Great Expectations: A Consideration

The present paper will address the degree to which the following statement may be considered to be accurate. Great Expectations concerns itself with anticipation and realization, and the impossibility of aligning the ideal and the actual. The central question, then, is this: does this statement address the pivotal questions of the text?

In determining whether or not –or the degree in which– the above statement addresses the right question, it is first necessary to state what the central “questions,” or themes, of this text are, providing reasonable proof that they are the most pivotal to the story.

While the story is open to a wide range of interpretations, we may begin with the simple assertion that this is first and foremost Pip’s story. He is the central character, and his is the voice from which the story is told. Dickens has mastered something quite modern in the character of Pip insofar as he seems neither hero nor anti-hero. We watch Pip grow, leave his home for the big city, pursue false dreams, embrace to despair, find love.

What, then, we might well ask are those issue’s which are central to Pip’s story. He is raised by his sister and her husband Joe Gargery, a blacksmith. The values which the couple espouse are decency, honesty, friendliness, and generosity. Textual evidence shows Joe’s easy way with Pip: “You know Pip…you and me is always friends, and I’d be the last to tell upon you, any time” (18). There is a warm loyalty, a fealty between the Pip and Joe which seems to make the difference in age vanish. Evidence of Pip’s rearing, in conjunction with his innocence, is found early in the book when Pip accosted by Magwitch, does not retreat but makes a gesture of kindness. These values are, however, given up, for what seem loftier desires: for wealth, education, class, and status. Pip’s pursuit of these ineffable things are his downfall. Before he can find true love he most go on a journey of rediscovery, embracing the values espoused by Joe and his sister; letting go of superficial pleasures for things that may be said to sustain the soul.

In this light, we can now go back and assess the validity and the extent to which the thesis proposition is correct or accurate. To reiterate: Great Expectations concerns itself with anticipation and realization, and the impossibility of aligning the ideal and the actual. I want to argue, based upon the preliminary gambit that the first part of the statement is entirely true, while the second part misses the mark, slightly. In what follows, I will deal with these two halves of the proposition.

Anticipation and Realization.

Charles Dickens has written a novel which concerns itself with anticipation and realization. The first question to ask is this: at which point in the story does anticipation occur? I want to suggest that anticipation occurs when one is made aware that there is something “other,” something which exists apart from his or her world which is viewed as being desirable. Perhaps anticipation occurs at the same moment when innocence is lost.

A key word in Dickens’s novel is the word “property” (80). To be sure, Pip’s family comes from humble means. When he enters the world of Miss Havisham and beautiful Estella. Witness Pip’s manner after the visit.

And then I told Joe that I felt miserable, and that I hadn’t been able to explain myself to Mrs. Joe…and that there had been a beautiful young lady at Miss Havisham’s who was dreadfully proud, and that she had said I was common, and that I knew I was common, and that I wished I was not common, and that the lies had come of it somehow, though I didn’t know how (81).

What occurs in this instance is something akin to a break in time. Pip acquires an awareness which utterly changes his perspective. More, this experience plants within him the seeds of anticipation. Joe’s response to Pip is this: “Whether common ones as to callings and earnings…mightn’t be the better of continuing for to keep company with common ones, instead of going out to play with on common ones” (82). Its an interesting response, and one well worth considering. Joe addresses the pejorative term “common” and invests it with a folksy-type of valor. It is as if common comes closer to meaning “in common,” as in “having a connection to” rather than something quotidian or sullied. Whatever the case, Joe’s wisdom is not heeded by Pip; he goes to the city to find wealth and status.

The nature of the anticipation –clearly seen in the “felicitous idea” beginning chapter 10—is marked by a desire to have what one doesn’t not already have, to achieve what is not yet achieved. In truth, there is little which is wrong with anticipation itself. Indeed, Dickens himself, no stranger to debt and prison, surely felt anticipation as he enrolled for two years of formal education at Wellington House Academy. The second part of Great Expectations deals with how Pip goes about realizing this anticipation. What are the terms of his success?

It appears that Pip sells out before he even arrives in London, to court success and wealth. Prior to departing he is filled with vainglorious conceit, imagining, laughably, that even the cows look upon him differently, seeming to “wear a more respectful air now, and to face round, in order that they might stare as long as possible at the possessor of such great expectations –farewell monotonous acquaintances of my childhood…” (165).

When addressing the issue of Pip’s anticipation being realized we must be clear that his ideas about what lay ahead were largely inchoate. That is to say, the pursuits which Pip was attracted to were of little if any substance. Therefore, realizing opaque goals such as status and wealth miss, it seems Dickens is pointing out, to be missing the point. Pip accounts very little for the process of becoming a self.

In “the Sense of Self” critic Monroe Engels address exactly this question as it pertains to Great Expectations. The spirit of his criticism is oriented towards finding Dickens’s novel one which deals with disillusion and false values. The making of a self is not considered a premium value. Instead concerns for property exert influence over characters in such a profound way that the real ontological questions become obliterated. In many ways this criticism is as valid today towards modern society, as it is in this novel.

Given the concern for property in this novel, it is perhaps appropriate to address Dickens work in light of Marxist criticism. This is relevant to the thesis question insofar as it deals with motivation: what guides an individual to act. Marxist theory is predicated upon the following: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (Selden 70). To be certain, Marxism, as it is defined by The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, concerns itself with “perceiving the social world in terms of categories of class” (232). Pip leaves his home virtually as a child. He has little concept of self-identity and is deeply susceptible to outside influences. Figures in the novel which represent this outside influence are Jaggers, Estella, and Miss Haversham.

We can now turn to the second part of the thesis statement which concerns itself with the impossibility of aligning the ideal and the actual. It is, I believe, a miscalculation to assert that ideal and actual cannot merge. The problem occurs at the level in which the ideals are formed. Pip is subjected to a process whereby he is exposed to outside influence which corrupt his ideals. Had these experiences been altered, perhaps his ideals would have altered too. To suggest a circumstance: it is entirely feasible within the rubric of Pip’s world that, as a son of a blacksmith, he would have followed in the trade. In keeping with this, Pip might come to find the ideal to be working hard and enjoying the close bond in relationships which are loving, honest, caring, and direct. These are certainly values which Pip is raised with. Therefore, it is important to stress that for ideals to be aligned with actual outcomes it is necessary that the ideals not be corrupted. Of course, it is perfectly necessary to counter this argument with the notion that it is difficult if not impossible to guard one’s ideals in such a way. The argument is this: ideals cannot be legislated, they are formed in response to what one sees and understands, and holds to be of value.

This may well be true, but it does not defeat the previous assertion that ideals and actuality can merge in a happy unison. There is textual support for this in the character of Magwitch. He is, in a sense, the source of Pip’s expectations. He represents something from the outside, something almost exotic and certainly fearful in the beginning of the narrative. It is through him that he learns the truth of Estella’s parentage. This is a key episode in that, prior to this revelation, Estella’s image was elevated to a special status. She was something to aspire to, something to attain: she was not, like him, a common orphan. Yet, the ironic twist provided by Dickens shows us that ideals can merge with actuality.

Throughout the course of the novel, Pip wishes and pines for Estella. There is an unattainable quality to her which Pip wishes to surmount. However, his dreams are false: he loves her not for who she is, but rather, for who he isn’t. He believes, in ignorance, that he may better himself through a union with Estella. Only after her true background is revealed –the child of a convict and a woman tried for murder—is he free to love her in a genuine manner. But for this to happen, Pip must let go of his pretenses and reach something of a higher plane.

A deliberate and exacting reorientation of ideals causes actual events to fall in line with what is of value, what may be said to be ideal. Pip does unite with Estella. In doing so, he also aligns himself with Joe and his wife. This move is a deliberate shift in conception of self and illustrates the notion that ideals must be held to a standard of truth if they are to be actualized. Without this sort of truth, such ideals are mere unattainable dreams. Such is the message of Dickens classic work, Great Expectations. Find more interesting papers at


  • Blackburn, Simon. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.
  • Engels, Monroe. “The Sense of Self” in The Maturity of Dickens. New York: S & S, 1959.
  • Selden, Raman & Widdowson, Peter. Contemporary Literary Theory. Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1993.
  • Wilson, Angus. “Afterword” in Great Expectations. USA: Signet Classics, 1980.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *