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The protagonist of this novel is Philip Pirip, called Pip. Pip is a sensitive child, orphaned and living under the care of his sister and her husband. His sister resents him and continually reminds him that he is a burden. His brother-in-law, Joe, is kind to him; in fact, he is the only one who shows Pip any love.
An encounter in his childhood leads Pip to aid an escaped convict. In order to repay Pip, the convict secretly bestows him with large sums of money, so that Pip's dream of becoming a gentleman is realized. Pip changes on acquiring wealth and status; his childhood home and friends are embarrassing to him. In trying to live up to his own great expectations, he loses his sense of judgment and begins to value material possessions and gentlemanly pretensions more than kindness and friendship. On realizing that his patron is a convict, and that he has forsaken everyone who loved him in this false attempt to be a gentleman, Pip mends his way of life and returns to his good-natured self, more mature as a result of his experience.
The antagonist in this novel is not a person as much as it is an expectation, or rather, a set of expectations. Pip is led into making grave mistakes based on his false expectation of being a gentleman, his false expectation of marrying Estella, and his general false expectation of rising above his past. In the process of living out these expectations, Pip hurts the people who have been kindest to him -- namely Joe and Biddy. In the end, he learns that all his aspirations have been based on a false presumption that he could rise above his past and be something better than Joe or Biddy. His wealth comes from a convict, and his newfound airs of being a gentleman dissolve in the realization that things are not what he has thought. He learns that true worth comes from inside a man, and turns away from his once-great expectations.
At times, actual characters seem menacing or dangerous, qualities usually associated with antagonists. Orlick, for example, is Pip's first enemy. He resents Pip and seriously wounds Mrs. Joe. Later, he tries to kill Pip. Drummle, for his part, is known as the "Spider." He baits Pip continually and steals Estella away as his wife, only to abuse her. Compeyson haunts Pip and Magwitch, eventually causing Magwitch serious wounds and successfully aiding the police in capturing him. These three, more than any other characters, provide the texture of the dramatic tension in the novel.
Estella and Miss Havisham occupy a special place in the dramatic breakdown of the novel as well. For some time, both are mildly threatening characters; Estella with her alternating cruelty and kindness and Miss Havisham with her morbid dress and rotten cake. Bitterness has led Miss Havisham to train Estella in coldness. And Estella herself warns Pip with certainty that she can only hurt him and that she is not capable of returning his love. In the end, Miss Havisham repents of her bitterness and Estella and Pip part as friends, but roles of these two women in sustaining the dramatic tension of the novel cannot be ignored.
The climax occurs when Pip learns the identity of his benefactor. In that moment, all his great expectations dissolve into shame of the convict and disgust with himself for his gradual change. He knows now that he is not destined to marry Estella, nor is he any less common than he was as a blacksmith's apprentice. As well, he is obligated to protect his benefactor out of loyalty and gratitude. The foundation of assumptions and expectations on which he has built his life is completely shaken.
Pip lays aside his expectations of greatness. He protects his benefactor and realizes that this convict has been more loyal to him than he has been to Joe. He makes sure he will not have access to any more of the convict's money and acknowledges the dignity of laboring for his own keep. He apologizes to Joe and Biddy for his lack of loyalty to them. Finally, eleven years later, he meets Estella and is able to part from her as friends.