Literature / Great Expectations

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"Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."

Great Expectations (1861) is a novel by Charles Dickens.

It is one of his most famous works (along with A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, and A Tale of Two Cities), as the multitude of high school students assigned this 450+ page book will attest. Ironically, it is his most unconventional work; Dickens deconstructed many of his trademark plots and characters in it, including the Mysterious Benefactor and Rags to Riches tale. The main character Pip is also far from the simple minded innocents of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, and arguably has undergone the most Character Development as a result.

Pip starts the book as a guileless orphan who lives under the thumb of his shrewish older sister Mrs. Joe, only marginally mollified by her simple minded but good hearted husband Joe. His most eventful incident in his childhood is helping a convict on the marshes escape. But after being invited to play at the home of Miss Havisham, an eccentric spinster who's never recovered from being jilted at the altar long ago, and meeting her beautiful, but haughty ward Estella there, Pip's mindset changes. He begins to resent his simplistic upbringing, the middling blacksmith career, and life that seem inevitable for him.

Then, out of nowhere, a lawyer named Mr. Jaggers shows up at Pip's doorstep and tells his stunned family that he has "great expectations" bestowed upon him by a Mysterious Benefactor. Pip will spend the next couple of years training to become a proper gentleman. His benefactor's identity is a secret, but Pip is convinced that it is Miss Havisham. He meets the upper class members of London society including friendly Herbert and loathsome Drummle, forgets about his old life, and courts Estella with limited success. But it is not until Pip finally discovers who his benefactor is that the plot really begins to thicken and Pip is forced to mature by confronting a variety of surprises, disappointments, and unexpected revelations.

Great Expectations has been subject to many a film adaptation. The one most likely to have been viewed in a high school English class is the 1946 film directed by David Lean (generally regarded as one of the best). The 1998 movie is a modern day adaptation set in Miami and is a divisive film with the audience. The 1999 miniseries is considered to be one of the best, if not the best adaptation of the book as well as the darkest and most depressing. There has also been a Completely Different South Park parody. A 2012 movie adaptation features Harry Potter veterans Helena Bonham-Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Jessie Cave, and Robbie Coltrane, as well as Jeremy Irvine, Jason Flemyng, Holliday Grainger from The Borgias, David Walliams from Little Britain, and Ralph Ineson from The Office and was NOT popular with critics or much of the public.


Tropes:

  • Abusive Parents:
    • Pip's older sister is his guardian and verbally and physically thrashes him.
    • Joe recalls how his father would "hammer" his mother and him, and when they tried to flee, he united their neighbors to shame them into coming home where he would hammer them again.
  • Age Gap Romance: Joe and Biddy marry, long after the death of Mrs. Joe. Biddy is much younger than her husband.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: This trope pretty much defines Ms. Havisham's existence. Pip is unable to have Estella and Biddy cannot attract Pip. Perhaps the only aversion of this trope is when Biddy and Joe fall in love.
  • Almost Dead Guy: The old convict. Pip visits him for a last time to tell him about his daughter upon which the old man passes on peacefully. In the 1946 adaptation his head nods melodramatically to one side.
  • Alone with the Psycho: Pip discovers his sister's attacker the hard way.
  • Aloof Dark-Haired Girl: Estella, thanks to Miss Havisham's "training" of her.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: Wemmick's house in London, made out like a medieval castle, may seem like a bit of Dickens' whimsy, but in fact this was a common trend for Victorian businessmen and the only unusual element is that Wemmick has done the work himself.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Pip's infatuation with Estella. Because of her, he wants to be richer and have a better social status, causing him to become ashamed of his perfectly respectable origins, become ungrateful to his hard-working older sister who raised him (even if she was abusive), patronize his childhood friend Biddy and try to "improve" Joe, the nicest character in the book, so that he can meet Estella's standards.
  • Angst: A truckload, mostly by Pip, as a result of Estella's actions.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Pip to Estella. It has no effect on Estella, but does bring on Miss Havisham's one of the most literal and redundant cases ever of What Have I Done ("and again, ten, twenty, fifty times, what had she done?").
  • Asshole Victim: Pip's sister.
  • Awesomeness by Analysis: Biddy spends so much time watching Pip that he pronounces her, "In theory ... as good a blacksmith as I was."
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Magwitch spends years trying to enrich Pip because Pip delivered food to him when he was on the run and starving. Of course, he didn't give the boy much choice in the matter.
  • Big Bad: The deceptive and equally cruel Compeyson. He ruins Miss Havisham by pretending to love her, inheriting a lot of money from her (which was his goal the entire time) and then abandoning her before their supposed marriage and running away with the money. He is also a dangerous criminal, but meets his ultimate doom when Magwitch (whose life he also ruined by using him as a scapegoat to avoid being convicted of his crimes) drowns him.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Herbert, Startop, and even Trabb's boy come to Pip's rescue in the last act.
  • Big Fancy House: Subverted. Satis House used to be one of these.
  • The Blacksmith: Humble Joe Gargery, working at his forge. Pip often wonders if he'd have been better off if he'd never heard of Estella, which would have left him content to be Joe's apprentice.
  • Book Dumb: Joe Gargery. Illiterate, but generous of spirit.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Pip becomes this after meeting Estella
  • Break the Cutie: Compeyson did this to Miss Havisham, who does the same with Estella.
  • Break the Haughty: Both Pip and Estella.
  • Broken Aesop: A point of contention against the Revised Ending: a major point of Pip's Character Development is learning he was never meant for Estella and that she is not the person he has idealized her to be. This is undermined by having fate bring her back to him at Satis House, having just conveniently Took a Level in Kindness and ready to love him.
  • Broken Bird: Estella, either when she lashes out at Miss Havisham or by the ending, when she's had to live with an abusive husband.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Wemmick is the no-nonsense assistant of Jaggers who spends time with his father ("The Aged Parent") at a whimsical, out-of-the-way cottage in his spare time.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Pip is rattled when he reminds Estella of how she made him cry the day they first met, and she replies that she doesn't remember.
    Pip: I verily believe that her not remembering and not minding in the least, made me cry again, inwardly—and that is the sharpest crying of all.
  • Captain Obvious: Estella introducing Pip. "Whom have we here?" "A boy". Knowing her, she does it on purpose.
  • Changeling Fantasy: Subverted — Pip gains a mysterious, wealthy benefactor and believes that it is Miss Havisham's plan to pair him up with Estella, the young woman he loves, but it turns out that his actual benefactor is the escaped convict he helped at the beginning of the story — Miss Havisham had nothing to do with it.
  • Character Development: The book is one of the best examples of this trope, and spends a lot of time exploring and deconstructing it.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The escaped convict.
  • Connected All Along: Dickens is famous for having a disproportionate number of characters find out that they're related to each other or met previously, and Great Expectations is no exception: Pip meets the convict more than once, Jaggers serves as the lawyer of at least three key characters, both of the escaped convicts turn out to be entwined in the other characters' stories, and Estella's parents are both sprinkled throughout the cast. In more detail:
    • When we first meet them, Magwitch is an escaped convict who runs into Pip while the latter is visiting his parents' graves, and Compeyson is a fellow escapee. Miss Havisham is landlady to Joe's uncle, Pumblechook, while Estella is her ward and Jaggers is a guest at her birthday party. Molly is a maid in Jaggers' house in London.
    • By the end of the novel, we have learned that Compeyson conspired with Miss Havisham's brother to leave her at the altar and abscond with her dowry. He and Magwitch were later arrested and convicted of circulating stolen money; Jaggers was Magwitch's lawyer in the trial. Magwitch and Molly had a daughter together, though Molly told Magwitch she had destroyed the child. When Jaggers represented Molly in a murder trial and got her acquitted, he resolved to spare her daughter a life of poverty and suffering that he believed would end in her early death, and agreed to the request of another of his clients to adopt her; that client was Miss Havisham, and the girl was Estella.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The ending only comes about because Estella and Pip, neither of whom have been to Satis House in many years, both chance to visit it at the exact same time.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Estella.
    Pip: Enough House. That's a curious name, miss.
    Estella: It meant, when it was given, that whoever had this house, could want nothing else. They must have been easily satisfied in those days, I should think.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: When Pip and Herbert first met they get into a fistfight from which Pip emerges victorious.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Estalla has thawed by the final chapter.
  • Disney Villain Death: Subverted with Compeyson, who meets his end when he falls into a river and drowns after Magwitch attacks him.
  • Distant Finale: The last chapter is set 11 years after the story has been wrapped up.
  • Diving Save: A variant in the waters where Pip saves the old convict from the wheels of the paddle steamer.
  • Does Not Like Men: An understatement regarding Miss Havisham.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: The Ur-Example with Pip towards Estella. She tells him many times that she can't love anyone, but Pip simply cannot break free.
  • Domestic Abuse: Once she marries Drummle -much to Pip's utter horror, Estella suffers so badly from this that her marriage ends in separation.
  • Door Stopper: Depending on how big the type is, editions can run from at least 400 and at most 600 pages. All things considered, you could probably cut the subplots about Mr. Wemmick's father, Mr. Jagger's death masks, Orlick completely, Mr. Wopsle's acting career, and all visits to Herbert's family and par down about 150 pages without having much affect on the plot, but you'd be missing out on some extra magic in the world Dickens has painted.
  • Emotionless Girl: Estella states at more than one point that she has no heart and has never been taught how to love.
  • Extremely Dusty Home: Miss Havisham's home has not been cleaned or dusted since her aborted wedding twenty-odd years before. Two decades of cobwebs and dust cover everything.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Magwitch goes peacefully, knowing that he's had revenge on Compeyson and believing (thanks to Pip's judicious lie) that Estella grew up to be happy.
  • Fast Forward to Reunion: The ending, where Pip and Estella meet again. The circumstances of their reunion depends on which version of the ending you read: there's one where Estella is happily married, and one where she isn't, implying that she and Pip may have a future together.
  • Femme Fatale: Estella was bred to become this by Miss Havisham.
  • Foreshadowing: Pip has brief visions of Miss Havisham's death.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Miss Havisham's plan to make Estella into a cold, emotionless Ice Queen works so well that she can't seem to love anyone...even Miss Havisham herself, who has a My God, What Have I Done? moment when she realizes this.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Pops up a couple of times in conversation.
    Miss Havisham: You'll have a gay time and be admired. You must look forward to that.
  • The Heckler: After Mr. Wopsle moves to London to pursue his dream of professional acting, Pip and Herbert go to see him as the title character in a terrible production of Hamlet. The rest of the audience — particularly "a sulky man" in the front row of the gallery — heckles the players mercilessly, to Pip's embarrassment.
    On his taking the recorders, — very like a little black flute that had just been played in the orchestra and handed out at the door, — he was called upon unanimously for Rule Britannia. When he recommended the player not to saw the air thus, the sulky man said, "And don't you do it, neither; you're a deal worse than him!"
  • Heel Realization: When Miss Havisham finally tells Pip that he will not be allowed to marry Estella, and sees the pain in him that she had been waiting for, she is ultimately not satisfied at all and is only left feeling that she did the exact same thing to him that her fiancé did to her (as well as ruining Estella's chances at a normal life in the name of petty Revenge by Proxy). By the time Pip next meets her, she's gone from sadistic old woman to a suicidal wreck willing to part with vast amounts of her fortune to try to make it up to him.
  • Henpecked Husband: Joe. He's quite content with life, though, and never lets his wife's temper get to him. Joe's traumatic childhood meant he and his mother were frequently abused and when he grew up, because of that, he would never raise his hand to a woman.
  • Hilariously Abusive Childhood: The scenes detailing Pip's childhood (being "brought up by hand" by his volatile sister) are treated comically in his narration, probably because he's laughing at it all in retrospect.
  • Human Head on the Wall: A variation: Jaggers has masks of the petrified faces of criminals that he represented but who were hanged decorating his office.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!: Subverted—Pip learns to resign himself to being, at best, a mildly successful businessman.
  • I Just Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Even after he learns he was never meant for Estella, Pip still begs her to reject the abusive Drummle and marry someone who actually loves her.
  • I Kiss Your Hand: Pip does this to Miss Havisham twice, before going to London and after returning.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Pip and Joe, his older sister's husband.
  • Irony: Joe's mother was abused when he was younger and because of that he fears he will put his own wife (Pip's sister) through the same thing. So, he is rather passive towards her, with the irony being that he is now the abused one and puts up with his wife's abuse of himself and Pip. He does his best to protect him in his own way, though.
  • I Would Say If I Could Say: Jaggers is fond of this. Wemmick at one point too.
  • Jerk Ass: Estella, Drummle, Miss Havisham, Pip's sister, Pumblechook, sometimes Jaggers, and, once he becomes a gentleman, Pip himself.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Jaggers is unpleasant to be around and is certainly a grey-morality type of guy, but reveals Hidden Depths by the end.
    • Wemmick, who is a hard-edged clerk at the office and dotes on his Aged Parent at home.
  • Just Between You and Me: Orlick confesses to attacking Mrs. Joe and spying on Pip.
  • Karmic Death: Drummle, after abusing Estella for their entire marriage, is killed by a horse he'd mistreated.
  • Large Ham: Mr. Wopsle, the young Shakespeare enthusiast and later actor.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: The Pockets have been producing children at a rate that far outstrips Mr. Pocket's desire for them (or, for that matter, Mrs. Pocket's interest in them).
  • Lessons in Sophistication: Pip finds himself receiving a large sum of money from a mysterious benefactor so he can become a gentleman in London.
  • Let Them Die Happy: While he knows she's unlikely happy with Drummle, Pip tells Magwitch that his daughter lived and has become a beautiful young lady so the man can die happy.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Hoo boy. Over 50 named characters, and numerous other ones that aren't. Truth be told, only about 15 of them are actually vital to the plot.
  • Lonely at the Top: Pip becomes a wealthy gentleman, abandoning his poor but decent friends back home and becoming as shallow as the Rich Bitches he's surrounded with to do so. And he doesn't even get the girl. (He only gets her in the revised ending, depending which one.)
  • Love at First Sight: The moment Pip sees Estalla for the first time, he's essentially dooming himself to years of pain.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Not so with anyone but Miss Havisham, so maybe it's more of a Freudian Excuse for her madness and obsessiveness.
  • Love Martyr: Pip suffers for Estalla, poor chap.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Magwitch, a convict on the run, is revealed to be not just Estella's father, but also Pip's mysterious benefactor.
  • Man on Fire: Miss Havisham's death.
  • Marriage of Convenience: Miss Havisham raises Estella to be a heartless man-eater who woos men only to completely deny them, and then marries the most boring, rich man she can find so that she can continue doing so but with money. She then grows a heart by being cold when a horse kills her husband and questionably finally gets together with Pip. Miss Havisham trains Estella to want these things because she (Miss H) was left at the altar by the man she wanted to Marry for Love, because he is a criminal.
  • Mathematician's Answer: Pip is asking Herbert about Herbert's prospective father-in-law.
    “What is he now?” said I.
    “He’s an invalid now,” replied Herbert.
    “Living on——?”
    “On the first floor,” said Herbert. Which was not at all what I meant, for I had intended my question to apply to his means.”
  • Maybe Ever After: The (revised) ending suggests that Pip and Estella shall never part. The Trope Maker. Possibly one of the most famous examples of this trope in English-language media.
    "I saw no shadow of another parting from her."
  • Meaningful Name: Satis (Enough) House.
    • Estella is as beautiful, remote and lonely as her name suggests.
    • Miss Havisham's (Have is sham) name foreshadows the deceptive nature of material wealth.
    • "Pip" has several meanings. One is a seed, and given that the book is all about his Character Development, growing from a child into a mature adult, this meaning is very appropriate. The word can also refer to the symbols on playing cards (hearts and spades and so on), signifying how Pip is used as a pawn or a symbol, with little agency of his own.
  • Misery Builds Character:
    • The suffering and pain Pip goes through in the third act of the novel leaves him sadder but wiser, accounting for the mournful tone of his narration as he remembers what a jerkass he was.
    • Estella's suffering in her miserable, abusive marriage to the awful Drummle causes the former Emotionless Girl to develop a new ability for empathy. She says "I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape."
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Miss Havisham's lament when she realizes how she's warped Estella's ability to feel.
    • Averted in another instance; upon discovering how warped Estella has become, Mr. Jaggers acknowledges that it is very unfortunate that she ended up that way, but (quite rightly) doesn't feel responsible for it, since he deliberately went out of his way to do the right thing based on the information he had at the time and had no way of knowing how it would turn out.
  • Mysterious Benefactor: One of the most well known cases in literature. An unknown person for unknown reasons suddenly bestows on Pip a large sum of money, and a place in London where he can learn to be a gentleman.
  • Narrative Filigree: Dickens did this throughout his career, filling his story with asides and meanderings. One entire chapter stops the plot dead, as Pip and Herbert go to see Mr. Wopsle's disastrous production of Hamlet.
  • Never My Fault: Orlick, who, as Pip points out, is responsible for his own misfortune and reputation due to his bad attitude, but still blames Pip for all of it. This is leads to him crippling Pip's sister and trying to kill Pip himself later on.
  • No Doubt the Years Have Changed Me: When Estella and Pip meet at the ending after many years apart (Pip has been living abroad for 11 years), she says "I am greatly changed. I wonder you know me."
  • No Name Given: Pip's sister is never named. She's only referred to as "my sister" or "Mrs. Joe".
  • Oblivious to Love: Right at the start, though he realizes it later. For goodness' sake, Pip, Biddy is right there!
  • One Degree of Separation: Not only is Magwitch Estella's father, but Compeyson, who was on the run with Magwitch, was Miss Havisham's former lover.
  • Pet the Dog: Despite cultivating the image of an Amoral Attorney, Jaggers' revelation of how he deliberately prevented the infant Estella from growing up among the "spawn" that he sees go to the gallows on a daily basis shows that he does have a heart.
  • Pre-Insanity Reveal: Miss Havisham used to be sane, but went mad after discovering that her fiancee had swindled her out of her fortune and run off on what was supposed to be their wedding day. She shut herself off from the rest of the world, never leaving her house or even changing out of her wedding dress, and eventually conceived of a plan to adopt a girl so that she could raise her to break men's hearts the way that her fiancee broke hers.
  • Purple Prose: Pip describes how beautiful Estella is pretty much every time she appears, which goes dangerously into Purple Prose territory. Justified in that Pip was a child who had fallen in love, and since the story is told from his perspective it makes sense that he would think like this. It's also quite possible that Dickens intended the descriptions to be somewhat silly, considering how much emphasis the book places on Pip outgrowing his childishness.
  • Put on a Bus: After Pip is apprenticed to Joe, Estella goes off to study abroad.
  • Revised Ending: The book originally had a Bittersweet / Did Not Get the Girl ending in which Pip meets Estella one last time and finds out she has Happily Remarried, after which they part as friends. Dickens' friend and colleague Edward Bulwer-Lytton—that's right, the It Was a Dark and Stormy Night guy—got a sneak preview of the original ending, and recommended Dickens write a different ending which wasn't so downbeat. Dickens then wrote a more hopeful Maybe Ever After which was published. Dickens himself seemed content with the result. Modern printings of the novel commonly include the original, more downbeat ending as an appendix (see Deleted Scene in the Trivia section).
  • Runaway Groom: Her fiance dumped Miss Havisham at the altar, as she was dressing for the ceremony.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Magwitch's illegal return from Australia, which prompts Pip to have a Screw the Money, I Have Rules! epiphany.
  • Second Love: Subverted. Pip returns to Biddy with the intention of proposing only for her to have already accepted Joe's. Poor kid can't get a break.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Compeyson is terrified that Magwitch will kill him. His very actions to dispose of Magwitch by getting him arrested not only alert Magwitch to his presence (as Magwitch didn't even know he was still alive), but gives him the opening to actually kill Compeyson.
  • Sentenced to Down Under: Happens to Magwitch.
  • She Is All Grown Up: When Pip returns to Miss Havisham's after an absence of many years, he completely fails to recognize the beautiful young woman attending Miss Havisham, until the woman looks him in the eye and he recognizes Estella's eyes.
  • The Shut-In: Miss Havisham, who has spent the rest of her life in one room since she was jilted on her wedding day.
  • Single-Target Sexuality: From the time he's a child, Pip has eyes only for Estella.
  • Speech Impediment: The little Jewish boy who accosts Jaggers has a prominent lisp, and adds Hs in front of vowels at the beginnings of words. One of the Pockets' children is too young to enunciate properly, despite being mature enough to make sure her idiot mother doesn't negligently let the baby hurt itself, and keep doing so even after she's been rebuked for her impertinence.
  • Stopped Clock: Miss Havisham has all the clocks in her house stopped at twenty minutes to nine — the moment she learned she had been jilted on her wedding day.
  • Taking You with Me: Magwitch is captured, meaning he'll be executed for returning to England, but realizes Compeyson is within arm's reach. Even though he knows it'll ruin any chances of him not getting the death sentence, he grabs Compeyson and pulls him into the water where he drowns him. He also ultimately dies due to the injuries he sustained in the process.
  • Technically a Smile: When Wemmick smiles at Pip, Pip notes it to be a hollow and somewhat unsettling gesture. It's especially odd because otherwise, Wemmick is a pleasant and kind man.
  • Teen Drama: One of the first examples.
  • Title Drop: When Jaggers informs Pip of his Mysterious Benefactor.
    Jaggers: The communication I have got to make is, that he has great expectations.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: Pip, due to his exposure to Miss Havisham and Estella.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: Estella at the ending; her misery in her abusive relationship with Drummle has made her into a person with feelings, for the first time.
  • Unexpected Inheritance: Pip seems fated to be a blacksmith, when all of a sudden a large sum of money comes his way out of absolutely nowhere.
  • Unfamiliar Ceiling: After the death of the old convict, Pip runs home and falls into his bed in a fever, only to discover on his waking that he is now at Joe's house.
  • Unlucky Childhood Friend: Biddy, who can't make any headway with Pip. Subverted when she is lucky enough to find true love with Joe.
  • What Is This Thing You Call "Love"?: When Miss Havisham entreats Estella for her love and affection in return for hers, Estella coolly replies that she cannot give her back what she has never been given.
  • Wrong Guy First: Assuming that the Maybe Ever After ending pays off, that is. But Estella is certainly better off with Pip than with the abusive Drummle.

Tropes found in adaptations:

  • Remake Cameo: Jean Simmons (Young Estella in the 1946 adaptation) would later play Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (1989).
  • Setting Update: The 1998 movie moves the story to the present day.
  • Staggered Zoom: The 1999 miniseries ends with a Staggered Zoom out from Pip and Estella as they play cards in Satis House.
  • Tall, Dark, and Handsome: Several adaptations make Pip this, especially the 1999 version. (And in fact the original illustrations of the Dickens novel do suggest this.)
  • Twice Told Tale: Peter Carey's Jack Maggs and Ronald Frame's Havisham (both of which also qualify as a Start of Darkness).
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