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.


Charles Dickens, born February 7, 1812, is well known for fictionalizing the misfortunes of his youth in his writing. When he was nine, Dickens' family relocated from the bucolic southeastern coast of England to the bustling city of London. Shortly thereafter, when Dickens was twelve, his father was arrested and sent to prison for accruing severe debts. The family, including Dickens' mother and siblings, moved into the prison as well. Charles, however, was sent out on his own to work as a child laborer at a blacking warehouse. (Blacking was a factory-produced soot used to color various products.) It was Dickens' job to paste labels on bottles, working alongside many other maltreated children. It was a job Dickens despised, and one he most memorably recalled in his semi-autobiographical novel, David Copperfield. Although Dickens worked at the warehouse for only three months, his experience there was highly traumatic. He was miserable in the job, and felt himself superior to such menial labor, and to the other child laborers.

Dickens first became a literary sensation at the age of twenty-five, with the publication of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. Prior to his first literary success, Dickens worked as a law clerk, and later as a court reporter. His interest and background in the public justice system is evident in Great Expectations. A remarkably prolific author, Dickens continued to publish until his death in 1870.

Historical Context

As in his highly autobiographical novel David Copperfield, Dickens includes many aspects of his own experience in Great Expectations. Like Pip, the novel's young protagonist, Dickens was raised in the English countryside and forced to labor in a job he detests, a job he feels is beneath his capability. Similarly, Dickens, like his character Pip , felt shame for his humble beginnings and aspired to grandiose success, which he experienced early in his life, as a young man in London.

Written in 1860-1861 as a weekly serial for Dickens' magazine, All Year Round, Great Expectations follows a form popular during its time of publication. The novel is a clear example of a bildungsroman, a novel which portrays the growth of its protagonist from youth to maturity through a process of personal experiences and self-realization. Great Expectations depicts Pip's transformation from a rural peasant boy to the urbane young man who is careless with his unexpected fortune. The bildungsroman rose to popularity in nineteenth-century European fiction with the publication of Goethe's classic Wilhelm Meister , and subsequent titles by Dickens' contemporaries, Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre, and Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe.

One of the central themes in Great Expectations is the tension between rich and poor. The novel highlights the vast divisions among the social classes during early Victorian England, the period in which the book is set. Such divisions were complicated by the economic and social changes that were altering the conventions of English society. The Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries allowed entrepreneurs and capitalists entrance into the elite class, formerly accessible only to the progeny of wealthy blue-bloods. An influx of people moved into the city from the country, seeking work, wealth, and opportunity in the new industries springing up throughout London. As a result, London was transformed into a crowded, gloomy city, black with smoke and soot spewed from factory chimneys. Although the Industrial Revolution presented new economic opportunities for the lower classes, divisions among social classes remained. Apparent in Great Expectations are the great differences in socially acceptable behavior among the lower and elite classes. Pip must learn a new set of social mores to associate with and gain acceptance from the educated, genteel nobility of London.

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