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Pierre Bayle

Themes

Themes are the central topics of the work.

Morality

For most of the novel, Pip struggles to move past his poor, humble upbringing. As he fights to win the love of Estella, Pip often casts aside the loyalty and love of others. When Magwitch appears in his room, Pip finally begins to see that perhaps he should not focus on money and social mobility to win Estella’s favor and become a “gentleman.” Becoming a gentleman, Pip learns, has less to do with money and social mobility and more to do with the manner in which he treats others. Despite Joe’s poor speech and dislike of the city, Pip eventually sees the love and friendship that Joe has given him. Even though Compeyson has had an education, he still becomes a criminal. Furthermore, although Magwitch has been labeled a criminal, Pip sees that there is good in him.

Social Class

From the start of the novel, social class plays an important role in Great Expectations. Pip desires to move into a higher social class so that he can “become a gentleman” and win the affection of Estella. When Jaggers appears at his home, Pip believes that this is his chance to go from a poor orphan to a successful, rich gentleman. However, Pip’s dreams and expectations become continually shattered from that moment on. Instead of becoming his benefactor and preparing him to marry Estella, Miss Havisham simply uses him as a practice suitor for Estella. She encourages Estella to treat him badly and delights in his misery. Once he is granted a benefactor, Pip squanders most of the money and is left with nothing. Instead of gaining upward mobility into a new social class, Pip struggles to understand himself among the rich and “important” people of London. Although Dickens is not necessarily saying that it can’t be done, he shows through Pip that the movement between social classes is often a lost cause. It is better to find happiness within yourself than to try to be someone you are not.

Crime

Crime, and the illusion of crime, play an important role in Great Expectations. When he first meets Magwitch on the marshes, the iron around the criminal’s leg frightens Pip. When he leaves the marshes, Pip feels constant paranoia that the police will find him or the criminal will kill him. From an early age, Pip fears and distrusts the justice system. As he grows older and wiser, the failures in the justice system reveal themselves even more intensely to Pip. Much time passes before anyone but Pip sees Orlick’s true colors. On the other hand, Magwitch is often unfairly persecuted. Because Magwitch is dubbed “a criminal” early on, it seems impossible for him to break free from the label. At the close of the novel, Pip is the only one who can see Magwitch’s inner goodness and nobility.

Motifs

Motifs are concepts, objects, structures, or literary devices that recur in a literary work.

Symmetry

In Great Expectations, the concept of symmetry illuminates the choices that Pip must make throughout his lifetime. For example, Pip has two sets of parents (his deceased biological parents and Joe and Mrs. Joe); there are two criminals (Magwitch and Compeyson) and two benefactors (Miss Havisham, the imagined benefactor, and Magwitch, the actual benefactor); and there are two women who hold Pip’s romantic interest (Biddy and Estella). Although it is never clear that one set is necessarily “better” than the other, the doubling often shows the extreme differences in the choices that Pip must make. Biddy, for example, is a safe romantic interest. She is a teacher, has a kind heart, and is of the same social class as Pip. Estella, in contrast, is beautiful but cold. Miss Havisham’s former love, Compeyson, mirrors Pip. Miss Havisham, who is of a higher social class, desires Compeyson, who is a commoner. Though Compeyson deserts Miss Havisham at the altar, Pip and Estella eventually find their way to one another. The lingering feeling that Molly resembles someone eventually leads Pip to realize that she is, in fact, Estella’s mother.

However, sometimes the doubling and symmetry has ultimately positive results. In order to return the favor that Magwitch has done for him, Pip becomes Herbert’s secret benefactor. This only happens after Pip realizes that although money is ultimately meaningless to him, money can help Herbert realize his business dreams.

Light and Dark

Throughout Great Expectations, the setting provides an indication of what is going to happen to Pip. Instances of light and dark especially show (on both literal and symbolic levels) how others will react to Pip. Although Satis House is large and expensive, the house is falling apart. Satis House is forebodingly dark and musty, and often those inside the house come from the shadows to frighten Pip. Orlick is often described as a “shadowy” figure who cannot be trusted. The marshes are always misty, dark, and concealed. Even in the city of London, Pip often travels through passageways that are dark, gloomy, and frightening. Light, meanwhile, often signifies goodness. Wemmick’s castle is bathed in light and lightheartedness. In Chapter Eleven, light comes from Joe’s forge. Though Pip does not realize it at the time, Joe is the true light in his life.

Symbols

Symbols are objects or words that represent another concrete object or abstract concept.

Prisons

The symbol of the prison exhibits the inability of both criminals and those of lower social classes to move upward. Although the prison ship in Great Expectations is a mode of transportation, it is stagnant in the water. Because he has been labeled a criminal, Magwitch will never escape the physical prison or the metaphorical prison of society’s judgment.

In part, Pip fears prisoners and prisons because he feels imprisoned by his social class and poor upbringing. Part of the reason why Magwitch decides to become Pip’s benefactor is that he sees himself in Pip. Both are imprisoned by the ideals of society, and both struggle to break free from these traps.

Clocks and Wedding Attire

One of the first things that Pip notices about Miss Havisham and Satis House is that the clocks are stopped at twenty before nine and wedding attire adorns both Miss Havisham and the house. The clocks and wedding attire show how time stops at Satis House; no matter what happens in the world outside, Satis House will remain stuck in the moments before Compeyson deserted Miss Havisham at the altar.

Additionally, the worn wedding attire symbolizes a bleak outlook for Pip and Estella. Love has no real meaning in Satis House. Although Satis means “enough,” love will never be enough for Estella. The wedding attire shows that no matter how much Pip loves Estella, he will never be with her in the way that he desires.

The Ruined Garden

The garden of Satis House is completely dead. Despite the state of the garden, Pip and Estella often find themselves wandering in the garden, searching for signs of life. The garden symbolizes Miss Havisham’s quality of life. Although she is quirky and eccentric, she has little left to live for after being deserted at the altar. The ruined garden of Satis House shows how nothing will be able to grow from the grounds of Satis House; the house has suffered from years of neglect and care, and Miss Havisham’s depression has saturated the house and garden with sadness.

Key Literary Elements

Setting

Most of Great Expectations takes place in the marshes of Kent and London, England. Because of Miss Havisham and Estella, Satis House is a key location in the story. The marshes are also important, as they provide a misty yet gloomy example of the danger that Pip constantly faces.

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