Study Guide

Great Expectations Themes

  • Society and Class

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    Pip desperately wants to be part of the cool crowd, but he doesn't have the right shoes, the right slang, or the right parents. Admit it: we've all been there. (Well, okay, maybe a few of you haven't, but you were probably the ones teasing Shmoop for reading too much in middle school, so the less said about that the better.) In Great Expectations, being a "gentleman" is basically equivalent to being part of the popular crowd. Just like a Mean Girls social climber, Pip learns that being well-liked is more about how you act than how you look. And no matter what you do, you won't be good enough for the head cheerleader—unless you get your author to rewrite your ending.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. What is "society" in Great Expectations, and where do we see it find it? What's the difference between the village society and the kind of "society" that Estella is going to be a part of? That Pip wants to be part of?
    2. How is "class" defined in the world of this novel, and how are we as readers introduced to the idea of class?
    3. What is the social hierarchy of the characters in this novel? Do any characters end up moving around in the hierarchy?
    4. Why does Biddy warn Pip against wanting to become a gentleman? Is she right to do so? Is she really jealous of Pip?

    Chew on This

    Identity has more to do with choice than birth in Dickens' Great Expectations.

    Pip fails as a fortunate orphan but succeeds as a self-made man.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

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    Dreams, hopes, plans … and Great Expectations. Fun fact about "expectations": having "expectations" in the nineteenth century specifically meant that you expected to inherit some money after the death of a family member—just like all of Miss Havisham's annoying relatives have. But they're not the only ones with plans. Pip wants to become a gentleman and marry Estella; Miss Havisham wants to use Estella to revenge herself on men; Herbert Pocket wants to become rich; and even Joe wants Pip to grow up and work at the forge with him. One by one, every single one of these expectations fails. But does that mean we shouldn't hope or plan? Maybe not. The only person who doesn't seem to have a dream is Estella—and we wouldn't wish her life on anyone.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. Who has dreams, hopes, and plans in this novel and what are these dreams, hopes, and plans? How do people's dreams reflect their situation in life, or characters?
    2. Do Pip's dreams change? What does he want at the end of the novel, or does he not want anything at all? Does it change if you consider the novel's original ending?
    3. What happens to everyone's expectations? Does anyone have his or her great expectations fulfilled?

    Chew on This

    Pip's great expectations are never fulfilled, but what he gets is even better.

    The marshes represent a dream world to Pip. Even if he'd never met Miss Havisham, that world would have ended as he grew up.

  • Wealth

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    All you need is love, but in Great Expectations love doesn't get you far without a little money. To Pip, there's no question that Estella might love him as a poor blacksmith's boy: he has to make his fortune (or have a fortune made for him). From the outside, though, all this money stuff doesn't look too appealing. Miss Havisham had a fortune, and still appears to have enough of it to set Estella up in style, but she's miserable—and all the people who want her money are miserable too. Meanwhile, the poor blacksmith seems to have plenty of money to settle Pip's debts, and Pip and Herbert are happy making a "sufficient living" by working hard. Is Dickens saying that the only wealth worth having is the money you earn yourself?

    Questions About Wealth

    1. What does Wemmick mean by "portable property," and why is he so obsessed with it? What other forms of property do we see in the novel?
    2. What is Joe's relationship to money? Does he ever seem to want or need it? What would he do with money if he had it?
    3. How does Magwitch make his money? And how does he spend it?
    4. Why does Pip want money?

    Chew on This

    Dignity has nothing to do with material possessions in Great Expectations and, in fact, wealth often traps Dickens' characters into making less noble decisions.

    Money combats society and promises characters social mobility, or the ability to rise in society.

  • Friendship

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    Pip doesn't deserve his friends. There. We said it. Joe, Biddy, and Herbert—not to mention Magwitch—all show Pip loyalty that he not only doesn't deserve, but that he seems to actively not deserve. He patronizes, rejects, and disowns his friends, and yet they still keep coming back for more. Why? Do they see and sympathize with the scared little boy that Pip used to be, or does he have awesome character traits that we don't see? Either way, Great Expectations suggests that, even if you don't get the love of your life, friends are a pretty good substitute.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. When is the word "friendship" or "friend" used and who uses these words?
    2. Does Pip value his friendships? Why or why not? Does he value different friendships differently?
    3. Who are Pip's friends? Can we tell why they're friends? What does it say about his and Herbert's friendship that it starts with a fight?
    4. How is friendship different or similar to love in this novel? What's the relationship between the two emotions?

    Chew on This

    In Great Expectations, friendship is a more powerful emotion than love.

    Dickens suggests that true friends can see the good inside of you even when you're acting like a butthead.

  • Love

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    Ugh, Pip. Pip is totally that friend of yours who will not shut up about his crush. He spends hours analyzing her last text message, changes his IM status to "available" as soon as she logs on, and endlessly scours her Facebook photos to speculate if she's dating anyone. But is this really love? He's caught up in that state where your crush is some unattainable object, so he never gets a chance to find out that Estella has weird habits and stinky feet like anyone else. Meanwhile, Clara and Herbert, not to mention Joe and Biddy, seem to have much less lofty ideas about love. So, who ends up happier? Is it better to love an unattainable but perfect object, or settle down with an imperfect but real partner? We're pretty sure we know what Great Expectations thinks.

    Questions About Love

    1. Does Pip's sister love him? Does she love her husband? Or is she just as incapable of love as Estella is?
    2. Does Miss Havisham's heartbreak justify her outlook on life? Does she love Estella?
    3. Okay, honestly: what does love even mean in this novel? Is it a feeling, or is it a way of acting?
    4. When do we see people really loving one another? What's the relationship between love and gratitude? Does love need to be reciprocal?

    Chew on This

    Love is not blind in Great Expectations, but it is blinding.

    In Great Expectations, there's no such thing as love without some kind of loss.

  • Innocence

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    Children are our future, right? Well, someone needs to tell the adults of Great Expectations, because, for the most part, they seem to see children as little savages who need to be beaten, abused, and maltreated into submission. From Mrs. Joe's Tickler to the casual cruelty of Mr. Pumblechook and his multiplication tables to the outright emotional abuse of Miss Havisham, innocence doesn't stand a chance. Or does it? Does Pip manage to stay innocent and pure in spite of his childhood?

    Questions About Innocence

    1. When are the words "innocence" and "innocent" used in this novel? Who is innocent?
    2. When, if ever, does Pip lose his innocence? Is there a specific moment, or does it happen gradually—or over and over again?
    3. Why does Pip care what Estella says and why does he kick the garden wall after his first visit to Satis House?
    4. Innocence is often associated with childhood. Who are the children in this novel, and what are they like?

    Chew on This

    Neither Pip nor Estella is ever innocent, because their childhoods are abusive in different ways.

    When Pip is introduced to "society" as defined by Miss Havisham, his innocence is lost.

  • Lies and Deceit

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    Great Expectations has more secrets than a season of Pretty Little Liars. From the source of his fortune to the mystery of Estella's parentage—not to mention all the minor secrets, like Wemmick's secret second self or the fate of the pork-pie—the novel is full of people lying, covering up their tracks, and misdirecting the truth. Is honestly always the best policy? Or do some of these lies end up working for good?

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Do lies influence Pip's innocence or loss of innocence? Do you think he wishes he'd never found out the source of his fortune?
    2. Why doesn't Wemmick want to show Jaggers his Walworth side? Is this a harmless deceit, or should Wemmick really 'fess up?
    3. Are any lies good in this novel? Can deceit ever be justified?

    Chew on This

    Jaggers is the only consistently honest character in Great Expectations, even if he is a lawyer.

    By deceiving himself, Pip brings about his own ruin.

  • Time

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    If we could turn back time … we'd tell Pip to refuse to enter Miss Havisham's garden. But we can't. So, instead, we'll just point out that Great Expectations is, more than anything, a novel about the passage of time. (Is it a coincidence that Dickens wrote it squarely in the middle of his middle age, at age 48?) Miss Havisham may stop the clocks, but she can't stop time: Pip may not be stuck in a tattered wedding dress, but he—like all of us—is still worn down by the passage of years.

    Questions About Time

    1. Why do you think Miss Havisham stops her clocks at the exact moment she receives the letter from Compeyson?
    2. How many years does this novel span in Pip's life? How does the novel's chronology affect our understanding of time?
    3. What is the significance, if any, of the church bells ringing out the hour the night of Magwitch's arrival in London?
    4. When does time slow down and when does it speed up in this novel, or does it plod along at a consistent pace? What is the effect of this pacing? What might Dickens be saying about novelistic plotting in relation to the way we remember our lives?

    Chew on This

    Miss Havisham and Pip view time in similar ways; she's trapped in the past, while he tries to escape to his future.

    Time is a destructive force in Great Expectations. It never brings anything good.

  • Contrasting Regions

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    Pip is just a small town boy wandering up and down the boulevard—and, like a lot of small-town boys (or girls), he finds that big city life isn't all it's cracked up to be. And, like those small-town boys, he finds that you can't go home again, because his time in the city has changed him for good. Not that it's much different at home: marsh country may be worlds away from London, but it's full of corruption and decay just like London's stinking's alleys. Great Expectations sets London and Kent against each other, and then asks us to consider what, exactly, is so different about these regions anyway.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions

    1. Why does Wemmick love his castle so much? What might Dickens be saying about the Victorian idea of separate spheres—is he criticizing it? Poking gentle fun at it? Approving of it?
    2. How is Pip's hometown different from London? How is it similar? How does visiting London change the way Pip sees Kent?
    3. Where is Pip happiest?

    Chew on This

    By using contrasting regions, Dickens explores the adolescent struggles that most people feel.

    The marshes mirror Pip's mental landscape; it's more important as a mental setting than a physical setting.

  • Criminality

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    Magwitch is more of a thug busting up a pawn shop than a smooth criminal: that role is left to the gentleman-like Compeyson. The novel is full of criminals, from Orlick to Magwitch to Molly to Arthur Havisham—so many, in fact, that we have to ask if criminals are really a "class" in the way that a lot of nineteenth-century people thought, or if people become criminals out of misfortune and harsh upbringings. Are these miscreants born bad, or are they driven to crime by neglect and forced back to it by an unjust legal system?

    Questions About Criminality

    1. Who are the criminals in this novel? Are all criminals breaking the law? Or do some people engage in criminal activity without breaking the law?
    2. What role does the law play in notions of right and wrong in Great Expectations?
    3. Why are Jaggers and Wemmick so popular at Newgate Prison and among Londoners?

    Chew on This

    Pip's first encounter with Magwitch prevents his ultimate happiness: he would eventually have become happy with his life on the marshes if Magwitch hadn't started funding him.

    In Great Expectations, law and justice have more to do with appearance than with action.