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Free Study Guide for Great Expectations by Charles Dickens-Book Summary


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Phillip Pirip is aptly nicknamed Pip, a word commonly used to denote the seed of an apple. From early childhood well into adulthood, Pip’s budding maturity is the focus of the novel. In keeping with the Bildungsroman genre, Pip is at first an innocent young child whose place in this world has not been well defined. He is an orphan whose only sister finds him a nuisance and a burden; she resents him to the point of cruelty. Two random events happen which at first seem like mere episodes in the life of a child:

Pip helps an escaped convict by giving him food and means of escape, and Pip is called to the home of Miss Havisham to entertain her and her daughter. The full consequence of these happenings on Pip’s life is not fully known until the end of the novel, but they will determine the next three decades of his life

In true Bildungsroman fashion, the hero must become discontent with his life and his station in society. The visits to Miss Havisham are the catalyst for this discontent. Estella’s disgust for everything “common” introduces young Pip to shame and embarrassment over his family and his appearance. He becomes obsessed with uncommon-ness and the desire to overcome his lowly position in order to impress Estella.

The inheritance he receives becomes the medium for his social transformation. With the money, he can realize his dream of becoming a gentleman. Wealth brings with it many vices and soon Pip starts leading a hollow and purposeless life of luxury. Under the influence of false pride and vanity that comes with gentlemanly pretensions, he rejects his background and snaps all connections with Joe and Biddy. He nurtures the belief that Miss Havisham is his patron and the reason for her generosity is that she wants Pip to marry Estella. Though he occasionally questions the appropriateness of his new behavior, he continues to pursue his expectations. When the truth is unleashed, Pip is rudely awakened from his fantasy world.

The reality that his patron is a convict undermines Pip’s so-called “gentlemanliness.” As well, he realizes at what cost he has pursued his dreams. He comes to accept the fact that his participation in the old dream of great expectations has hurt genuine people who care for him. He refuses all undeserved wealth and undergoes the ordeal of losing Estella to a brute. All these events make him wiser and more mature. At the end of the novel, he is an ordinary man who works to earn his keep. He is able to meet Estella one last time and part as friends, a final testament to the tremendous growth of his spirit.

Interestingly enough, Pip is the only character in the novel that Dickens never describes physically. Some outward characteristic, behavior, or gesture defines nearly all of Dickens’ characters. Pip, however, is a character of transformation. He changes so much in the course of the novel that any attempt to define him by physical expression or appearance might lessen the impact of his journey. This internal growth is the final aspect of the Bildungsroman style Dickens achieves.

Joe Gargery

As the village blacksmith and Pip’s brother-in-law, Joe’s commonness is expressed in his name: simple, short, and undecorative. He is a thorough gentleman at heart and is always helpful. He stands out as a loving figure in Pip’s life. Joe and Pip share a relationship based on love and trust, easily likened to the relationship between father and son, or brothers. They play games and participate in friendly competitions among themselves, in order to enliven the atmosphere of their home.

Joe is a simple man who looks forward to the day when Pip will become his apprentice. He has no aspirations other than to be what he is, and to teach his trade to Pip. This is beautifully dramatized in the scene, where Miss Havisham insists on paying Pip’s premium as an apprentice. Joe had never wanted such a premium, since he was teaching Pip out of love. He cannot decline the money, but he is careful to make sure Pip and Miss Havisham both know he is teaching Pip out of love and concern, not for financial gain.

Joe swells with pride whenever he watches Pip reading or writing. Pip tries to teach Joe all that he learns, and Joe, despite thinking himself “awful dull,” is proud of his learning.

Joe is loyal and humble. When Orlick argues with Mrs. Joe, Joe and Orlick get into a fight. And later, when Pip is in financial trouble, Joe pays his debts. And he is unselfish. He senses that Pip is embarrassed by his simplicity, so he leaves. Finally, he is forgiving. He marries Biddy and they name their son Pip, a gesture of love for the boy who once abandoned them in search of greater things. Joe Gargery, far from being a “mere blacksmith,” is one of the heroes of the novel. Over the years, his forgiving nature and gigantic heart have made him a personal favorite of the readers.


Magwitch is an interesting character on many counts. For most of the novel, he is unnamed, referred to simply as “the convict” or “Pip’s convict.” Coincidentally, it is during these parts of the novel that he appears menacing and evil. He is a dangerous and desperate convict who keeps popping up in Pip’s life. When he finally reveals himself to Pip, however, he expresses love and gratitude, admiration and affection. At the same time, he is given a name: Abel Magwitch. It is as if these human emotions have transformed him, making him worthy of human distinction.

Magwitch is a remarkable man so filled with gratitude over a small incident in the past that he devotes his life to repaying the small boy who helped him. His gesture is so magnanimous that it transforms Pip’s initial disgust into ardent admiration. Pip marvels that Magwitch is a better friend to him than he (Pip) has been to Joe.

Magwitch is responsible for the changes in Pip, though not as directly as it might seem. True, his money has made Pip into a social “gentleman.” But his kindness and loyalty transforms Pip into a responsible adult who regrets his own bad behavior. In short, because of Magwitch, Pip develops into a man who values integrity over wealth.


Like Joe and Pip, Estella’s name is a reflection on her character. Estella, like a star (stellar), is cold and distant. After all, she has been reared from the tender age of three to conduct herself without emotion. Her bewitching beauty captures Pip’s heart and as a young boy, he is infatuated her. Somehow, despite her cruelty to Pip, she becomes the star of his expectations. Critics have often dismissed Estella as a two-dimensional character without the tug of emotions. Quite to the contrary, Estella is the successful product of Miss Havisham’s upbringing in that she truly does what the old lady raised her to do, but she seems to struggle with it. After all, she seems to warn Pip repeatedly as if she does not want to hurt him. It seems fair to say that beneath that heart of ice is a simple girl who is honest enough to try and explain to others her lack of feeling. Ironically, even Miss Havisham, who has made her the way she is, finds her coldness and lack of love unbearable.

In the end, Estella is redeemed by this hidden goodness. She becomes Drummle’s victim, then overcomes that situation to remarry. Pip meets her one final time and they part as friends. Of all the characters, Estella is remarkable for the perceived commentary she makes on social and class distinctions. She is the daughter of a murderer and a convict. By all practical considerations of society in that time, she is a flawed creature. But it is not her bloodline that tarnishes Estella; instead, it is her vicious and indifferent upbringing. In short, she is ruined by circumstances and not by birth.

Miss Havisham

Miss Havisham has lived to be one of the most memorable characters created by Dickens, both for her bizarre appearance and her eccentric behaviors. Betrayed by her lover on her wedding day, she literally freezes time in Satis House. All the clocks have been stopped at twenty minutes to nine, the exact time at which her fiancé had abandoned her. She wears her wedding dress the rest of her life, till it is yellowed with age and drooping on her thin frame. She remains in one shoe, since she had not yet put the other one on. And the cake is left on the table to rot. She is vivid, dressed in satins and lace and adorned with jewels. She confesses not to have seen the daylight in years and has no account of the days or the months or even the years that she has spent in seclusion.

Embittered by the deception of her lover, Miss Havisham seeks to take revenge on the male species. She adopts a girl, Estella, and raises her up with the intention of wreaking revenge on men. Ironically, Miss Havisham has succeeded so well, Estella cannot even love her. Toward the end of her life, Miss Havisham repents of her bitterness and tries to mend the hearts she has broken. She realizes that she is responsible for the suffering of both Estella and Pip. She is redeemed somewhat by her decision to sponsor Herbert Pocket in his career and by the way she begs Pip to forgive her.

Mrs. Joe

What is most interesting about her is that her actual name, Georgiana Maria, is uttered by chance by a character in the 58th chapter, long after her death. All through the book she is called Mrs. Joe. For the most part, she is an unpleasant woman who abuses Pip and makes him feel like a burden. The serious attack by Orlick impairs her speech, hearing, and sight, and she is bedridden for the rest of her life. She is a frustrated woman who has a history of arguing with others, so it becomes difficult to find her attacker. In a sense, she is a victim of her own cruelty, much like Drummle (who is later killed by a horse he abuses). Her illness restores peace and happiness in the house.

Biddy Wopsle

Biddy is a complete antithesis of Mrs. Joe. She is calm, friendly, down to earth and loving. She also becomes Pip’s friend at the evening school where Pip studies. The school belongs to her grandmother. Biddy promises Pip that she will help him become an “uncommon” gentleman and teach him all that she learns. Pip trusts her and often confides in her. In the initial stages of her friendship with Pip, she develops an infatuation for him. She knows that Pip loves Estella. She remarks that she is glad to be Pip’s trusted friend and would be happy to remain so. Pip feels immense admiration for her. At the end, when Biddy marries Joe, Pip realizes that he is not worthy of her. Though he had meant to ask her to marry him, he is glad that Joe did first.

Mr. Jaggers

Jaggers is a powerful and interesting character. As a criminal defense lawyer, he represents a profession that Dickens strongly detested. His unsavory career is reflected in the ominous aura of his office, the dubious nature of his clients, and his mannerism of frequently washing his hands, symbolic of washing the guilt of his underworld clients from his hands.

He is a harsh, businesslike man; everything about him seems fierce and frightening. In the end, though, Jaggers becomes more complex by his admission that he wanted to help Estella when she was a child of three. He pleads with Pip not to ruin her life by telling her who her parents were. Though it contradicts everything he has seemed to stand for, it enriches his character, making him seem more real for his paradoxical behaviors.


Wemmick is Mr. Jaggers’ clerk and one of the most universally good characters in the novel. Interestingly, however, he lives a dual life. At the office, he is stern and officious, in keeping with the nature of his business for Jaggers. At home in Walworth, he is jovial and friendly. He lives with his father, the extremely hard-of-hearing man known as the Aged P. And he is in love with a girl, Miss Skiffins. Wemmick becomes a close friend of Pip’s and advises him on the matter of smuggling Magwitch out of England. When Pip’s life is gloomy with despair, Wemmick surprises him by escorting him to his own marriage with Miss Skiffins.

Herbert Pocket

Herbert is a simple and uncomplicated character. He becomes Pip’s most loyal friend in London. They first meet as young boys at Miss Havisham’s house when Herbert dares Pip to fight, and is promptly knocked down.

As their friendship develops, Herbert helps and supports Pip through hard times. He is a hard-working boy with aspirations of business success that Pip finds unlikely. Later, however, in appreciation of his friendship, Pip secretly extends financial help to Herbert in order to make his dreams a reality. Later, when Pip has realized the futility of his own great expectations, he follows Herbert’s example and even works for him as a clerk. All along, Herbert has been practical while Pip was lost in his dreams. He is a good stabling influence on Pip.

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