This section looks at the key themes of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
Self-Improvement and Ambition
Great Expectations is a bildungsroman (meaning education novel when translated into English), a story of the growth and development of its main character Pip. Pip’s desire for self-improvement is the main source of the novel’s title: because he believes in the prospect of advancement in life, he has “great expectations” about his future. Dickens’ presents Pip as an idealist; whenever he sees something that is better than what he has, he immediately wants it. When he sees Satis House, he yearns to be a rich gentleman; when he thinks of his moral shortcomings, he wishes to be good; when he realises that he cannot read he wants to learn.
Pip’s desire for moral self-improvement can be seen as he is extremely hard on himself when he acts immorally and feels guilty. The feeling of guilt motivates Pip to improve his behaviour in the future. When he leaves for London, he distresses himself about having behaved dreadfully towards Joe and Biddy.
Dickens’ uses Pip desire for social self-improvement as a way of satirising the upper classes as Pips life as a gentleman is no more satisfying and no more moral than his previous life as an apprentice blacksmith. We see Pip develop his desire to raise his social class when he falls in love with Estella and his dreams of becoming a gentleman form the basic plot of the novel.
Pip craving for educational improvement is deeply connected to his social ambition and his longing to marry Estella. Being a gentleman requires a good education. As an uneducated country boy, he would have no hope of social advancement in Victorian England. Pip understands this early in his childhood as he learns to read at Mr Wopsle’s aunt’s school, we also see this later in his life when he takes lessons from Matthew Pocket. It is only through his experiences with Joe, Biddy, and Magwitch that Pip learns that social and educational improvement don’t show someone’s real value and that conscience and affection are to be valued above sophistication and social standing.
Social Class and Social Mobility
In many of his novels Charles Dickens explores the theme of social class and Great Expectations is no exemption. The novel was written after the industrial revolution and the new opportunities created allowed people from ‘lower’ social classes to gain wealth through hard work and enterprise and thus move up to ‘higher’ more wealthy classes.
During the novel Pip interacts with people from different classes from criminals like Magwitch, poor working class people like Joe and Biddy, the middle class like Pumblechook and the very wealthy like Miss Havisham.
The theme of social class is central to the novel’s plot and through his interaction with characters from different backgrounds Pip comes to realise that wealth and class are less important than affection, loyalty, and inner worth, which provides the reader with the novel’s key moral.
Criminal Justice, Crime and Guilt
The theme of crime and guilt is explored by Dickens’ throughout the novel largely through the characters of the convicts and the criminal lawyer Jaggers. Dickens’ uses the character of Magwitch to advise the reader that punitive punishment and failure to deal with poverty and other primary factors that lead people to commit crime only make matters worse and cause criminals to reoffend.
Magwitch’s trial for returning to England highlights the failings of the legal system at the time as his show trial was only going to have one outcome – him being sentenced to death.
Imagery of crime and criminal justice are seen throughout the novel, from Joe mending handcuffs at the smithy to the gallows in London. These become an important symbol of Pip’s inner struggle with his own moral conscience with the justice system.
When Pip first meets Magwitch he is terrified because Magwitch is a convict and Pip feels guilty at helping him as he is afraid of the police, by the end of the novel Pip has discovered Magwitch’s true character which enables him to value Magwitch rather than just see him as a criminal.