Review by Lorilyn Roberts
Pip, the main character in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, writes the story in first person as a middle‑aged man looking back on his life. Pip's parents die when he is young making him an orphan. Pip is "brought up by hand" by his sister, who treats him with scorn. His sister's lack of love, however, is tempered by her husband Joe, a blacksmith. Joe is a simple, uneducated man and Pip's only "friend" during childhood. Pip commiserates with Joe about his sister’s verbal thrashings, trying to make the best of his unhappy upbringing.
Early in the story, Pip has an encounter with a convict in the cemetery among the marshes near his home. Unbeknownst to him, this man would be the source for his “Great Expectations” later in life.
One day Pip is invited to the home of Ms. Havisham. Ms. Havisham is a single, eccentric, old woman who stopped living in the real world many years earlier when she was spurned by her lover on her wedding day.
Ms. Havisham has adopted the beautiful Estella, and from the moment Pip meets her, he is infatuated with her beauty. Estella represents wealth, education, success, and opportunity—things Pip values but thinks he will never have.
Dissatisfaction within himself grows as he wants to be more in life than a partner with Joe in the forge. Pip becomes unhappy not only with himself, but also with Joe, who represents what he does not want to be—uneducated and simple. Failing to appreciate Joe's moral character, Pip's world view begins to change as he sees education as something to be attained—the sure way out of his wretched life and the means by which he could woo the object of his unmerited affections, Estella.
Pip's life changes dramatically when he is visited by a well‑respected and fiercely‑admired lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, who brings him an unusual message. Mr. Jaggers tells Pip he is to receive “Great Expectations,” but the benefactor is to remain anonymous until and only if they choose to reveal their identity. Pip mistakenly assumes the benefactor is Ms. Havisham, and the manipulating, self‑serving woman does nothing to dissuade him from his incorrect assumptions.
The story takes Pip to
where he lives a
life of excess and discards many virtues from his childhood. He no longer wants
anything to do with Joe and believes his future course has been immutably set—that
he is to marry the beautiful Estella. He shares his indulgences with his new
friend, Herbert, whose acquaintance he had made years earlier at Ms. Havisham's
place. The two of them rack up excessive debt as Pip sees himself as "a
man in waiting" for all his fortunes to come to pass. London
Things are not what they seem, however. It is eventually revealed that the benefactor is not Ms. Havisham but the convict, Mr. Magwitch, whom Pip had met in the cemetery many years earlier when he was a young, impressionable boy.
Pip is confronted face‑to‑face with the despised convict, hounded by the remembrances of him torturing him in the cemetery, dreams that lingered, causing him much consternation. But now he has to accept the undeniable truth that his turn of fortune is not because of Ms. Havisham's provision, but the despicable convict's desire to make him a gentleman. The convict wants his life to be redeemed for something good and chooses Pip to be that vehicle.
Through a series of events, Pip acknowledges the inexcusable way he has treated Joe and wants to make amends. Before he can accomplish this, however, other happenings complicate his life. The convict, now in
needs Pip's protection. Pip must make a way for Magwitch to leave England
without being discovered. England
While Pip hides him with a trusted friend, Pip comes to realize that the convict he had earlier despised has more redemptive qualities than Pip has within himself. As he makes provision for the convict’s escape, Pip sees Magwitch change for the better, and in so doing, Pip also changes. Instead of hating the convict, Pip grows to love him. The self‑centeredness of Pip's indulgences is replaced with care, not only for the convict, but in growing degrees, for others.
In the process of trying to escape, the convict is attacked by his long-time archrival and enemy. As a result, Magwitch is severely injured, discovered by the authorities, put on trial and convicted, but dies from his injuries before his death sentence can be carried out. Magwitch’s estate is turned over to the authorities to make restitution for past wrongs. Pip is left penniless and obligingly accepts that his Great Expectations and source of income have dissipated into nothing. Meanwhile, Estella marries someone else—a man whom Pip despises.
A few years earlier, Pip had secretly made arrangements for his friend Herbert to have a small expectation out of his “Great Expectations,” amounting to a sizable sum of money. When it becomes known to Pip that he will lose his “Great Expectations” to the authorities, his only thought is for his friend. Pip returns to visit Ms. Havisham and requests, in a show of repentance for the wrongs she had done to him, a sum of money that Pip could again secretly provide to Herbert.
Herbert wisely uses this money to successfully buy into a business venture. He later marries and moves overseas in his business pursuits—none of which would have been possible without Pip's anonymous provision to Herbert.
Pip credits this as the only redeeming thing he has accomplished, reflecting on all the other things he did or didn't do that could have been used for good.
Pip falls ill following the death of his convict friend, Magwitch, and Joe comes to
to care for him until he is
well. Joe surreptitiously leaves early one morning when Pip is sufficiently
recovered, and when Pip wakes up, he discovers Joe has paid off all his
Pip immediately returns home in penitence to confess to Joe all his past wrongs, realizing that Joe is a better man than he. He recognizes in his now humble state that his “Great Expectations” deceived him into using it as a source of pride against Joe.
Upon arriving home, Pip’s expectations are not what he envisioned. His sister who raised him by hand has long since died as a result of an attack on her by the evil Orlick. His childhood friend and confidant, Biddy, has just married Joe. In the end, redemption works its way for good. Joe and Biddy are happily married and the sore memories of Pip's sister are forgotten.
Pip returns to
and within a month, leaves
and joins Herbert's firm, Clarriker and Company, overseas. Pip lives abroad
with Herbert and his wife, and after successfully making partner, eleven years
later, returns to his boyhood home in England . He discovers Joe and Biddy
now have a son who reminds him of himself. England
Before bidding Joe and Biddy a final farewell, Pip makes one last trip to the Havisham place, the old woman having died many years earlier. Pip discovers Estella in the garden, a chance meeting since she no longer lives there. The old house and brewery have been torn down and sold off except for the garden enclosed by the ivy‑covered wall.
Years of a stormy, failed marriage have softened Estella's vindictive, prideful nature, and she confesses that "suffering has been stronger than all other teaching and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be." The reader is left to ponder whether Pip and Estella ever marry because Pip says, "I saw no parting from her."
In the end, Pip learns much about what matters—wisdom he would not have possessed if he had stayed working at Joe's forge. As a middle‑aged narrator looking back, there is sadness but sweetness about what he has lost because of what he has gained. Perhaps the reader is the real winner, having seen redemption on so many levels within each character. In the end, if we are honest, we can identify these shortcomings in ourselves.
If Pip can work out his “Great Expectations” to bring redemption, perhaps we can, also—that is, again, if we are honest. Our sinful nature will always be there, but if we look for good, God will not disappoint us. Maybe “Great Expectations” will not only find us, but redemption will be there, too, just as it was in Pip.