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.
The theme of social class is essential to Pip's development and, consequently, to the development of the novel's plot. It is intrinsically connected to the other key theme in Great Expectations : Personal Ambition and Self-Improvement. Beginning in his youth, Pip is attuned to social class and his own social status. After his first visit to Satis House, Pip's consciousness of distinct social rankings is awakened, and thus awakens in him a desire to improve his own class. Estella's cutting, condescending comments about Pip's commonness serve as the catalyst for his desire to elevate his social class.
The moral of the novel, however, articulates that kindness, loyalty, and personal relationships are of far greater importance than social class or wealth. As he ages, and suffers failure and pain despite his newfound gentlemanly status, Pip realizes that it is character, not class that is of prime importance in one's life.
Dickens reinforces this theme by using characters to reflect his moral message. For example, Magwitch , a convict, from the lowest of all classes, is a kind-hearted and essentially good man. By contrast, Bentley Drummle , born into society's upper class, is a stupid, oafish, and inordinately cruel man. Pip admires Magwitch for his character, but detests Drummle for his detestable nature, despite his wealth.
Class distinctions were especially prevalent in Victorian England, following the Industrial Revolution, the time period during which the book is set. Dickens calls attention to its importance by using a wide array of characters from a variety of social classes: Magwitch is a criminal, and therefore of the lowest class; Biddy and Joe are common, working paupers; Uncle Pumblechook , a pompous seed merchant, belongs to the middle class; Miss Havisham is a member of society's well-to-do upper class.
As a boy, Pip is deeply ashamed of his low social class, and is driven by Estella's criticism to improve his status, so that he may make himself worthy of her. As an adult, however, Pip is deeply ashamed that he has treated Joe, Biddy, and Magwitch with disdain, having snubbed them to elevate his own status as a gentleman. It is in adulthood that Pip realizes being a gentleman does not mean attaining status and wealth, but living as a loyal, dignified friend to those who care for him.
The book's title, Great Expectations reflects Pip's desire for social advancement and self-improvement. Pip has many Great Expectations for himself and for his future, most of which are unattainable. Namely, he aspires to improve himself in terms of education, social status, and morals.
This theme is first introduced when Uncle Pumblechook and Mrs. Joe express excitement over Pip's planned visit to Miss Havisham, as they expect that his relationship to the dowager will elevate his social status. Although Pip doesn't understand this concept at the time, he realizes it fully after his first visit to Satis House. Estella's cruel criticisms of Pip provoke his self-awareness; therein, Pip realizes that he is of a lower class than Estella, and that he must rise above his common roots to make himself worthy of her affection. Pip's sudden awareness of differences in social status urges him to strive for self-improvement. He is determined to be an educated, articulate, wealthy gentleman, and sincerely believes that he is inherently superior to his family in status.
Pip's determination is best evidenced in his youth, when he asks Biddy to tutor him after school, so that he may read and write like a gentleman.
Pip's plan, of course, backfires. Miss Havisham does not intend him for Estella, nor is she his secret benefactor, as he long believed. Magwitch, the convict from the marshes, is, in fact, Pip's benefactor and Estella's birth father. Thus, Estella is truly of lower status than Pip. Both Pip and Estella are miserable, despite their elevated status, Pip accruing debts and Estella suffering an unbearable marriage to Drummle.
This theme of ambition and self-improvement reinforces the overall moral message of the novel: love, loyalty, conscience, and kindness are of superior importance to wealth and social status. This moral message carries the essential idea of the novel, which Pip learns as he develops into an adult. Ultimately, Pip's Great Expectations are disappointed, and he realizes that, even had they come true, he would have been unhappy without the kindness of his friends and family.
Throughout the novel, Pip maintains a strong conscience. He is ridden with guilt after treating Joe and Biddy with disdain, and acts to amend his mistakes. Similarly, he is ashamed of the way he had once acted toward Magwitch, his benefactor, who wanted nothing more than to serve as Pip's father figure, and to reward the boy with opportunities unavailable to him in his own youth. To reconcile his poor treatment of Magwitch, Pip, upon realizing the convict's good intentions, treats him with compassion and kindness. He focuses all of his energies on helping Magwitch to escape, as he had when he was a boy in the marshes. Pip also demonstrates his desire for moral improvement by acting as Herbert's secret benefactor, so that his friend may succeed as a merchant and marry his fianc, Clara Barley . Pip feels that helping Herbert realize his own expectations is the one true, good thing he does during his experience in London.
In Great Expectations, Dickens brings the idea of moral conscience and true justice into question by thematically using crime and criminals throughout the course of the novel. The author also frequently employs imagery to reinforce the concept of Crime and Justice in Great Expectations. Memorably, he does so early in the novel, when Mrs. Joe's attacker uses a broken leg iron (from an escaped prisoner) to beat her. Pip's first day in London, in Chapter 20, is also wrought with imagery of Crime and Justice. While he waits for Jaggers the lawyer yet another omnipresent representation of Crime and Justice--Pip is asked by an exceedingly dirty and partially drunk minister of justice, who is dressed in rags, is he would like to watch a trial at Newgate Prison in exchange for a small sum of money. The man's drunkenness, greed, and shoddy appearance represent the corruption of justice and the downfall of morality in the city, which Pip finds London dank and dirty, teeming with throngs of people, and blackened by the filth and smoke coughed into the sky by factory chimneys. Touring the gallows, Pip is impressed with a sickening idea of London, and is reminded of Magwitch, dreadful convict who he had helped in the marshes as a boy, and who will soon reveal himself as Pip's secret benefactor.
This theme of crime and justice is closely intertwined with Pip's overwhelming feelings of guilt and anxiety, and his obsession with imminent redemption for the wrong he has done. Pip's sickening visit to Newgate Prison foreshadows Magwitch's recapture by the London police, and his subsequent conviction, the punishment for which is death by hanging at the gallows Pip has toured.
Magwitch, of course, is the central figure representing the theme of Crime and Justice in the novel. Initially, Pip fears Magwitch because he is a criminal, but, later, learns that, despite his condemnation by the institutional justice system, he is a kind, caring man of upstanding character. In sharp contrast to the uncouth Magwitch is the educated, gentlemanly career criminal, Compeyson , who uses his fine manners to win a light prison sentence. Magwitch, who has no such manners, suffers the harsh, long prison sentence, from which he escapes. Dickens uses this contrast to illuminate the fallibility of the institutional justice system, and to reinforce the importance of inner morals and conscience, both of which are of prime importance to Pip. Later in the novel, Pip attempts to help Magwitch evade the police and escape London because he feels that it is morally right, however illegal.