Do you ever replay embarrassing or traumatizing moments from the past on the movie screen of your brain? If you do (and we do all the time) then you know how traumatizing it can be to re-watch these traumatizing moments. It's double-trauma. (Somebody page Dr. House.) So, naturally, Pip's tone has some regret at having made some poor choices, as well as longing for the good old days on the marshes. But it's not all trauma. Check out this sad little moment when Pip goes off to stay the night with Mr. Pumblechook before going to Miss Havisham's:
I had never parted from him before, and what with my feelings and what with soapsuds, I could at first see no stars from the chaise-cart. But they twinkled out one by one, without throwing any light on the questions why on earth I was going to play at Miss Havisham's, and what on earth I was expected to play at. (7.92)
Dickens definitely makes us feel the pathos of this little boy being dragged off away from everyone he's known to fulfill some vague request—but at the same time, he phrases it in such a way ("what with my feelings and what with soapsuds") that we can't help chuckling, even though he's describing little Pip crying as he leaves.
Whew. Let's take this one at a time:
Coming-of-Age: Well, this one's a freebie. Pip is a scared little six-year-old at the beginning of the novel; he's a grown-up man at the end, and the whole book is about how he gets from point A to point B. In fact, Great Expectations is pretty much your classic Bildungsroman: a fancy German word for a novel entirely devoted to telling a coming-of-age story.
Gothic fiction: Creepy house. Creepy old lady. Ghosts. Long-lost prisoners. And did we mention the mist? Sounds like Gothic fiction to us!
Realism: Ooh, now we're getting excited. If we were asked to describe the plot of Great Expectations in ten words or less, we could say this: "a very long story about a boy who grows up." Or we could say this: "a three-part story about unrequited love." Or we could say this: "a serialized novel about a boy and an escaped convict." Or this: "it's about a little boy who meets a crazy lady." Or perhaps the following: "a tale of a boy who betrays his best friend." Or even this: "a story about how Victorian society is wack." And we think even this one would work: "a story about beer."
The point is that there's a lot going on in this big, fat novel and, while Pip is most definitely the object of our affection and attention, Dickens doesn't hesitate to cram in every detail possible about the world around Pip, thus leaving us with a good sense of the everyday, realistic details of a specific time and place. And that, Shmoopers, makes it realism.
If Charles Dickens were writing today, he'd … probably be writing for HBO.
No, but seriously: if he were writing today (and in the U.S.), Great Expectations would probably be titled something like New York Dreams, because that's essentially Pip's goal: he wants to go off to the big city, make his fame and fortune, and then marry Estella—not to mention, astound his podunk hometown. So, basically, Pip is like every talented misfit in the history of the world.
But one by one, Great Expectations destroys Pip's great expectations. London isn't a gold-paved paradise; it's a filthy rat-hole. His fortune isn't from Miss Havisham; it's from Magwitch. He's not going to become a rich gentleman; he's going to become a hardworking shipping agent. Great expectations may literally refer to the fortune he expects to inherit—"expectations" was nineteenth-century code for "I'm going to inherit money when Grandpa dies"—but they're also every hope he ever had.
We hate to break it to you dreamers, this is kind of just what life is for most people. At some point, most of us realize that we're just going to live life like the vast majority of people: "working hard for a sufficient living" (59.35), no matter which ending you get.
Brace yourselves: there are TWO different endings to Great Expectations. We know, we know. See, Dickens originally wrote a kind of downer of an ending, the kind that would have premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where his protagonist doesn't get the girl in the end. Pip and Estella reunite after many years, and Estella isn't the bright star she once was. She was married to an abusive husband who died, and now she's married to a poor doctor. Pip isn't jonesingfor her anymore. They part peacefully, but as strangers. The end.
One of Dickens' friends—who, exactly, scholars can't decide, but definitely a fellow writer—gently suggested that maybe the public would like a different kind of ending: the kind that would premier in the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Because Great Expectations was serialized, Dickens was writing his "episodes" several weeks in advance. He took his friend's advice and rewrote his ending in a way that suggests that Pip and Estella will be together, but he did it in a way that preserves the original ending's melancholy and uncertainty.
Pip returns to Satis House to find that it has been torn down, but on the horizon he sees a figure that looks a lot like Estella. In fact, it is Estella: out of the rubble comes new love. It's a very phoenix-like moment.
But the mists also come. Pip says, "I saw no shadow of another parting from her" (59.46), and we are led to believe that Pip and Estella live happily ever after. But notice that they're not exactly riding off into the sunset? Pip still mentions it in the negative—not light, just "no shadow." We like to think that in appeasing the masses with this second ending, Dickens infused it with the subterranean undercurrent of another meaning altogether.
Okay, before we get into the details, let's zoom out:
Great Expectations takes place in 19th century England. Pip is born in the early 1800s, and our narrator is telling his story in 1860. This is a busy time for England, seeing the momentum of the Industrial Revolution (and the invention of things like the steam engine and light bulb) as well as the abolishment of slavery in the British colonies in 1834. London is a thriving metropolis, and England is a powerful, wealthy, global giant. But Dickens' depiction of London, however, doesn't exactly fall in line with this notion of England as all-powerful, rich, and healthy.
Our first hint comes from Pip himself. When he arrives, he says:
We Britons had at that time particularly settled that it was treasonable to doubt our having and our being the best of everything: otherwise, while I was scared by the immensity of London, I think I might have had some faint doubts whether it was not rather ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty. (20.2)
Not a great beginning, right? And one of the first things he sees is the public yard where criminals are whipped, punished, or hanged for anyone to see. In fact, his first tour guide tells him to come back in a few days so that he can watch the execution of four men. Mr. Jaggers' office is right next to Newgate Prison, and Pip encounters a long line of criminals and their families waiting to speak to Mr. Jaggers. He also accompanies Mr. Wemmick at one time on an excursion into the prison where he checks in on Jaggers' clients. Crime and reminders of crime are all around Pip.
When Pip arrives at his new bungalow, Barnard's Inn, he's shocked by how dark, dirty, and rundown the place is. Mr. Wemmick assumes Pip's shock is happiness at finding an inn that resembles the country life (due to all of the grime), but in Pip's mind, the Blue Boar (his hometown inn) is like a palace by comparison:
A frowzy mourning of soot and smoke attired this forlorn creation of Barnard, and it had strewn ashes on its head, and was undergoing penance and humiliation as a mere dust-hole. Thus far my sense of sight; while dry rot and wet rot and all the silent rots that rot in neglected roof and cellar,—rot of rat and mouse and bug and coaching-stables near at hand besides [...] (21.21)
Rather than being a gentlemanly paradise, London is gross, dirty, and criminal. But it's also full of life: the hilariously bad play that Mr. Wopsle is in, Wemmick's funny little castle, and the wharfs and ships that eventually give Pip a career. Dickens loved London and wrote about it a lot: he's not saying that it's the big bad city, but he's definitely enjoying crushing Pip's great expectations.
It's not like the country is all that, either. Pip's hometown is in Kent, twenty miles from the ocean and sees the Thames river flow through it and widen on its way to the ocean. But this isn't a Thomas Kinkade painting. Thanks to its proximity to the ocean, it's always full of two things: mists, and escaped criminals. Cozy.
Within Kent, Dickens gives us a range of settings—the Three Jolly Bargeman pub, the creepy cemetery, the cozy forge, and, of course, Satis House. Satis House is "uptown," beyond the village, in the part of town where the affluent live. It may be huge, but it's also ruined and decaying, with boarded up windows and barred doors. Still, Satis House is enough to make Pip yearn for the life of wealth and privilege it represents. It's the only affluent setting that we see, so it sort of stands in for the whole rich-and-famous lifestyle.
In Great Expectations, social position and class are closely tied to where and how you live. So, what does it say that the warmest, coziest, most Shmoop-endorsed places are the castle and Joe's house?
Dickens might be long, but (no matter what your English teacher says) he's not exactly high culture. He was a popular novelist—not exactly Stephenie Meyer, more like Stephen King—and he's meant to be read. Back in the day before YouTube, even little kids would read him. You might run into some unfamiliar words, but nothing worse than "rimy" (1).
But that doesn't mean you can read it while watching the latest Real Housewives marathon. Dickens has Deep Thoughts, like this one:
Whenever I watched the vessels standing out to sea with their white sails spread, I somehow thought of Miss Havisham and Estella; and whenever the light struck aslant, afar off, upon a cloud or sail or green hill-side or water-line, it was just the same. Miss Havisham and Estella and the strange house and the strange life appeared to have something to do with everything that was picturesque. (15.4)
The language here is straightforward, but the idea? Well, let's just say that we're still trying to figure out what boats have to do with Miss Havisham.
Reading Great Expectations is like driving down the freeway, spotting some neat roadside attraction, taking the exit, getting out to explore the cute little town, and then suddenly realizing that you're TWENTY MILES AWAY from where you should be. You've wandered too far. You're lost. It's getting dark. And the gas station is closed.
In other words, Dickens loves detail, and he loves spinning elegant language, and sometimes those two loves meet to create whole new worlds within his overarching story. Take a look at the excerpt below:
The Queen of Denmark, a very buxom lady, though no doubt historically brazen, was considered by the public to have too much brass about her; her chin being attached to her diadem by a broad band of that metal (as if she had a gorgeous toothache), her waist being encircled by another, and each of her arms by another, so that she was openly mentioned as "the kettledrum." (31.2)
Dickens is describing one of the actresses in Mr. Wopsle's Hamlet, but we totally forgive you for not figuring that out. That's one WHOLE sentence, friends. Did you see the punctuation that lives in there? And how amazing is the phrase, "gorgeous toothache"? Reading Dickens wading through miles of language and then suddenly stumbling upon a pearl: a piece of juicy gossip, a beautiful speech, a revelation of truth. And the fact that you waded through that language and hiked through the foliage of words makes your discovery all the sweeter and more profound.
You will need a flashlight when visiting the world of Great Expectations. The novel is pretty much glued together by darkness. Even Pip’s apartment in London looks like it is weeping soot whenever it rains. Count Dracula would feel right at home nestled on the marshes or winding his way through the gloomy London streets.
Dickens creates a universe of darkness, such that whenever there is any light (whether from the sun or from some other artificial source), we sit up right away and pay attention. On the marshes, Joe’s forge is like a beacon of warmth and light that bleeds out onto the marshes. It almost reminds us of a lighthouse, serving to guide Pip along. Similarly, Miss Havisham’s house is completely dark inside, and the only way Pip gets around is by following the candle-bearing Estella. There are other moments when little points of light feature largely. The night Magwitch comes to town, Pip sees little twinkly lights outside of his window that are the city’s lamps being shaken by the storm, as though foreshadowing trouble.
Estella, whose name means "star," is often described as bright and radiant. This confuses us, because we usually associate light with the good and darkness with the bad, and Estella isn’t always the most positive influence Pip’s life. Something tells us that this novel seeks to shake up those notions and associations that we instantly think of when we see images of darkness and light. The constant contrast between the two also emphasizes the Gothic quality of the novel and helps create a visual imprint on our brains. Gothic works and gothic images always create a (brace yourself for this ten million dollar word) chiaroscuro (we rule), setting the mood and creating an atmosphere of truth-seeking.
Mists, mists, mists. There is a lot of mist in this novel, namely on the marshes of Pip’s hometown. Mists are good for 1) getting things wet and 2) making it very difficult to see things. The mists are around when Pip meets the convict in the cemetery, they show up when Pip leaves town, they are present the night that Orlick tries to kill Pip, and they rise when Pip and Estella reunite again at the (rewritten) end of the novel. After Mrs. Joe’s funeral, Pip promises Biddy that he will return, but she doesn’t believe him. This cuts Pip deep, and he looks to the mists for help and direction, "once more, the mists were rising as I walked away. If they disclosed to me, as I suspect they did, that I should never come back, and that Biddy was quite right, all I can say is—they were quite right, too" (2.35.61). In this moment, Pip uses the mist as he would an eight ball or a fortune teller; they reveal truths rather than obscure them. So the mists are pretty dang multi-dimensional. They can obstruct, and they can reveal. No matter what, they are everywhere in the novel.
So, we know that there is a lot of criminality in our novel (Check out the "Themes" section), and wherever there are crimes, there are criminals; and wherever there are criminals, there are jails; and wherever there are jails, there are locks. Wherever there are locks, there are keys.
We get a tour of Newgate prison in London and we see where the prisoners are kept. Immediately following this encounter, Estella arrives in town and Pip wonders at the sharp contrast she forms against the base world of the jail. But we kind of think of Estella as a prison guard herself, or at least a gatekeeper. Remember when Pip was little and Estella would always let him in and out of Miss Havisham’s front gate? She kept the keys then too. As they grow up, Estella keeps the keys to her heart (though she would argue she didn’t have such a thing) from everyone.
Locks and keys make us think of things that are secret and hidden as well as things that are inaccessible. And what luck – we are exposed to a ton of mysteries in this novel and "high society" (as Pip perceives it) is wholly inaccessible to him. Locks and keys emphasize both social immobility (check out "Themes: Society and Class") and the secrets that lie at the heart of this novel.
How to describe Miss Havisham’s garden in ten words or less? How about DEAD? Everything in it is either dead or deformed. The trees, vegetables, flowers, and pathways are all decaying. Whenever there’s garden in literature, however, we put on our biblical sunglasses, because gardens feature largely in the Bible. Specifically, the Garden of Eden features largely in the Bible. The fact that this particular garden is ruined suggests that innocence has been lost, that Pip has eaten the apple, and that knowledge and corruption have ensued. Miss Havisham’s garden and mansion are both symbols of the wealth and privilege of high society. But if they are decaying and rotten, what does that say about high society?
There are lots of creepy crawlies throughout Great Expectations. You may have noticed the spider community that lives in the twenty-five year old wedding cake in Miss Havisham’s dining room. Oh yes indeed. There are also beetles by the fire, and mice behind the walls. If Miss Havisham has transformed her house into a tomb, with its boarded up windows and lack of sunlight, then we can only guess (oh, yes) that these creatures are indicative of the decomposition that accompanies death. Yummy! Pay attention to other moments where bugs feature largely. Remember the night Pip spends at the motel in Covent Garden? Need we say more?
Whenever Pip kisses Estella’s cheek (and there are two occasions by our calculations), said cheek feels like that of statue. What are statues? They are representations of humans, animals, or events, and they are usually made out of stone or other cold materials. When we hear the word "statue," we think of kings, queens, smoothness, quiet, and rigidity. Estella, though human, tells Pip that she doesn’t have a heart, and in this way, her statue-ness is emphasized. Her statue-y ways are complicated by the presence of two other statues in the novel – the casts in Jaggers’ office.
Jaggers' casts (more bust-like than statue, but you catch our drift) were created on the faces of two men after they had been publicly executed. Their agony and raw, human emotion are captured and preserved in the casts. So one kind of statue indicates the lack of humanness within, and the other indicates the humanness within. In any case, there seems to be a theme of inaccessibility or imprisonment embodied by these statue/bust references. And we know all about prison. Estella’s statue-y way is complicated when, at the very end of the book, we find she has melted into a warm, emotional woman.
Great Expectations Forecast: Monday – rainy and dark. Tuesday – rainy and windy. Wednesday – rainy and rainy. Thursday – stormy. Friday – misty (thick fog warning). Saturday – heavy mist with light showers. Sunday – windy. The weather in Great Expectations does wonders in the realm of creating a certain mood, mainly a gloomy one. We rarely see the sun, and when we do, we don’t quite know what to do with ourselves. What’s more, whenever there happens to be severe weather, something always happens. For example, the night Magwitch arrives on Pip’s doorstep, there’s a HUGE storm outside that only gets worse in the morning. When Pip first meets the convict in the graveyard, the mists are so thick that Pip can barely see his hands. It seems to us that weather is very closely tied to plot, and that it has something to do with big moments in Pip’s life.
Shadows always abound when Estella is around. Whoa. We’re poets, and we didn’t know it. Pip often notices a shadow passing across Estella’s face. When she arrives in London for the first time, Pip asks, "what was the nameless shadow which again in that one instant had passed?" (2.32.47), and when Pip and Estella are reunited in the (rewritten) end of the novel, Pip sees "no shadow of another parting from her" (3.59.46), which is a good thing, right? The negative nature of the sentence ("I saw no shadow"), while telling us that Pip and Estella live happily ever after, serves to emphasize the shadow part more than the happily ever after part. In this way, Estella remains kind of shadowy to us. Shadows also remind us of things like the Wicked Witch of the East and other evil things. Pip does not protect us from the shadows in his story, but he exposes them in full. Pip understands humans to be composed of darkness and light, shadows and sun. He realizes that Miss Havisham did not intend to hurt those around her, but that she was too overwhelmed with pain. Miss Havisham finances Herbert’s career, and, thus, Pip’s career. In this way, she is both good and bad. Shadows in this remind us of the truths that are hidden and of the incredibly complex nature of humans.
This is no diary, folks. It's a memoir. It's Pip recalling his whole life's story at once. By our calculations, Pip the narrator is about 57 when he tells this story—which means that we're always in the position of knowing just a little more than Pip-the-boy does. Let's look at just one passage from the very beginning:
At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip. (1.3)
What we love about this is that Pip manages to both tell us the story from his grown-up, all-knowing adult perspective (talking about himself in the third person), but also convey the real feeling of being a terrified, shivering 6-year-old. Hey, it's not a classic for nothing.
Booker says that when we first meet our protagonist in this stage, "they're likely to be in some state which lays them open to a shattering new experience." Hmm…shattering, just like that charming haven Satis House, home to half-dead old ladies and man-eaters.
Pip is just a little six-year old boy when he first goes to see Miss Havisham, but it doesn't take more than five minutes in her house before he starts to question his identity. Even when he's discharged from Miss Havisham's and pushed into a blacksmith's life, all Pip has to do is to look at the sails on the horizon, and he gets giddy. He knows his fortune will come. And, boy, does it.
After his mysterious benefactor appears, Pip is on his own with a bank account, living in one of the greatest cities in the world! Not only that, but he's got a new BFF named Herbert who can show him all over town. Never mind the public yard where criminals are executed, the soot on his apartment window, or the labyrinthine streets. Pip is a gen-u-ine bachelor who can do things like buy his own furniture, go rowing, and order dinner from a coffee house. Someone call Bravo—we've got your next reality show.
It's expensive keeping up with the Finches and their drinking habits. It's expensive gallivanting around London and pretending like you are having a good time. The debts pile up, Pip and Herbert have to cut down on their meals and survive on things like Ramen noodles and Hot Pockets.
And when the benefactor finally shows himself, it's … a convict. Booker says that in this stage, a "shadow begins to intrude, becoming increasingly alarming," and, this shadow is indeed Magwitch the convict. Pip grows more and more anxious about keeping Magwitch under wraps and about plotting to get him out of town and out of England safely.
What follows is a nightmare train that leads to Pip's ultimate destruction:
Nightmare #1: Pip, Herbert, Startop, and Magwitch are quietly (and uneasily) row, row, rowing the boat towards the Germany-bound ship when their boat is overtaken by the authorities. Nightmare #2: Magwitch is taken to prison where he grows very sick. Nightmare #3: His money is confiscated by the government. Nightmare #4: Pip watches him die. Nightmare #5: In the meantime, Herbert goes away to Egypt, and Pip is totally alone. Nightmare #6: Pip falls gravely ill, and there's a new shadow in town whose name is "debt."
Officials come to take Pip to prison for all that debt, but Pip is too sick to go anywhere. He hallucinates that Miss Havisham is stuck in a furnace in the corner of his room. Both literal and figurative nightmares abound.
Booker says that at this stage, the hero will "make the escape from the other world, back to where they started," and that we are all tuned into whether or not our hero has learned anything at all. Pip returns home to the forge, and it is quite clear he's learned humility and the errors of his ways. But… that's not the end of the journey.
After begging Joe and Biddy's forgiveness (and swallowing his shock at seeing the two married), Pip vanishes into the sunset (a.k.a. Cairo). He returns eleven years later to find Joe, Biddy, and their babies, namely Pip, Jr. The real test of whether or not Pip has changed comes when he sees Estella. Though the two endings are very different, they show a similar Pip, a Pip who doesn't so easily sacrifice his identity in the name of a pretty lady he once loved powerfully.
Six-year-old Pip and his blacksmith brother-in-law Joe are the best of friends, chilling on the marshes and keeping each other safe from Mrs. Joe's temper tantrums. They go on field trips together on Sundays, and at night they have a bread and butter eating contest. And then two things happen to set us up for some short- and long-term conflict: Pip meets (and helps) a convict, and Pip gets invited to play at the house of resident rich, crazy lady, Miss Havisham.
At Miss Havisham's, Pip is scorned, mocked, and treated like a dog, what fun! Still, little Pip falls head over heels for Miss Havisham's little "niece," Estella. She makes fun of his "thick boots" and "coarse hands," so Pip obviously decides that he needs to become a gentleman, stat.
Since becoming a gentleman seems pretty unlikely, Pip tries to get comfy in his blacksmithing gig. Just when he realizes he can envision a life on the marshes after all, a mysterious stranger shows up and announces that—surprise!—he has a mysterious benefactor who has left him a fortune in money and land. Now, Pip gets to—nay, has to—move to London to become a gentleman. Sweet!
Well, not really. Turns out, being a gentlemen comes with a lot of problems, although Pip does meet some nice people and reunites with Estella, who is now totally beautiful and also just as scornful as ever.
On his 23rd birthday, Pip's benefactor unexpectedly arrives. It is … the convict! This means that Pip has not been financed and supported by Miss Havisham, and that he's not destined for Estella after all. His fortune is born out of money earned by an exiled convict—who's acting like he's here to stay.
Pip and his friend Herbert concoct a plan to get the convict out of the country—he's got a price on his head—but the night before the boys make their great escape, Pip decides to heed a mysterious and threatening letter that tells him to come to the marshes to learn some valuable tidbits about his benefactor. Obviously, it's a trap, and Pip is nearly hammered to death and thrown in the limekiln by town bully Orlick.
Wrinkle #2 comes when Pip & co. embark on a rowboat adventure to the open water where Pip and Magwitch will stow away on an outbound ship. Just before they reach their goal, villain Compeyson brings the police around and the escape is thwarted.
After Magwitch dies in jail, Pip gets really sick. Joe nurses him back to health, but leaves when Pip recovers. Pip returns home to the marshes to find Joe and Biddy on their wedding day. He begs their forgiveness, eats some cake, and then moves to Egypt.
When Pip returns home after eleven years, he finds a mini Pip sitting by the fire with Joe. Pip becomes enamored with the idea of being Uncle Pip. Pip also sees Estella, and he either (1) marries her, or (2) never sees her again. Either way, there's resolution, and we know that Pip's self-destructive, family-ignoring ways are far behind him.
Pip is innocent and cute and loves Joe ... until he meets Estella (bad) and inherits a fortune (good… except bad).
Pip is a moody, self-conscious teenager who loses his fortune and inherits a convict, whom he now has to smuggle out of the country.
After a beating, a burning, and a broken heart, Pip has finally endured enough abuse to have a happy ending. Sort of. After spending 11 years working in Egypt and atoning for his sins.