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Definition: Great Expectations from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Novel by Charles Dickens, published in 1861. Philip Pirrip (‘Pip’), brought up by his sister and her husband, the blacksmith Joe Gargery, rejects his humble background and pursues wealth, which he believes comes from the elderly, eccentric Miss Havisham. Ultimately, through adversity, he recognizes the value of his origins.


Great Expectations

Summary Article: Great Expectations
from The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English

A novel by Charles Dickens, serialized in All the Year Round from December 1860 to August 1861 and published in volume form in 1861.

Narrated in the first person by Philip Pirrip (Pip) as he reflects on the three stages of his ‘great expectations’, the novel opens on the Kentish marshes where he lives an orphaned childhood under the harsh hand of his sister and her kindly blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery. One day Pip helps a starving convict, Abel Magwitch, who is soon recaptured and taken back to the nearby prison ship (‘The Hulks’). Pip is later summoned to Satis House, home of the wealthy eccentric Miss Havisham, who has lived in seclusion since being jilted by her fiancé. He quickly becomes devoted to Miss Havisham's ward Estella, who treats his developing love only with deliberate coldheartedness. Pip is aided in his ambition of becoming a gentleman by a generous allowance, paid through the lawyer Jaggers, which he mistakenly assumes to come from Miss Havisham. He relinquishes his humble companions and goes to London to acquire polish, good manners and a smattering of education with the help of his room-mate Herbert Pocket. Urban life leads him into vain and extravagant ways. Magwitch reappears, having illegally returned to England after being transported, and reveals that he is Pip's benefactor, bent on using the fortune he has amassed in Australia to repay the boy's kindness. Pip plans to get Magwitch safely out of the country but the convict is mortally hurt, arrested and brought to trial; he dies before the sentence is carried out. Estella, dramatically revealed as Magwitch's daughter, marries an upper-class lout, Bentley Drummle, who gravely mistreats her before his early death. Pip, learning both loyalty and Christian humility from his experiences, returns to England after a successful career and meets Estella. In the book's original ending the two still remain separate, but at the urging of Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens altered the conclusion to give Great Expectations a conventional happy ending.

Despite its neatly melodramatic plotting and its richly stocked gallery of comic minor characters - the histrionic Wopsle, the pompous Pumblechook, the eccentric Wemmick - Great Expectations is a book of sober and sustained purpose. The gradual discovery of human values Pip makes as he passes through the various stages of his ‘great expectations’ enacts a familiar Dickensian fable, enriched here by the presence of Pip's narrative voice to trace the processes of memory.

The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, © Cambridge University Press 2000

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