The story of a boy who learns about self-esteem and the price of vanity through the help of a mysterious benefactor, the taunting of a beautiful proud girl, and a miserable old socialite has won a coveted place as an undying classic of British literature. Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations has a double meaning not only in its title but also in its very content. However, despite this, Great Expectations is perhaps one of Dickens’ most non-manneristic novels, deviating from any predictable events or storyline. Although many of the author’s works detail the main character(s) finding or not finding an acceptable position in Victorian England’s society, Great Expectations has more to do with personal merit and self-regard. It also has much less of the author’s customary focus on the unjust poverty of those times and features an unusual ambiguous ending as opposed to either a tragic or happy one.
The characters, however, evoke every sense of Dickens’ famous imagination with their originality and striking humanity. Pip, the main character, initially has no idea of self-respect. His much older sister has been verbally abusing him for a long time, and the only real family he has is his brother-in-law Joe, a kindly blacksmith Pip admires and respects. However, a chance encounter with an escaped convict leads to Pip’s first chance to have expectations of himself and the world around him. Routine visits to an old lady’s decaying mansion mold Pip’s adolescence in spite of the unpleasant occupants within.
However, it is up to the reader to decide if this turn of events is auspicious for Pip, for as soon as he starts seeing himself through the eyes of others, he begins to lose his temperament. According to his style, Dickens shows at first the many faults of his characters and then starts to redeem them by portraying the possibility of goodness and change. He also inserts strong irony into the story when he cross-examines just how polite contemporary society is.
The reader is supposed to judge Pip’s behavior and metamorphosis for himself/herself, but it is obvious that the more “gentleman-like” Pip becomes, the more he loses the virtues of honesty, altruism, and good judgment instilled in him as a young boy. Destitution teaches Pip the nature of desire, but it also makes him appreciate what he has. Wealth distorts Pip’s ideas of worth and value when it comes to people and he learns to be selfish, like when he becomes prejudiced against Joe’s common job and his low education. Pip ignores the fact that Joe is an honest man and instead bases his opinion on inconsequential details. He is suddenly judging others by their appearances, an unfair and dangerous habit that costs him in the end. Moreover, it is even more ironic that Pip only wants to be a gentleman so badly because of Estella’s contempt for his low class and breeding.
Estella herself has outer beauty and strength, but her personality has been seriously weakened by excessive conceit, arrogance, and selfishness due to Miss Havisham’s meditated revenge on the world for past injustices. Miss Havisham’s bitter attitude toward life only poisons Pip’s and Estella’s mentalities, ruining their hopes for happiness in such a twisted reality and appearance-obsessed society. Both characters are disgusted by their current circumstances, an emotion that leads them to put personal glory, ambition, and materialism before self-improvement and moral obligations. Estella derides nobility of the spirit by appreciating too well wealth and social status, while Pip’s acquired narrow-mindedness is a deep blow to his original perspective of life.
Dickens has so many messages in Great Expectations: some transmit the importance of mutual love and proper pride, while others are about the shallow superficiality, hypocrisy, and prejudice within Victorian England. His words speak directly to the heart, and as always mystery, romance, and suspense bind the storyline together in a bold way. His empathy for the lower classes and his hatred of the unjust gap between the rich and the poor speak volumes amid eloquent language and startling comparisons.
Great Expectations may not be the most shocking or thrilling of Dickens’ masterpieces, but it definitely has soul and feeling. Pip’s journey from naïve boy to intelligent man will remind all readers about the rare qualities of compassion, honesty, and altruism in human beings.
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