Notes on Great Expectations


Thematic Development operates largely on two fronts:


   1. As satire directed at the underside of the “greatest country in the world”


   2. A Christian morality tale of a young man’s fall from Innocence (bk 1) into the egotism of snobbery (bk 2) and thence to redemption through selflessness (bk 3)


Satire - the use of humour to criticize humanity or human institutions for the sake of improving them; the use of ridicule to expose foolish or wicked behavior.


Here are five targets for Dickens’ satire:









1.Legal System:

   A) ruthlessness toward children (see Jaggers’ important speech 444 onward)

   B) unfair treatment of Magwitch over Compeyson

   C) Prisons e.g. Newgate (180) and the hanging of children

   D) corrupt judiciary  - scalping trial tickets (181)


 2.Class Snobbery - upper class snobbery was based on background

                      -Middle class snobbery was based on money

                There is no upper class in the novel, but Mrs P                      would like to be


   A) Mrs. Pocket ( 203, 206, 211-12) - useless life filled with self importance

    B) Pumblechook, the sycophant (169-73) + Trabb + Wopsle

    C) Miss Havisham - a decayed, sham existence

     D) the tea scene: (289) absurdity of Pip playing snob

     E) Drummle/fireplace scene- further absurdity of Pip doing what he’s an amateur at (like Wopsle trying to be an actor- it just won’t fit)

      F) Trabb’s Boy  - 266 etc.  Pip’s secret messenger/ life saver; punctures snobbery

     G) Finches of the Grove

Contrast all of this phoniness to the touching sincerity of Joe on pages 238-244



3.Education  - Mr. Wopsle’s great aunt is a travesty of a school teacher

                      - Joe’s illiteracy


 4.Treatment of Children

      A) Mrs Gargery with “Tickler” and her “apron of pins” (30

      B) Wopsle and Pumblechook’s treatment of Pip at the Christmas dinner (33-36)

      C) legal system’s attitude to chiuldren

       D) Belinda Pocket “raising” her children (203-212)


5.Bourgeois values of the middle class where money dictates one’s values

    - see Pumblechook Trabb Miss Havisham’s relatives, portable property etc







Definition of a gentleman -197

       No man who was not a true gentleman at heart, ever was, since the world began, a true gentleman in varnish can hide the grain of the wood, and the more varnish you put on, the more the grain will express itself. (Matthew Pocket)


  Biddy - (143)  - “I don’t think it would answer...don’t you think you are happier as you are?

  The false gentleman - Pip as a sham - his snobbery and decadent life

        A) Abuse from the servant, Avenger 238

        B) tea scene 238

        C) the waste and lack of purpose and latent misery of                his life  - 296

        D) absurd egotism with Drummle  - 381

        E) Condescension and snobbery even with Joe (305) “I felt I had done a rather great thing in making the request.”

    Note the similarity of Pip and Wopsle - each trying to be what he is not and ending up a fool




Hands motif  - links a variety of important themes

(a motif is a repeated image which gradually, through repetition and strategic placement, takes on added, symbolic significance. It provides emphasis, but can also act as a unifying device, threading together, as in Great Expectations, the major themes of a work of literature.)


    1. Jaggers handwashing in the office ( like Pilate)

    2. Wemmick  - “do you shake hands?” to Pip

    3. Pumblechook  - “may I ...may I?”

    4. Pip’s burned hands - a purging

    5. Estella’s hands vs Molly’s scars

    6. Magwitch and Pip holding hands on his death bed

    7. “brought up by hand” - the cruel double meaning

    8.  “ coarse hands are vulgar appendages   70-1

    9. Magwitch’s hands (340-41) mentioned three times

    10. hand stained with blood 347




The physical description of London suggests that financial improvement and higher social status don’t constitute self-improvement in a moral and spiritual sense. For ex: the setting of Little Britain, Smithfield cattle market, Newgate (all 3 on 180), and Barnard’s Inn 189 are rude disappointments. These these images of London’s decay parallel the mists, marshes, and mud, of Pip’s rural upbringing suggesting that life is neither better nor worse as a gentleman.


Wemmick further reinforces this with his comment to the effect that “life is the same everywhere.” (P180) (What do you think?)


Harmonizing images of decay and deceit pervade in the form of marshes (9-13), wedding cake, Hulks, Jack at the Inn(dead man’s stockings), gibbets, prisons, mists and so on. The description of the hideout in Covent Garden is a marvellous demonstration of figurative devices in the service of decay.  393-5 All of this can be seen as an indictment of the (idea of) moral decay pervading Victorian  society (so see earlier sheet)

Good and bad characters seem equally distributed and often parallel from the country to the city:


     Bad ones:            Marsh                                   London

                              Orlick                                     Drummle

                              Mrs Joe                                 MrsPocket

                              Pumblechook                        Mrs Coiler


     Good ones         Joe                              Matthew Pocket

                              Biddy                        Wemmick / Clara


              Also:     Havisham                            Magwitch


Pip’s guilt amplified by the setting: 20-23


(Please note that symbolism moves from an image to an abstraction. It makes no sense to say that Mrs. Joe’s beating of Pip symbolizes the mistreatment of children in the Victorian, but much sense to say her apron with pins does.)











Dickens’ Idea of Money in Gr. Ex.


        1. Money =(not) happiness

        2. Money is destructive when it comes before people                and human values

        3. Money must be earned; unearned money leads to                 misery, falseness and sham

               Ex: a) Havisham and the rot of human values                              and growth of parasitism

                      b) Finches and Drummle

                      c) Compeyson and Magwitch unequal                            before the law

                      d) Jaggers and Wemmick cultivating


                      e)Phoniness of worshipping money (Trabb

                          Pumblechook Wopsle

         4. Money revealing irony of the true benefactors (a               criminal’s money  supports Pip; Joe pays the debts)

(But, note: Dickens was a man who rose from poverty to great wealth. He would never support the falsely quoted notion that money is the root of all evil, nor the correct version that the pursuit of money is either.)









Irony abounds:


1. Title  - losing the expectations brings the happiness - a seminal idea of the book

2.  Joe, poor embarrassing Joe, rescues Pip financially

3. Estella, the ultimate snob, has Magwitch and Molly for parents

4. Matthew Pocket writes books on child rearing

5. Trabb’s Boy is Pip’s “life saver”

6. Pip tries to “pay back” Magwitch with the 2 pound        notes

7. Servants enslave Pip the gentleman




Point of View:

There is a double point of view:

         1) Pip creates the sense of the person experiencing events as they happen from childhood to maturity

         2) Pip also speaks as the highly self-critical observer of his own fall looking back on his own failings


  - this “double narration” helps Pip be a figure of sympathy as the sense of wisdom earned, remorse felt, and redemption arrived at continually reassure us that Pip, even at his lowest moments, is a good guy.