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Great Expectations

Term Definition
Great Expectations

In Great Expectations, Dickens tells the story of the coming of age of an orphan called Pip. This novel is known for featuring a wide range of characters, some of whom have attained an almost archetypical status within the popular imagination. Attention has also frequently been called to the vivid imagery present within the work. In addition, the work features several of Dickens' classic themes, including wealth versus poverty and good versus evil. 

Summary of Great Expectations

Great Expectations is an 1860 novel by Victorian English fiction author Charles Dickens (1812-1870). A bildungsroman, the novel follows the life of a man from his orphaned boyhood on through to his experiences of work, wealth, and loss by middle age.

Around 1812, seven-year-old Pip is visiting the gravesites of his parents and brother when he's pressured into aiding a stray prison escapee, Magwitch, who quickly gets recaptured. The boy lives with his volatile older sister and her easygoing blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery. Pip begins visiting rich spinster Miss Havisham, whose adopted daughter Estella steals the young boy's heart. Later, as a young man, he's mastering his uncle-in-law's trade when he learns that he's inherited a fortune from an unidentified benefactor. 

Now a London gentleman, Pip immerses in Estella's circle, but she continues to spurn his love. It turns out that his benefactor and her father are the same man, Magwitch, who'd made a fortune in Australia. Miss Havisham—vengeful of men for having been jilted in her prime—dies from burn injuries before revealing how she's raised Estella to smite and reject as many men as possible. Magwitch kills an enemy and is rearrested; he dies in prison, and with him goes the fortune. Humbled, Pip reconnects with a now-remarried Joe and heads off to Egypt to work and repay his debts. A decade later, Pip and Estella meet again, reminisce, and make amends for past mistakes. 

Core Theme of the Plot

With Great Expectations, Dickens (like other literary authors of his time) advances the notion that affection and loyalty are higher values than wealth or status. From childhood to young adulthood, Pip is compelled to transcend the low status designated for him as a poor orphan. As he grows, he improves his knowledge and skill sets. When the surprise windfall affords him a new range of privilege, he gains a higher education and moves up in society. However, after the money is gone and the foibles of upper class characters are exposed, he realizes that the dearest, most loyal person in his life has always been Joe Gargery: the modest-living uncle-in-law that Pip neglects during the latter's nouveau riche phase.

The novel also explores themes of innocence and guilt as defined in both the moral and legal sense. Images of law enforcement are everywhere, from Magwitch's imprisonment in the London gallows to Joe's fixing of handcuffs. For Pip, the challenge is to look beyond the rule of law, which can sometimes serve as little more than a superficial measure of morality; much like social status. As the book advances, the rags-to-riches protagonist sees the inner nobility of his benefactor, for whom the status of "criminal" comes to seem like a superficial label. With that understanding, Pip's resolve to help Magwitch progresses from a state of reluctance to enthusiasm.

More Information on Great Expectations

Dickens initially serialized Great Expectations in weekly installments of the Victorian periodical All the Year Round between 1860 and 1861, after which the novel was published in book form by Chapman and Hall. 

Various modern novelists have been influenced by Great Expectations, including Sue Roe, who examines Pip's love interest in Estella: Her Expectations (1982), and Ronald Frame, who expands upon Miss Havisham's story in Havisham: A Novel (2013). That's why Dickens is considered to be one of the most epic Victorian era literary authors.

Great Expectations has also seen countless stage and screen adaptations, the latter of which date as far back as 1917 with a 50-minute silent film starring Jack Pickford as Pip. In 1946, English actor John Mills played the central character in Universal's ensemble-driven adaptation, which was nominated for five Academy Awards and won two (Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography). In 2012, Lionsgate distributed a BBC Films version of the novel starring Jeremy Irvine as Pip and Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham.

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