Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1860−1861)

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860−1861) was a commercial serialised novel intended to entertain a mass audience while exploring the writer’s principal concerns regarding the moral problems and contradictions that he observed in early capitalist England.  The story centres on the coming of age of Pip, a likeable, sensitive, morally decent and compassionate individual who is from a humble family but who becomes the beneficiary of a mysterious anonymous benefactor who had decided to make Pip into a gentleman and generously finance this transformation.  This process initially spoils Pip until his true decency comes out in the end when his benefactor is revealed and Pip is willing to sacrifice whatever he has to protect him from danger.  This is the story of Pip’s getting of wisdom.  Readers follow Pip’s journey as he follows, then loses, and then rediscovers his moral compass. 

Dickens was a vocal social critic of the cruelties and injustices he regarded as endemic to his contemporary society.  In response, he advocated not a radical restructuring of the socio-economic system (as a Marxist would) but rather that individuals should treat each other with greater kindness and compassion, according to what were commonly regarded as Christian virtues.  These qualities would bring greater happiness to both those who receive and those who dispense this kindness and compassion.  In addition, if each individual was kinder and showed compassion to those whom they encountered a better society would be the ultimate result. 

The portrait of English society in Great Expectations is generally bleak, sadly lacking in the expression of Christian virtues with the exception of a few notable individuals.  Meanwhile unnecessary cruelties and injustices are too often in evidence. In the England represented by Dickens, morally decent and morally unjust individuals seem to be distributed throughout all levels of society.  However, Dickens seems to have formed the opinion that too many people in the dominant classes, the aristocrats and gentry (which includes those who can be addressed as a gentlemen or as a lady) are frequently lacking in noble virtues. 

Money and class are not synonymous with moral decency, and some of members of the dominant classes are decidedly corrupt.  Indeed, money and social rank are shown to corrupt Pip for a while, since, at one stage, he becomes a snob, shunning Joe Gargery, the hand that once fed him, for being embarrassingly common.  But the lower classes are not by definition virtuous either, as is the case with Joe’s mean-spirited first wife Mrs Joe.  Importantly, Pip is shown to be helpful towards his roommate and friend Herbert Pocket who is, in turn, helpful towards Pip, which is, for Dickens, how people should behave towards each other. 

While virtue seems to be in too short supply at all levels of society, the novel conveys the view that the finest expressions of virtue can crop up in unexpected places and this can take one by surprise.  This is made evident when Pip discovers that his benefactor was from the lowest rungs of society, the scary escaped convict Magwitch whom Pip briefly helped as child who, after being emancipated, became a successful grazier in the colony of New South Wales.  Meanwhile, decency can also be expressed by individuals who are higher up the social scale, notably the lawyer, Mr Jaggers, who did his best to help both the convict Magwitch and the convict’s daughter, Estella who had no one to care for her so he found her a decent home. 

Dickens also had much to say about the power of love.  Miss Havesham, the reclusive wealthy woman whom Pip initially mistakenly believed to be his benefactor, was presented as a casualty of love.  Jilted on what was to be her wedding day, her love brought her mental illness and a bitter twisted desire to take revenge on the male gender.  Having adopted Estella, she trains her to be the agent of her revenge by using her beauty to break men’s hearts.  Meanwhile the novel also celebrates the true love that Pip has for Estella. Initially Pip’s infatuation with Estella is a corrupting influence as he seeks to rise socially to win her approval, despite her frequent warnings and rejections.  But when Estella is eventually scandalously revealed to be the daughter of a lowly convict, Pip’s love for Estella is undaunted and they find happiness, at last.  For Estella, Pip’s love is redeeming.  For Pip, true love is shown to win in the end. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Great Expectations meaning, Great Expectations themes, Great Expectations analysis, Great Expectations notes