Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Ambition and Self-Improvement
The moral theme of Great Expectations is quite simple: affection, loyalty, and conscience are more important than social advancement, wealth, and class. Dickens establishes the theme and shows Pip learning this lesson, largely by exploring ideas of ambition and self-improvement—ideas that quickly become both the thematic center of the novel and the psychological mechanism that encourages much of Pip’s development. At heart, Pip is an idealist; whenever he can conceive of something that is better than what he already has, he immediately desires to obtain the improvement. When he sees Satis House, he longs to be a wealthy gentleman; when he thinks of his moral shortcomings, he longs to be good; when he realizes that he cannot read, he longs to learn how. Pip’s desire for self-improvement is the main source of the novel’s title: because he believes in the possibility of advancement in life, he has “great expectations” about his future.
Ambition and self-improvement take three forms in Great Expectations—moral, social, and educational; these motivate Pip’s best and his worst behavior throughout the novel. First, Pip desires moral self-improvement. He is extremely hard on himself when he acts immorally and feels powerful guilt that spurs him to act better in the future. When he leaves for London, for instance, he torments himself for behaving so wretchedly toward Joe and Biddy. Second, Pip desires social self-improvement. In love with Estella, he longs to become a member of her social class, and, encouraged by Mrs. Joe and Pumblechook, he entertains fantasies of becoming a gentleman. The working out of this fantasy forms the basic plot of the novel; it provides Dickens the opportunity to gently satirize the class system of his era and to make a point about its capricious nature. Significantly, Pip’s life as a gentleman is no more satisfying—and certainly no more moral—than his previous life as a blacksmith’s apprentice. Third, Pip desires educational improvement. This desire is deeply connected to his social ambition and longing to marry Estella: a full education is a requirement of being a gentleman. As long as he is an ignorant country boy, he has no hope of social advancement. Pip understands this fact as a child, when he learns to read at Mr. Wopsle’s aunt’s school, and as a young man, when he takes lessons from Matthew Pocket. Ultimately, through the examples of Joe, Biddy, and Magwitch, Pip learns that social and educational improvement are irrelevant to one’s real worth and that conscience and affection are to be valued above erudition and social standing.
Throughout Great Expectations, Dickens explores the class system of Victorian England, ranging from the most wretched criminals (Magwitch) to the poor peasants of the marsh country (Joe and Biddy) to the middle class (Pumblechook) to the very rich (Miss Havisham). The theme of social class is central to the novel’s plot and to the ultimate moral theme of the book—Pip’s realization that wealth and class are less important than affection, loyalty, and inner worth. Pip achieves this realization when he is finally able to understand that, despite the esteem in which he holds Estella, one’s social status is in no way connected to one’s real character. Drummle, for instance, is an upper-class lout, while Magwitch, a persecuted convict, has a deep inner worth. Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the novel’s treatment of social class is that the class system it portrays is based on the post-Industrial Revolution model of Victorian England. Dickens generally ignores the nobility and the hereditary aristocracy in favor of characters whose fortunes have been earned through commerce. Even Miss Havisham’s family fortune was made through the brewery that is still connected to her manor. In this way, by connecting the theme of social class to the idea of work and self-advancement, Dickens subtly reinforces the novel’s overarching theme of ambition and self-improvement.
Crime, Guilt, and Innocence
The theme of crime, guilt, and innocence is explored throughout the novel largely through the characters of the convicts and the criminal lawyer Jaggers. From the handcuffs Joe mends at the smithy to the gallows at the prison in London, the imagery of crime and criminal justice pervades the book, becoming an important symbol of Pip’s inner struggle to reconcile his own inner moral conscience with the institutional justice system. In general, just as social class becomes a superficial standard of value that Pip must learn to look beyond in finding a better way to live his life, the external trappings of the criminal justice system (police, courts, jails, etc.) become a superficial standard of morality that Pip must learn to look beyond to trust his inner conscience. Magwitch, for instance, frightens Pip at first simply because he is a convict, and Pip feels guilty for helping him because he is afraid of the police. By the end of the book, however, Pip has discovered Magwitch’s inner nobility, and is able to disregard his external status as a criminal. Prompted by his conscience, he helps Magwitch to evade the law and the police. As Pip has learned to trust his conscience and to value Magwitch’s inner character, he has replaced an external standard of value with an internal one.
In Great Expectations, Pip becomes obsessed with a desire to be sophisticated and takes damaging risks in order to do so. After his first encounter with Estella, Pip becomes acutely self-conscious that “I was a common labouring-boy; that my hands were coarse, that my boots were thick.” (pg. 59). Once he moves to London, Pip is exposed to a glamourous urban world “so crowded with people and so brilliantly lighted,” and he quickly begins to “contract expensive habits.” As a result of spending money on things like a personal servant and fancy clothes, Pip quickly falls into debt, and damages Herbert’s finances as well as his own. Even more troubling, Pip tries to avoid anyone who might undermine his reputation as a sophisticated young gentleman. In the end, sophistication is revealed as a shallow and superficial value because it does not lead to Pip achieving anything, and only makes him lonely and miserable.
Education functions as a force for social mobility and personal growth in the novel. Joe and Biddy both use their education to pursue new opportunities, showing how education can be a good thing. Pip receives an education that allows him to advance into a new social position, but Pip’s education improves his mind without supporting the growth of his character. Biddy takes advantage to gather as much learning as she can, with Pip observing that she “learns everything I learn,” and eventually becomes a schoolteacher. Biddy also teaches Joe to read and write. Pip’s education does not actually provide him with practical skills or common sense, as revealed when Pip and Herbert completely fail at managing their personal finances. Pip’s emotional transformation once he learns the identity of his benefactor is what ultimately makes him into the man he wants to be, not anything he has learned in a classroom.
Although Pip and Estella both grow up as orphans, family is an important theme in the novel. Pip grows up with love and support from Joe, but fails to see the value of the unconditional love Joes gives him. He eventually reconciles with Joe after understanding his errors. Estella is exposed to damaging values from her adopted mother, Miss Havisham, and gradually learns from experience what it actually means to care about someone. For both characters, learning who to trust and how to have a loving relationship with family members is a major part of the growing-up process. As Estella explains at the end of the novel, “suffering has been stronger than all other teaching.” Both Estella and Pip make mistakes and live with the consequences of their family histories, but their difficult family experiences also helps to give them perspective on what is truly important in life.