Great Expectations has long been my least favorite of Dickens’ more substantial novels, because I dislike the character of Pip. However, upon my re-reading it after many years, I’ve changed my opinion, because only in this novel does the main character undergo a complete change of his assumptions and values.
The novel begins with Pip as a young boy growing up in a vast and desolate wasteland of marshes. He is cared for by his ambitious and abusive older sister and kindly brother-in-law Joe Gargery. In the opening scene he is in the cemetery looking at his parents’ graves when he meets the escaped convict Magwich.
Under Magwich’s instructions, the terrified boy steals some food from his sister’s pantry and a file from his brother-in-law’s smithy. Magwich might have got away, but Pip tells him he met another convict on the way, so Magwich throws away his chances of escape to fight the other man, his sworn enemy.
After this odd and atmospherically fraught incident, Pip is soon engaged to entertain the wealthy but deranged Miss Havisham, an old woman who was long ago deserted at the altar and has lived the rest of her life in her bride clothes with her wedding cake rotting away on the table. Miss Havisham introduces Pip to her beautiful ward Estella, and from that time he is captured. He fails to understand, however, that Miss Havisham has brought Estella up to enthrall and torture men.
Pip grows old enough to apprentice as blacksmith to Joe, but his association with Miss Havisham and Estella has made him discontented with his lot. Soon, though, he is informed that he has “great expectations,” that an unknown benefactor has chosen him for his or her heir, and he is to become a gentleman. Pip and his associates assume his benefactor is Miss Havisham, and Pip thinks that she intends Estella to be his.
With only a few qualms of guilt, Pip throws off his childhood, including his gentle, loving friend Joe, to become a gentleman and chase after the dream of Estella. It is only through a series of misfortunes that he realizes he must learn to look at his life differently than he understood it and comes to appreciate his true friends.
I am not at all sympathetic to Pip’s desires and think the pursuit of Estella is a worthless one, but Dickens’ strengths are in his characterizations and complex plots. In addition to a cast of unusual, lovable, or repellent characters, he does a masterful job of developing Pip into a wiser and more honest man.