Book Summary: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Book Summary: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Type of work: Fictional study of moral values

Setting: 19th-century England

Principal characters

Philip “Pip” Pirrip, a gentle and well-mannered orphan boy
Joe Gargery, Pip’s brother-in-law, a kind-hearted blacksmith
Mrs Joe, Joe’s cantankerous wife and Pip’s sister
Miss Havisham, a wealthy and reclusive woman who lives at the Satis House
Estella Havisham, Miss Havisham’s conceited and beautiful adopted daughter
Abel Magwitch, an escaped felon
Compeyson, another escaped convict
Mr Jaggers, Abel Magwitch’s aggressive lawyer
Molly, Jaggers’ housekeeper
Biddy, Joe Gargery’s childhood friend and maid
Orlick, a surly brute employed at Satis House
Herbert Pocket, Pip’s close friend and later business partner

Great Expectations Book Summary

Seven-year-old Philip Pirrip, or “Pip” as he was called, was “brought up by hand” in his cruel sister’s home after their parents and five brothers had died. The sister’s blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery, was fond of the boy and protected him, when possible, from his wife’s abuse.

One Christmas Eve as Pip made his way to the churchyard to visit his family’s graves, he was accosted by “a fearful man … with a great iron on his leg.” The convict ordered Pip to bring him food and a file, or he would “have his heart and liver out.” Terrorized, Pip returned with a pork pie and a file.

Then, while the convict devoured the food and began to grind off his manacles, Pip made his escape. Later that day when a unit of soldiers stopped to have Joe repair a set of handcuffs, Pip learned that they had apprehended two convicts, one of whom had threatened Pip.

The boy was relieved to hear that the man had confessed to stealing the pie and other “wittles” from Joe’s house. Not long afterwards, Pip was hired by the eccentric Miss Havisham of Satis House as a playmate for her adopted daughter Estella. Pip found Miss Havisham a puzzling woman: jilted by her fiancé years ago, she had stopped all the clocks in the house, left the rooms untouched, and made revenge her chief aim in life.

One of her weapons in this aim was Estella, who treated Pip with contempt because of his “coarseness.” Pip, however, loved Estella from the beginning. One day, Pip was attacked by a “pale young gentleman.” After Pip soundly trounced the lad, Estella, who had been thrilled by the fight, allowed Pip to kiss her. From that time forward, Pip, in order to win Estella’s favor, was determined to make himself into a real gentleman.

His hopes were dashed, however, when Miss Havisham abruptly returned him to Joe to learn blacksmithing. Back in his familiar surroundings, Pip, ashamed of his trade and of his brother-in-law, felt that “all was coarse and common.” One day Pip returned to Satis House for a visit and discovered that Estella had gone off to school.

Then on the way home, he found his sister, who had been assaulted and lay unconscious on the road. The only clue left at the scene was a filed leg cuff – which Pip recognized as the one worn by his convict. Over the next week, “Mrs Joe” partially recovered her hearing and sight, but not her temper.

Biddy, an uncouth domestic who had been hired to care for her, soon fell in love with Pip – and now Pip grew even more disenchanted with his station in life. Four years later, a lawyer, Mr Jaggers, came to the Gargerys’ door to buy Pip’s services on behalf of an anonymous benefactor.

Pip was to be removed from Satis House, given a “handsome property,” and “brought up as a gentleman – in a word, as a young fellow of great expectations.” Astounded, Pip imagined the offer had come from Miss Havisham, certain that she was grooming him to marry Estella. Pip soon traveled to London to learn the fine art of foppery, with Jaggers as his new guardian.

There, Pip met two of Jaggers’ employees: Molly, the housekeeper, and John Wemmick, Jaggers’ trusted clerk. When Pip located his lodgings, he was startled to find that he had a roommate, Herbert Pocket – the very “pale young gentleman” he had boxed at Miss Havisham’s.

Nevertheless, Herbert and Pip soon became friends. The novelty of Pip’s situation, however, began to wear off. London was not a beautiful city, and though Pip had managed to distance himself from the boorish Joe and Biddy, he was still not the gentleman he had hoped to become. Years passed, and Pip, now a “gentleman,” received a visit from Joe. Mortified by the blacksmith’s clumsy ways and his “bird nest of a hat,” Pip could hardly bear Joe’s presence.

The next day, when Pip left for his home village, he decided not to stay at Joe’s home, since true gentlemen boarded at the Blue Boar Inn. During his visit, Pip went to Satis House and, to his dismay, was greeted by a gruff and hateful servant named Orlick. Estella, who had returned from her schooling, was now a ravishing young woman.

Sensing Pip’s renewed interest in her daughter, Miss Havisham encouraged him; and Pip, thinking Estella was now “intended” for him, tried to court her. In turn, however, she informed him that he was the only man she would not marry. Pip was crestfallen.

When Pip returned to London, he learned that his sister had been murdered. In her death throes, she had somehow written the words “Joe,” “Pardon,” and “Pip.” Also in an apparent effort to leave clues as to her murderer’s identity, she had drawn a “T,” though Pip could not help but suspect Orlick. The day Pip turned 21, his anonymous benefactor decreed he was to receive the sum of 500 pounds a year, which Pip gladly accepted.

Then two years later a weather-beaten stranger appeared at Pip’s door. “You’re a game one,” the man uttered with deliberate affection. “I’m glad you’ve grow’d up a game one!” Pip suddenly recognized the stranger: it was “his convict”; and Pip became even more horrified to learn that this man had been his long-time benefactor. Indeed, the felon, whose name was Abel Magwitch, had acquired the money he had sent to Pip by herding sheep in Australia.

Now he had come back to England – despite penalty of death – to see Pip. Disillusioned, Pip “shrank from him as from some terrible beast.” When Magwitch lay down and slept, though, Pip pondered his situation. He had shunned Joe as being too coarse; the guilt welling up, he saw now “how fully wrecked he was and how the ship in which he had sailed had gone to pieces.”

Meanwhile, Pip learned that the convict with whom Magwitch had been captured, a man named Compeyson, had played the part of a gentleman at their trial and thus had received a milder sentence. Magwitch had sworn revenge. The felon also revealed that it was this same Compeyson who had jilted Miss Havisham years ago. Dejected, Pip returned to London to find a note from the clerk Wemmick, warning him not to go home: Compeyson was in London, spying on Magwitch.

Wemmick also suggested that Magwitch be relocated, and Herbert promptly moved him to a house near the waterfront. Herbert and Pip now devised a scheme to spirit Magwitch out of the country. Purchasing a boat, the two began to row up and down the river for a period of weeks.

When their rowing would no longer attract suspicion, Pip would transport Magwitch to a ship and they would sail away. Jaggers invited Pip for dinner one day. Seeing the housekeeper Molly again, it finally occurred to Pip that she bore a striking resemblance to Estella. Later, Wemmick admitted that Jaggers had once defended Molly on a murder charge, and, in return, she had become his servant.

Molly’s child had always been thought murdered – but Pip knew otherwise. Armed with this new information, Pip returned to Satis House. Regretting her earlier treatment of Pip, Miss Havisham offered to do something to prove to him that she was “not all of stone.” Pip forgave her, after which Miss Havisham acknowledged that Jaggers had in fact, many years earlier, entrusted two-year- old Estella to her care.

Pip left, but, sensing some danger, immediately returned to the house, where he found Miss Havisham enveloped in flames, her yellowed wedding dress having brushed against the fire. Pip flung her to the ground and beat out the flames with his cloak, saving her life. Back in London, Magwitch confessed to Herbert that Molly, before she was tried for murder, had been his wife. Just a year after their marriage, Estella had been born, and he had given the child to Miss Havisham to save her from being sent to an orphanage.

Some days later, Pip received a mysterious note summoning him to a local limekiln. When he arrived, he found no one. Then, just as he turned to leave, he was overpowered and bound by Orlick. Orlick, who was one of Compeyson’s spies, gruffly confessed to Mrs Joe’s murder; then he picked up a long-handled hammer with which to dash out Pip’s brains. But just then a group of men, led by Herbert, heard Pip’s shouts and came to his rescue. Orlick dropped his weapon and fled into the night.

Herbert, it turned out, had found the note and, suspecting mischief, had followed Pip. The next morning, Pip and Herbert embarked on their plan to smuggle Magwitch out of the country. Compeyson, however, intercepted them before they boarded the escape vessel. In the melee that followed, Magwitch fought with Compeyson and the two rivals plunged off the boat into the water.

After a brief struggle, it was Magwitch who swam back to the boat. The magistrate, who by now had arrived at the dock, shackled the severely injured man. In spite of Jaggers’ able defense, Magwitch was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Pip visited kind-hearted Magwitch in his cell and told him about Estella. This news proved to be the only consolation the distraught ex-convict would take to his death.

Soon, Pip fell violently ill. Once more Joe stepped in and nursed his brother-in- law back to health. Pip, finally having learned from Joe and Magwitch the true meaning of love and humility, returned to his boyhood village, only to find that Miss Havisham had died of her burns. With the marriage of Joe and Biddy, it was now Pip who found himself no longer needed. Herbert and Pip decided to sign on as mates aboard a ship bound for India.

When he returned to England eleven years later, Pip found that the Gargerys had been blessed with both a daughter and a son – a son named Pip. Pip once again stopped by Satis House to call on Estella, who had by then been married and widowed. Now, as the more mature couple reunited, he “saw no shadow of another parting from her.”

Great Expectations Reviews

Dickens, himself the product of a large family blighted by hunger and privation, knew first-hand the experiences of which he wrote. Great Expectations is at once a superbly constructed mystery and a profound examination of moral values. Few writers of fiction have matched Dickens’ genius for creating characters whom are both believable and intriguingly complex.

The reader at first views Pip, for instance, with humor and compassion, a view that soon turns to scorn as he systematically spurns those who love him to pursue high social status.

Indeed, Pip must suffer before his own humanity can be restored – a humanity mastered through and reflected in Magwitch’s love, Joe’s loyalty, and Biddy’s abiding trust. In fashioning his grand host of characters, Dickens seems to mock those who seek fame and fortune, arguing instead that it is the pure in heart who are most praiseworthy and virtuous.

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