The ending of Great Expectations is more controversial than it may seem at first. Before writing the scene in which Pip finds Estella in the garden and sees “no shadow of another parting from her,” Dickens wrote another, less romantic ending to the book. In this version, Pip hears that, after Drummle’s death, Estella married a country doctor in Shropshire. Walking through London one day with Joe and Biddy’s son, Pip runs into Estella and they have a very brief meeting and shake hands. Though they do not discuss the past, Pip says he could see that “suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.”
Dickens changed this ending at the suggestion of a friend, the novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton. He seems to have been motivated, at least in part, by the desire to please his reading public with a happy ending. Some critics have felt that the original ending of Great Expectations is more true to the tone of the novel, that the process of Pip’s redemption as a character is exactly the process that would make his continued love for Estella impossible. Others have felt that the original ending is too harsh, that their common past has destined Pip and Estella for one another, and that the main story of the novel is the story of their mutual development toward the conditions in which their love can be realized.
There is no clear historical reason to favor one of these endings over the other. Dickens stuck with the final version through every subsequent edition of the novel, but the original ending, changed only through outside influence, was Dickens’s first sense of how the story ought to end. Though the romantic ending remains the “official” ending of the book, each reader of Great Expectations may interpret the novel for him- or herself and decide which ending best fits his or her own understanding of the story.
In any case, Pip’s fundamental development by this final section remains clear, and it is emphasized in his reconciliation with Joe and Biddy in Chapters 57 and 58. Here, the lessons Pip has learned effectively summarize the thematic development of the novel as a whole. Pip has learned that social class is not a criterion for happiness; that strict designations of good and evil, and even of guilt and innocence, are nearly impossible to maintain in a world that is constantly changing (symbolized by the destruction of Satis House, which attempted to freeze time with its stopped clocks); and that his treatment of his loved ones must be the guiding principle in his life. Though his self-description as a narrator shows that he continues to judge himself harshly, he has forgiven his enemies and been reconciled with his friends. Whether he leaves the garden with Estella or only bids her farewell in her carriage, he has found a satisfying ending for himself.