Great Expectations

Charles Dickens

Chapters 17–19

Summary Chapters 17–19

Pip’s desire to elevate his social standing never leaves him; he even seeks to better his surroundings by trying to teach Joe to read. When the ominous figure of the lawyer Jaggers appears with the message of Pip’s sudden fortune, the young man’s deepest wish comes true. But the exultant Pip is not content simply to enjoy his good fortune; rather, he reads more into it than he should, deciding that “Miss Havisham intended me for Estella” and that she must be his benefactor. His adolescent self-importance causes him to put on airs and act snobbishly toward Joe and Biddy, a character flaw that Pip will demonstrate throughout Great Expectations. In his career as a gentleman, he will cover up moments of uncertainty and fear by acting, as he says in Chapter 19, “virtuous and superior.”

In part, this poor behavior is caused by the same character trait that causes Pip to covet self-advancement. Pip has a deep-seated strain of romantic idealism, and as soon as he can imagine something better than his current condition (whether material, emotional, or moral), he immediately desires that improvement: when he sees Satis House, he longs for wealth; when he meets Estella, he longs for love and beauty; and when he acts poorly, he feels a powerful guilt that amounts to a longing to have acted more morally. This is the psychological center of the novel’s theme of self-improvement. But Pip’s romantic idealism is inherently unrealistic. Whatever he might wish, it is impossible to become a gentleman overnight and never again be a common boy, to immediately forget one’s old friends, family, and surroundings, and to abruptly change one’s inner self.

When Pip suddenly receives his fortune, he experiences a moment in which his romantic ideal seems to have come true. But the impediments remain, and Pip is forced to contend with the entanglements of his affection for his family and his home. Feeling his emotions clash, Pip is unsure how to behave, so he gives in fully to his romantic side and tries to act like a wealthy aristocrat—a person, he imagines, who would be snobbish to Joe and Biddy. Though he is at heart a very good person, Pip has not yet learned to value human affection and loyalty above his immature vision of how the world ought to be. In this section and throughout the novel, behaving snobbishly is a way for Pip to simplify the complicated emotional situations in which he finds himself as he attempts to impose his immature picture of the world on the real complexities of life.

When Pip moves to London, a new stage in his life begins. As we are told at the end of Chapter 19: “This is the end of the first stage of Pip’s expectations.”