Great Expectations at a Glance


Charles Dickens's Great Expectations tells the story of Pip, an English orphan who rises to wealth, deserts his true friends, and becomes humbled by his own arrogance. It also introduces one of the more colorful characters in literature: Miss Havisham. Charles Dickens set Great Expectations during the time that England was becoming a wealthy world power. Machines were making factories more productive, yet people lived in awful conditions, and such themes carry into the story.

Written by: Charles Dickens

Type of Work: serialized story turned novel

Genres: bildungsroman; Victorian Literature; social commentary

First Published: December 1860-April 1861 in weekly installments to a magazine; July 1861 as a novel in 3 volumes; November 1862 as a whole novel

Setting: Early 1800s; London, England, and around the marshes of Kent

Main Characters: Pip; Joe Gargery; Magwitch; Mrs. Joe; Miss Havisham; Estella; Jaggers and Wemmick

Major Thematic Topics: good versus evil; moral redemption from sin; wealth and its equal power to help or corrupt; personal responsibility; awareness and acceptance of consequences from one's choices; abandonment; guilt; shame; desire; secrecy; gratitude; ambition; obsession/emotional manipulation versus real love; class structure and social rules; snobbery; child exploitation; the corruption and problems of the educational and legal systems; the need for prison reform; religious attitudes of the time; the effect of the increasing trade and industrialization on people's lives; the Victorian work ethic (or lack thereof)

Motifs: sense of location; criminals; social expectations

Major Symbols: Miss Havisham's house; money

Movie Versions: Great Expectations (1946); Great Expectations (1999)

The three most important aspects of Great Expectations:

  • Great Expectations is a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel. Other examples of this form include Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Great Expectations is unusual in that its main character, Pip, is often hard to sympathize with because of his snobbery and the resulting bad behavior he exhibits toward some of the other characters, like Joe Gargery.
  • Like much of Charles Dickens's work, Great Expectations was first published in a popular magazine, in regular installments of a few chapters each. Many of the novel's chapters end with a lack of dramatic resolution, which was intended to encourage readers to buy the next installment.
  • Over the years since the novel's publication, many critics have objected to its happy ending, with its implication that Pip and Estella will marry; these critics have said that such a conclusion is inconsistent with the characters as we have come to know them. In fact, Dickens originally wrote an ending in which Pip and Estella meet and then part forever after a few conciliatory words.