Great Expectations is one of Dickens’s later novels, published as a serial between 1860 and 1861. At this time Dickens was a famous public figure, but he still wrote, edited, and published for newspapers.
The novel is set earlier in the 1800s, roughly between 1810 and 1835 (except for the last chapter). It begins in the country—a rather damp and dreary country, from Pip’s description—where Pip divides his time between the forge, a warm, welcoming place, and Miss Havisham’s grand house, which is very gloomy and dark. In contrast with this setting is London, where Pip goes later in the book. While London is more exciting than Pip’s village, it is dirty and lonely, especially when he first arrives.
Plot: This is a coming-of-age book, centered on Pip, using his narrating voice. The tale starts when Pip is just a village lad, who is scared out of his wits by finding a convict on the marshes one Christmas eve. Pip’s life begins to change shortly after that event, when he is sent to Miss Havisham’s house to “play”. Though he is scared of the eccentric lady, he meets Estella and gets a taste for gentility there, and begins to be discontented with his station. He initially tries to better himself with education, but his life takes a sudden turn when he is informed that he has “expectations” from a mysterious benefactor, and is to go live in London. Pip is so happy to become a gentleman, and so anxious about his social standing, that he cuts himself off from the village entirely, even being rude to Joe when he comes to visit.
In London, Pip is extravagant, spending money foolishly because of his “great expectations”. He gets into debt, and drags his friend in with him. Sure that his benefactor must be Miss Havisham, Pip believes that he will marry Estella, who is now also in London, in the same circles as he is. When he comes of age, Pip decides to find out who his patron is, but is interrupted by a tramp called Magwitch suddenly showing up. Confused at first, Pip eventually understands that this Magwitch is the convict whom he helped when he was a boy, by bringing him food secretly when he was in hiding. Pip is stunned to learn that the man has made his fortune in Australia, and all this time it is he who has been his benefactor, not Miss Havisham at all. By coming back to England, Magwitch is in danger of being arrested, and Pip tries to help him get out of the country. Compeyson is working against them, however, and Magwitch is arrested, all his property is confiscated by the crown, and that is the end of Pip’s expectations.
Of course, it’s all really much more complicated than that, being Dickens. I had to ruthlessly leave out many subplots which are integral to the story to condense it even this much.
Phillip Perrip: (Pip) An orphan, but being brought up by his older sister and her husband.
He starts out as a nice boy, but as soon as he starts wanting to be a gentleman he becomes rather annoying. For most of the novel Pip is selfish and extravagant, but when he learns who actually left him his “great expectations” he does begin to change, and to see more clearly what is valuable in life.
The Gargerys: Are bringing up Pip by hand. Mrs. Joe Gargery is Pip’s sister, who goes on rampages at the slightest provocation. Pip is afraid of her, especially when she has Tickler. Joe, a blacksmith, treats Pip as a son, and is his best friend. He is not educated, but is kind to everyone, honest, and innately polite.
Miss Havisham: A creepy lady always dressed in a wedding gown.
Pip has to go to her house as a companion, to walk with her, or play cards. She is very rich, but unhappy because she was abandoned by her fiancé right before their wedding. Appears to enjoy making everyone around her uncomfortable.
Estella: A spoilt beauty, the adopted daughter of Miss Havisham.
Miss Havisham is training Estella to take revenge on the male sex, by making all men fall in love with her, but never being in love herself. This certainly works on Pip.
Magwitch: Also called The Convict, terrifies Pip when he is a small boy, but is later his benefactor.
Pip, under threat of being eaten alive, brings him food when he has escaped from the convict ship and is hiding on the marshes, and Magwitch is grateful to him, even though he is soon recaptured and sent off to Australia.
Wemmick: Lives in a castle with his Aged Parent, works for a lawyer named Jaggers in London. Wemmick has two sides to his character, his “Walworth sentiments” at home and his “official sentiments” at the office in London. He gives Pip advice and guidance while he is in London.
Compeyson: Another convict, Magwitch’s mortal enemy.
The reader does not even hear of this fellow until near the end of the book, but he is responsible for Miss Havisham’s blighted life, Magwitch’s life of crime, and Pip losing his great expectations. In a way he is the villain, although I always think of Pip himself as the “villain”, because it is his weaknesses of character that are the main source of conflict.
Throughout the book, Pip is careless of his friends, often ignoring them until he needs them, yet they still stand by him and help him through every scrape he gets into—Joe cares for him when he is sick and pays his debts, Herbert gets him a job after he loses his expectations, and Wemmick gives him advice and helps him with Magwitch even against his own better judgment. By the end of the story Pip realizes that his friends are more important than social standing and money.
Wealth is portrayed as at least dangerous, if not altogether bad. It makes those who have it either suspicious of everyone, like Miss Havisham, because she thinks everyone must be trying to get money out of her, or corrupt, like the lawyer Jaggers who squeezes all the money he can out of others, or lazy and self-indulgent like Pip, relying on his money rather than on his own talent and work.
The Treatment of Convicts
If there is a social issue expressed in Great Expectations, it is the treatment of convicts, and the prison system as a whole. Magwitch, for a minor crime, has his whole life ruined, while Compeyson, who has done much worse things, gets off easily. Dickens is quick to spot and decry this injustice.