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Charles Dickens' Great Expectations is an eloquent comment on social class at the time of the post-Industrial Revolution. Instead of developing characters that are wholly of aristocratic status, Dickens chooses to instead represent all classes in society ranging from the upper echelons of society to the poor peasants struggling to survive. The ideas of social class are central to the text, as Pip, the protagonist eventually discovers that affluence and social standing are inferior to genuine, human feelings such as love, loyalty and self-worth.
In the most basic and literal expectations of the title, it is referring primarily to the money with which Pip is endowed and the opportunities it presented. The original expectations of Pip, coming from his poor background, were strictly limited. An apprenticeship in Blacksmithing, following the example of Joe, his brother in law with whom Pip lives, meant little beyond hard work for little reward and even less opportunity to move 'up' within society ; Without his inheritance, it would have been impossible for someone such as Pip to make such a transformation. However, his circumstances change, when a then unknown benefactor unexpectedly makes his once limited expectations great. There are also the opportunities that are afforded now with the unlikely fortune. Centrally, there is the potential for transformation from a working class man into a gentleman. Within the historical context, a gentleman in 1861 was considered to be a man of independent means or the expectation of it, polished and educated and, failing the monetary qualifications, family connections which could determine it. For instance, a gentleman with family lineage which determines his gentlemanly status, which would exclude Pip, embraces someone such as Bentley Dummle, who despite being from a wealthy family, is as boorish, foul-mouthed and unintelligent as people like Joe Gargery were assumed to be.
The title is laced with irony which manifests itself in situations throughout the novel. Little eventuates to be as it first seems. People like Mr. Jaggers the lawyer and the unhappy spinster, Ms. Havisham, showed Pip the disparity and falseness of upper class society. Mr. Jaggers made servants of his poor clients, such as Molly the maid. He looked down his nose at the poor and saw them as minions that can be taken advantage of. Throughout the novel, he proves to be a villain of sorts, despite his wealth and high social standing. Ms. Havisham, the rich recluse - and adopted mother of Molly's child Estella-"bought" a family to call her own. But, Ms. Havisham was anything but a mother. She could barely take care of herself in her immaculately dark and dingy mansion, let alone raise kids.
Miss Havisham played a key role in Great Expectations. She expected Estella to obey all her teachings and to develop an unbreakable heart, not weak and vulnerable, so that she wouldn't have to go through the misery Miss Havisham experienced. Miss Havisham raised Estella this way, expecting others to fall in love with Estella's beauty while Estella scorned them. Miss Havisham exclaimed, "Break their hearts, my pride and hope, break their hearts and have no mercy!"(88) She also said, "Well? You can break his heart?"(54) The effects of Miss Havisham's expectations were long-lasting. Estella married Bentley Drummle, resulting in an unhappy life. In teaching Estella to break others' hearts, Miss Havisham caused Estella to find out how to love the hard way. Pip was also affected by Miss Havisham's expectations. Pip, in longing for Estella, was in torture for a long period of time. In fact, the main reason Pip wanted to become a gentleman in the first place was because he admired Estella, and desperately wanted to change from the "coarse, common laboring boy" into a refined, wealthy gentleman.
Dickens dispels the myth that people with money are happy. A comparison between Miss Havisham and Joe Gargery is one example. While Miss Havisham had money and an estate, she did not have a happy life or a grasp on sanity. Alone in a dark estate, she lived with memories of a time when her love for a man was scorned. Estella was the only other person in the house. Yet, even Estella had to leave the place, due to the misery that the owner induced in that mansion. She was also conniving. She led Pip along to believe he was destined to be married to Estella and to inherit her estate. This, however, turned out to be an impossible dream and lead Pip to falsely believe great things will come to him.
Pip believed that the mystery benefactor is none other than Miss Havisham, who is grooming him for an eventual marriage to Estella. The title, however, also has an ironic sense, because Pip has a "great [many] expectations" beyond said fortune. He believes that he is being prepared to marry Estella. Then, after the marriage, he expects to inherit Miss Havisham's estate, Satis House.
It is later discovered that the benefactor is Magwitch, the escapee encountered by Pip in the opening scenes of the novel. Abel Magwitch, or Pip's benefactor, expected Pip to love him back as his own father. Magwitch gave his money to Pip expecting Pip to become a gentleman. Magwitch is expected by other to live by the law. However, he couldn't be blamed for being abandoned and being forced to steal in order to live. Most criminals were expected to be cruel, coarse, creatures. However, Magwitch defied this stereotype by being a considerate and selfless benefactor to Pip, because he felt gratitude and affection for Pip. Magwitch avenged himself on society by creating a gentleman from a poor, low-class boy. He said, "Yes, Pip, dear boy, I've made a gentleman on you! It's me wot has done it! I swore that time, sure as ever I earned a guinea, that guinea should go to you. I swore afterwards, sure as ever I spec'lated n got rich, you should get rich. I lived rough, that you should live smooth...Look'ee here, Pip. I'm your second father. You're my sonmore to me nor any sonbut wot, if I gets liberty and money, I'll make that boy a gentleman! Ah! You shall show money with lords for wagers, and beat em!" (298)
Miss Havisham's, Pip's, and Magwitch's expectations caused a chain reaction of events that otherwise would not have happened. Other characters in Great Expectations were impacted by each one's expectations, and most of them were associated. As displayed by the character of Miss Havisham, it is foolish to live in the past, because it is a selfish act. Not only did she harm herself, but Estella and Pip as well. In London, where Pip lives out society's and his own concept of a gentleman, he leads a directionless, futile life; he has no intellectual, cultural, or spiritual values and purpose. Pip's being a gentleman seemed to consist of having good table manners, acquiring an upper class accent, wearing the right clothes, and going into debt. Perhaps the ultimate example of the meaninglessness of his life as a man of expectations is his hiring The Avenging Phantom, shortened to the Avenger. What or who is being avenged? In the end, Pip discovered that wealth and social position could be corrupting to a person's morality. Pip realized that he had to sacrifice his great expectations in order to preserve his morality and inner worth.