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.


Consistently throughout the novel, Dickens uses the setting to create an atmosphere appropriate to the drama of the plot. Dickens uses these settings namely various types of weather in a classic way. If the scene is set on a brilliantly sunny, pleasant day, the plot is sure to be pleasant, too. However, more often, Dickens uses bad wather rain, storms, and thick, shrouding mists to communicate dramatic tension, and, often, to forebode a bad turn of events.

When Pip goes to London after receiving his fortune, he departs the marsh country through a cloud of mist, which forebodes the difficulties he will suffer the city, and the disappointment of his future great expectations. At the close of the novel, the evening mists rise when Pip and Estella reunite, foreshadowing a pleasant future for the couple.

Dickens also uses the mists to associate evil with certain characters. Initially, he does this with the convicts, Magwitch and Compeyson , when Pip encounters them on the mist-drenched marshes. The mists seem to shroud the truth, creating an eerie sense of mystery and uncertainty. Surely, it is not until much later in the novel, when Pip is a young man, that he discovers the true identities of these convicts from the marshes.

Dickens also associates Dolge Orlick with the mists on the marshes. The mean, oafish day laborer who works for Joe in the forge, Orlick treats Pip unkindly, and is not well-liked by any of the other characters. He is cruel to others for no apparent reason, and later in the novel, when he lures Pip to his limekiln deep into the marshes, he confirms that he is indeed Mrs. Joe's attacker. Shortly after Mrs. Joe's attack, Pip and Biddy see Orlick as they walk along, and suddenly, a thick mist rolls in and it begins to grow dark. Again, when Pip is lured to Orlick's limekiln, only to be attacked, himself, the mists are dark and thick, and the moon glows an ominous shade of red.


Great Expectations is rich with foreshadowing. Pip's haunting memories of the convict long after their encounter foreshadow his reappearance in his life, as an adult in London. Likewise, the man with the file who gives a small sum of money to Pip in the local pub foreshadows the revelation that Magwitch is his secret benefactor. The other convict Pip sees in the marshes (while on his way to deliver the food and file to Magwitch) foreshadow his later relationship to Compeyson. Pip's conviction that Estella reminds him of someone else, though he cannot place her, foreshadows his discovery of her parentage. Miss Havisham's donning of her bridal gown and wedding acoutrements foreshadows the revelation that she was jilted by her lover, Compeyson. Furthermore, weather conditions often foreshadow the upcoming drama of the plot. Most often, storms, rain, and thick mists forebode trouble ahead.


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 classic 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 fifty-nine brief chapters that constitute the novel are demarcated into the three sequential stages of Pip's great expecations and development: First, Pip's boyhood in the rural marsh country during which he years to become a gentleman; second, Pip's difficult youth in London, during which he struggles in his new, elevated social status; Finally, Pip's maturation upon realizing that loyalty, morality, and human relationships are more important than gentlemanly conduct, social status, or wealth.

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.


The novel's most dramatic display of irony occurs in Chapter 50, when Pip concludes that Magwitch, the low-born convict and his benefactor, is the father of Estella, his unattainable beloved. This is the most shocking of Pip's discoveries, as it serves as the final blow to his idealization of social status and wealth. Estella is the initial source of Pip's social ambition; he desired to attain a higher status to make himself worthy of Estella, who criticized his commonness. Upon learning that Magwitch, a convict, is her father, Pip realizes that Estella was born into an even lower social status than his own. Pip's feelings for Estella and his feelings for Magwitch have, until now, been in extreme contrast to one another. Since his youth, Pip has idolized and adored Estella, likening her to an ethereal goddess, and pining for her as he did for status and the life of a wealthy, respectable gentleman. Conversely, Pip has remained terrified of and disgusted by the convict, likening him to an untamed animal, and feeling deep shame upon learning of his close association with Magwitch when he reveals he is Pip's benefactor.

Point of View

Great Expectations is narrated by Pip, who also serves as the novel's protagonist. Pip is the central character of the novel, which is told retrospectively, in his words. His retrospection, however, is not colored by his age; Pip relates his story as he perceived it at whatever age he experienced it. Great Expectations serves as a careful character study of Pip, detailing his transition from youth to adulthood in classic bildungsroman form.


Dickens laces Great Expectations with interconnected threads of satire and comedy, and high drama. Dickens style changes according to the scene at hand. Through his narrator, Pip, he communicates terror, dread, disdain, and hope, at times with humor, and at others, with the utmost seriousness. Dickens also changes his style according to Pip's age. When Pip is a young boy, Dickens employs satire and comedy more often; Pip feels the urge to vengefully twist Uncle Pumblechook's nose at Christmas dinner, and he harbors the absurd, childish fear that the police await him at his home after he meets the convict in the marshes. Dickens is at his comic best when Pip arrives in London and is approached by a drunken, greedy, slovenly minister of justice, whose tour of the courts and gallows gives Pip a sickening idea of London and the reader a sickening idea of the institutionalized justice system.

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