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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - Barron's Booknotes
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Although Great Expectations is more unified than most of
Dickens' novels, it still has a number of themes, interwoven in
several subplots.


The title of the book is ironic, for all that Pip hopes for turns to
dust. Look at how Pip's disappointment is repeated in the plots
of Miss Havisham, Magwitch, Estella, and (in reverse) Herbert.
What moral is Dickens expressing here? He may be telling us:
a) wealth can corrupt people; b) don't get taken in by promises,
hope, and dreams; or c) life will inevitably disappoint you.


Money has a tricky value in this novel. It is not bad in itself; it
helps Herbert, and it saves Pip from debtors' prison. But money
can be dangerous. Pip and Miss Havisham both become prey
for greedy people because they are wealthy. Also, people who
love money too much lose their moral bearings; Pip is the most
obvious example of this, but also consider the Pockets. If
people don't love money itself, they may love the power it
brings, and this can be destructive. For example, money gives
Miss Havisham and Magwitch power to ruin their adopted
children by molding them in certain images.


Some readers have said that Dickens was not criticizing
money, only money that doesn't come from hard work. Pip is
morally weakest when he's rich and idle; after he reforms, he
becomes hard-working. Joe accepts money from Miss
Havisham to make Pip an apprentice, but not from Jaggers to
let Pip be a gentleman. Joe, whose money is earned honestly,
can pay off Pip's gentleman's debts. Herbert, who works hard
as a clerk, deserves to become a partner. But Drummle, Estella,
and Miss Havisham, who inherit their wealth, are unhappy. On
the other hand, Magwitch worked hard for his money and it's
still cursed. Jaggers works so hard that it takes over his life,
and yet this brings him no satisfaction.


This is a book full of orphans, adoptive parents, guardians, and
failed parent-child relationships. Pip has many "fathers"- Joe,
Magwitch, Jaggers, and Pumblechook-but none of them can
give him all he needs. One thing Dickens shows us is the effect
parents have on their children. Some children are warped by
bad parents-Pip, Estella, Magwitch-yet others like Joe and
Herbert have survived bad parents, so perhaps it's unfair for a
child to blame them for his own failings. Dickens also looks at
the responsibility children have towards their parents. Consider
how Pip and Estella treat their various "parents"; but also look
at what Wemmick and Clara do for theirs.


Many characters in this book are cut off-physically or
spiritually-from human companionship. Young Pip, Estella,
and Jaggers seem crippled by their locked-up feelings; solitude
allows Miss Havisham and Orlick to become psychotic.
Contrast them to Dickens' sociable characters, Joe, Herbert,
Wemmick, and Wopsle. Largely through them, Pip learns to
form bonds of love and loyalty which prove more satisfying to
him than the bonds of duty and money. In the end, friendship
saves his soul (figuratively) and his life (literally). Pip is bound
by one other human tie-to Estella. This is destructive, yet even
so Dickens seems to find something fine in Pip's helpless,
constant love.


Many great novels depict the struggle between opposing forces
of good and evil; Great Expectations depicts good and evil as
inseparably intermingled. Pip, with his childishly strict moral
views, partitions life into absolutes: Estella is good, Magwitch
is bad; Jaggers' world is evil, Herbert's is good. But he must
finally learn to accept that all life is mixed together, that you
have to find the good along with the bad in people. Look at
other divisions in the book: professional vs. personal,
gentleman vs. commoner, revenge vs. forgiveness. As we read,
we discover that categories blur and opposites turn into each
other. This makes all the themes in the novel infinitely

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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - Barron's Booknotes

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