with Pip in the garden at Satis House, Estella admits she is a changed woman, having suffered, and thus experienced emotional pain. Like Pip, she has realized, in her suffering, that social status is unimportant in comparison to love and loyalty. She says, Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broke, butI hopeinto a better shape.

Miss Havisham

The manic, eccentric, wealthy old woman who lives within the confines of Satis House, her decrepit manor, Miss Havisham is ultimately responsible for Pip's heartbreak by Estella, her adoptive ward. Miss Havisham's insanity is the result of her own heartbreak, after having been betrayed by her beloved fianc, Compeyson , who abandoned her on their wedding day, and who, with her brother Arthur, swindled her out of a great deal of money. At the moment Miss Havisham received Compeyson's note, coldly informing her of his departure, she stopped time both literally and figuratively. All of the clocks in Satis House remain frozen at twenty minutes to nine. Miss Havisham keeps her uneaten, rotting wedding feast displayed on a table, and each day, she hides in her dressing room, donning her faded bridal gown and one matching shoe; she had not yet put the other shoe on when she had read Compeyson's note.

From the moment she was jilted by Compeyson, Miss Havisham seeks revenge on the hearts of all men, and raises Estella as a weapon to break their hearts. But Miss Havisham's plan backfires when she harms those she cares for; Pip becomes Estella's most injured victim, and Estella grows up a cold, unfeeling woman who treats Miss Havisham with as coolly as she treats men.

At the close of the novel, Miss Havisham redeems her character when she repents for her wrongdoings, sobbing and pleading with Pip for his forgiveness. She sincerely regrets her actions, not having considered that such deep pain and misery would result from her personal vendetta.

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