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.
Satis House, the sprawling, dilapidated manor where Miss Havisham and Estella reside, serves to reinforce the novel's main moral theme: Kindness, loyalty, and personal relationships are of far greater importance than social class or wealth. Prior to his first visit to Satis House, Pip imagines that the Miss Havisham's home will be opulent and luxurious, though he is surprised to find, upon his arrival, that it is ramshackle and eerie, more like a haunted house than a beautiful mansion. Pip even lies to Mrs. Joe , Joe , and Uncle Pumblechook about his experience at Satis House, telling them that we all had cake and wine on gold plates and that four immense dogs had fought for veal cutlets out of a silver basket. Pip's false description of his experience at Satis House represents his romantic ideal of wealth and social class. He lies about his time there because he does not want to disappoint his audience, but also because he does not want to disappoint his own great expectations of it. Satis House, in its dark, dilapidated state, symbolizes the weakness of wealth and social status. The manor is a bed of misery, namely for Miss Havisham, who has not left its confines since she was jilted by her lover on their wedding day. Despite her wealth and class, Miss Havisham and her residence is a mere shadow of what she once was, a ghostly apparition of that both frightens and intimidates Pip.
Satis House also symbolizes yet another theme in Great Expectations : The connection between wealth and work. Miss Havisham was not born into the noble class; her father made a fortune as a brewer, capitalizing on new industry and opportunity. The abandoned brewery, dark and cobwebbed, remains a part of Satis House, and it is there, during Pip's first visit, that Estella criticizes his low, common status, and makes him cry.
The dark and dusty Satis House, with its crumbling bricks and mortar, essentially symbolizes the moral degradation and social misery of the upper class, which Pip realizes personally upon becoming a gentleman in London.
Consistently throughout the novel, Dickens utilizes 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.
At some point in her youth, Miss Havisham's hopes were thwarted, leaving her crazed and embittered. Jilted by her lover, Compeyson, on their wedding day, the dowager is crippled by heartache. It seems that Miss Havisham's life stopped as did her clocks at the moment her heart was broken. Her wedding dress, though she has never worn it, has faded from pure white to yellow, symbolic of her tarnished hopes and broken heart. Similarly, she keeps her uneaten, rotting wedding feast displayed on a table, which symbolizes her rotting heart and bitterness toward men. Miss Havisham lives her life for the past, and cannot move beyond her heartbreak. Pip views Miss Havisham as an embodiment of death, referring to her as a skeletal, ghostly figure, and hallucinating a vision of her body hanging from the rafters of the brewery. When Miss Havisham's wedding garments go up in flames and perish, so does she, with them.
Pip is no doubt lured to love Estella in part because of her immense beauty. During her youth, when his love for her begins, she is a beautiful child, though her spirit is cold and cruel. When Estella returns from her travels, she is a young woman; Pip finds her more beautiful than ever, and his love for her intensifies. It is then, however, when she is at her most beautiful, and Pip's love for her at its strongest, that she treats him with the utmost cruelty, casting aside his passionate confession of love for her. It is only at the end of the novel, however, when Estella is older and less beautiful that her heart awakens, and she treats Pip with kindness: The freshness of her beauty was indeed gone, but its indescribable majesty and it indescribable charm remained. Those attractions in it I had seen before; what I had never seen before was the saddened softened light of the once proud eyes; what I had never felt before was the friendly touch of the once insensible hand.
Throughout Great Expectations Dickens uses parallels to mirror events and characters in the story to attain dramatic symmetry. When Pip goes to London to become a gentleman with his newly inherited fortune, Wopsle , the former country church clerk, goes to London, also to become an actor. Like Pip's struggle to become a gentleman, Wopsle's performance as an actor is a mockery. When Pip goes to see him in Hamlet , he thinks that Wopsle looks ridiculous in his costume. Similarly, Pip certainly feels out of place in his new role as a gentleman, and is uncomfortable having to act in such an unfamiliar manner.
Secret benefactors represent yet another parallel in the text. After Pip has inherited his fortune from his secret benefactor who he mistakenly assumes is Miss Havisham, but later learns is Magwitch he decides to become Herbert's anonymous benefactor, so that his friend may enter the mercantile trade and marry his fianc.
Most significant is the parallel between Pip's heartbreak over Estella and Miss Havisham's heartbreak over Compeyson, the lover who jilted her on her wedding day. Like Miss Havisham, he is coldly rejected by his true love, and suffers terribly in the wake of his rejection.
Dickens compares many of the characters in Great Expectations to a corresponding object which represents their likeness. The ghostly, decrepit Miss Havisham is represented by her place of residence, Satis House, a dilapidated, crumbling manor that looks more like a haunted house than an opulent mansion. Mrs. Joe, Pip's mean, meticulous sister, is continuously associated with her choice method of punishment, The Tickler, a can she uses to beat Pip and Joe into submission. The possessions belonging to Jaggers , the hard-nosed lawyer, are often funereal; his desk chair at the office is trimmed with nails like a coffin, and his home is dark and eerie.