Book Summary: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations is a novel that follows the childhood and young adult years of Pip, a village blacksmith’s apprentice. After inheriting a large fortune (and exceeding his expectations) from a mysterious benefactor, he moves to London to become part of high society.

One of our favourite quotes from Great Expectations is:

“I must be taken as I have been made. The success is not mine, the failure is not mine, but the two together make me.”

You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book summary will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

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Great Expectations Book Summary

As a young boy grows to manhood, he learns that his “great expectations” of wealth and power do not lead to virtue or happiness.

PART 1, CHAPTERS 1–6 

On a cold, wet Christmas Eve, young Pip is reading the gravestones of his dead parents and five brothers. Suddenly a man grabs him, threatening to kill him if Pip doesn’t secretly bring him food and a file by the next morning. 

The man, an escaped convict, needs the file to remove a heavy iron ring from his leg. Frightened, Pip goes home to his mean older sister, Mrs Joe Gargery, and her gentle blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery. Early on Christmas morning, after stealing food, drink, and Joe’s file, Pip heads back to the marsh.

En route, he frightens off a second convict. Pip’s Christmas dinner is ruined by guilt over having stolen food and by the moral preaching of their invited guests, Mr. Wopsle and Uncle Pumblechook. 

The theft of the food is about to be discovered when soldiers arrive to request that Joe repair some handcuffs. The soldiers take Pip, Joe, and Mr. Wopsle out to the marshes, searching for the escapees. The convicts are found and taken to the hulk (prison ship). Before boarding, Pip’s convict confesses to the theft of the food, but Pip never reveals the truth for fear of losing Joe’s trust.

CHAPTERS 7–14 

A year later, Pip takes his schooling from Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt and her young, orphaned relative, Biddy. Pip discovers that Joe is illiterate and wants to improve him, but Joe fears his wife wouldn’t appreciate any threat to her authority. 

Pumblechook brings news that Miss Havisham, his wealthy but eccentric landlady, would like a little boy to come play at her residence, Satis House, a dreary old mansion in town. 

Pumblechook has recommended Pip and is already taking credit for the boy’s future fortunes. At Satis House, Pip meets Estella, Miss Havisham’s beautiful but arrogant ward (adopted daughter). 

Miss Havisham is a brokenhearted recluse who lives among the decaying ruins of her bridal preparations from many years ago. Pip has a peculiar feeling about the house. Estella humiliates and slaps him, and makes fun of his common background. After this visit, Pip dreads his lowly status and determines to better himself with Biddy’s help.

One night, a stranger approaches Pip in the pub, secretly shows him the stolen file, and gives him two one-pound notes. During Pip’s second visit to Satis House, he meets Miss Havisham’s greedy relatives, the Pockets, and hears that Matthew Pocket is unworthy of inheriting her wealth since he never visits her.

For the next 8 to 10 months, Pip visits Satis House regularly. He becomes infatuated with the arrogant Estella, and less content with his lowly station in life. After easily defeating a pale young gentleman who had picked a fight with him, Pip is allowed to kiss Estella. Miss Havisham eventually dismisses Pip, giving him money so he can become apprenticed to Joe Gargery. Pip is neither happy, nor proud of his prospects.

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CHAPTERS 15–19 

A year later, Pip asks Joe for a half-day off so he can go thank Miss Havisham. Joe’s surly hired man, Orlick, provokes a huge quarrel with the Gargerys because he, too, wants time off. When Pip returns from Satis House, he finds his sister has been struck down by a convict’s leg ring, and suspects Orlick. Biddy comes to care for Mrs. Joe, now a half-wit invalid. 

Pip confesses to Biddy that he loves Estella, who is being educated abroad. Biddy reveals that Orlick is pursuing her. In his fourth year of apprenticeship, Pip learns from a London lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, that “great expectations” are about to come Pip’s way: a secret patron, whose identity Pip must never seek, has decided to educate Pip as a gentleman. 

Believing Miss Havisham to be his benefactor, Pip prepares for the lessons of his tutor, Matthew Pocket, and an exciting life in London. Now that Pip has begun to realize the power of money, he scorns his village.

PART 2, CHAPTERS 20–27 

After a five-hour coach ride to London, Pip sees that the streets are ugly, crooked, and dirty. While waiting to see his guardian, Mr. Jaggers, he meets the lawyer’s clerk, John Wemmick, who arranges Pip’s finances and finds him accommodation with Matthew Pocket’s son, Herbert (described as the pale young gentleman). 

Herbert describes Miss Havisham’s past. She was the spoiled daughter of a wealthy brewer. A dishonest half-brother, Arthur, was in conspiracy with her fiancé, Compeyson, who never showed up on their wedding morning, but instead sent a letter of regret—at which time she stopped all the clocks in her house (8:40 A.M.) and decided to leave everything in the house the way it was that day for the rest of her life. 

She is now old and fragile, and ghoulishly continues to wear the withered bridal gown. For many years, she has used the beautiful Estella as an instrument for getting even with men.

In the topsy-turvy Pocket household, Pip studies with two boys—the pleasant Startop and the belligerent Bentley Drummle. He spends evenings in Wemmick’s loving home (his “Castle”) and in Jaggers’s cold, businesslike residence, where he notices that Jaggers’s maid, Molly, has scarred wrists and a peculiar manner. Joe, who is uncomfortable with Pip in his elevated position, arrives with the news that Estella wishes to see him.

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CHAPTERS 28–35 

On the coach from London, convicts are being transported and Pip recognizes the stranger from the pub, who is telling his mate about the file and the two pound notes. Pip is anxious to conceal his own identity. 

At Miss Havisham’s, Pip finds Orlick working as a porter. Estella says she has no tenderness in her heart, yet Miss Havisham with her sick view of love wants Pip to love Estella (“Love her! Love her! Love her!”). 

Back in London, Pip tells Jaggers (who is also Miss Havisham’s lawyer) that Orlick is not to be trusted, so Jaggers decides to pay off Orlick. Herbert and Pip, close friends, exchange confidences: Herbert loves the sweet, young Clara Barley, and Pip loves the cold Estella. The two friends spend an amusing evening at the theater, watching Pip’s village neighbor, Mr. Wopsle (formerly the church clerk), foolishly perform the role of Hamlet.

Pip and Herbert are deep in debt after wasting money in a useless social club for young men, the Finches of the Grove. After learning of his sister’s death, Pip returns to his village for her funeral and finds the gentle Joe being bossed around by Trabb, the funeral director. Pip is sad to leave Joe on this day and promises to come back often.

CHAPTERS 36–39 

At age 21, Pip enjoys the life of a gentleman-in-the-making and begins to manage his annual allowance of 500 pounds. Wanting secretly to help Herbert in business, he gets Wemmick to locate a merchant who will set Herbert up in a trading firm. 

Pip is furious to learn that Bentley Drummle is courting Estella. One stormy night, when Pip is 23, his convict reappears. He is known as Provis, though his name is Abel Magwitch, and announces that he is Pip’s benefactor. 

He has done time in prison in Australia, then made a fortune sheep-ranching, and has now returned illegally to England to see what a fine gentleman his money has made. Pip is repulsed by the sight of him and horrified that he has left the honest home of Joe Gargery in order to be supported by a convict.

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PART 3, CHAPTERS 40–51 

Pip comes to recognize Provis’s years of sacrifice and decides to help him escape from England. As Pip and Herbert listen to Provis’s tales of crime, they realize that the second convict of long ago—Compeyson—was the man on the marshes and Miss Havisham’s fiancé.

Through Wemmick, they find that Compeyson is in London and wishes to expose Provis, who would be put to death if he is caught. So Pip and Herbert disguise Provis and hide him with Clara Barley. Before leaving the country with Provis, Pip visits Estella, only to find that she is marrying Bentley Drummle.

During a second dinner with Jaggers, Pip notices that Molly’s and Estella’s fingers are shaped in the same way. Wemmick tells him later that Molly had been tried for murder long ago; Jaggers got her acquitted, removed her infant daughter, then employed her as a maid.

When Pip returns to Satis House, Miss Havisham signs over 900 pounds so he can continue to support Herbert, who, along with Matthew, has been her only unselfish relative. She begs Pip’s forgiveness, then says she knows nothing about Estella’s background—only that she had asked Jaggers many years ago to bring her a child she could love. 

Certain that Molly is Estella’s mother, Pip leaves Miss Havisham seated beside a fire and wanders about the house. Shortly afterward, he goes back to check on her and finds the old lady ablaze with fire; her dress had been ignited by the flames, and Pip burns himself badly while rescuing her. Herbert takes care of Pip and gives information, as told by Provis, that leads Pip to conclude that Provis is Estella’s father.

CHAPTERS 52–59 

The day is set for Provis to be rowed down the Thames where he will hop aboard a steamer leaving the country. A threatening letter arrives, requesting that Pip go alone to the old lime kiln near the forge for information about Provis. 

He goes, and finds that a drunken, vengeful Orlick has set this trap, intending to kill Pip since Pip has caused him to be fired from Miss Havisham’s. Orlick reveals that he was the one who attacked Mrs. Joe and that he has been spying on Pip ever since Provis returned to England. 

Now he is in cahoots with Compeyson. Luckily, Startop and Herbert arrive to save Pip, but Orlick gets away. They return to London and begin the escape as planned, only to be stopped by Compeyson and the authorities. 

During a struggle, Compeyson is drowned and Provis is seriously injured. Before the penniless Provis dies in a prison hospital, he is comforted to know that his beautiful daughter, Estella, is still alive and that Pip loves her. Pip feels true compassion for this condemned man who had been so grateful for Pip’s one act of kindness many years earlier.

Miss Havisham dies, leaving a large estate to Estella, and Orlick plans to ask Biddy to marry him. But he learns she has already married Joe, so he leaves to join Herbert in business abroad. After 11 years, he returns to find that Estella has been widowed and that Joe and Biddy have two little children. 

A nostalgic Pip goes to see the remains of Satis House. There, he finds a wiser Estella, whose life of suffering with the boorish Drummle has taught her what Pip’s feelings for her have been. The reader is led to believe that they will eventually marry.

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Great Expectations Analysis

1. GUILT AND FEAR 

Common themes in Dickens: children feel threatened by adults and resented for their presence; they fear violence, hunger, imprisonment, and hard labor. As a child, Pip resents being manipulated by adults and decides to become rich and powerful so that he, too, can treat people as “things.” He later realizes, with the help of Provis, that love is a better goal than power.

2. ABUSE OF AUTHORITY 

Mrs. Joe, Pumblechook, and Miss Havisham take advantage of Pip’s naïveté. Institutions, such as the courts, cater to wealthy, educated people; Provis and Compeyson are not equal in the eyes of the law, since Compeyson has status and education in his favor. 

Money “talks,” as when magistrates make a spectacle of the court proceedings. Public executions are the final abuse for a condemned person.

3. MONEY AND STATUS 

For Dickens, a preoccupation with money and material possessions distorts one’s natural virtue and creates havoc (as witnessed by Pip, Miss Havisham’s relatives, Compeyson, and Arthur), but where the acquisition of money is not considered important, goodness flourishes (as with Joe and Biddy, or Herbert and Clara). 

Nineteenth-century capitalism encouraged individuals to look upon other people as sources of profit: the shrewish Mrs. Joe can’t see past Joe’s humble trade to recognize natural goodness in him; Pumblechook ignores Pip until he has money; Miss Havisham enjoys keeping her fortune from greedy relatives; Pip is so busy spending money and creating the illusion of status that he abandons Joe.

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4. SOCIAL CRITICISM 

Education: Despite public school education (“public school” education is the English equivalent of “private school” in the United States), Mr. Wopsle’s great aunt “snores,” Compeyson leads a life of crime, and Matthew Pocket “grinds.” 

The education system is of dubious worth. (b) Religion: Organized religion seems to offer little spiritual benefit to the religious. Pip pities people who attend church Sunday after Sunday and who amount to nothing. (c) Police: Dickens implies that they receive undeserved admiration from the public. They are bungling and “obviously wrong” in their attempts to find Mrs. Joe’s attacker. (d) Funerals: Death was a profitable business at the time (it still is) and undertakers charged high rates. 

When Mrs. Joe dies, Joe wants a simple service, but Trabb & Co. make a showy production of her burial. Dickens opposed the practice of making money from human vulnerability.

5. SEX 

On the surface, sex plays a minimal role due to Victorian morals. There is no intimacy in the Gargery marriage; Wemmick’s advances to Miss Skiffens are repelled until the wedding day. But sex is present in Pip’s attraction to Estella.

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Great Expectations Symbols

1. PRISONS 

Characters live constantly in the shadow of prisons, both physical (Provis’s jail terms; Jaggers works near Newgate; Miss Havisham lives in a self-imposed prison) and emotional (Mrs. Joe is unable to love; Estella’s natural instincts are trapped beneath her artificial behavior; Provis lacks a recipient for his love).

2. THE RIVER 

The Thames is a unifying force; it links together city and country, convict and free man, rich and poor. Provis enters Pip’s life by the river and attempts to leave the same way. The dreams of Estella follow the river’s course; London’s commerce depends on the river; Compeyson is swallowed up by the river.

3. RUINED GARDEN 

There are wastelands everywhere in the novel. In the opening scenes, weeds in the graveyard reach upward, as if grabbing the ankles of passers-by; the gardens of Satis House, once charming, have grown wild, representing the unproductive, choked hearts of Miss Havisham and Estella.

4. MIST 

When Pip is faced with a dilemma (e.g., whether to go to London or to work as a blacksmith), mists from the marshes cloud his vision. In the final scene, a mist rises as he and Estella leave Satis House together. Mist symbolizes the uncertainty and ambiguity of life.

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About The Author

Charles Dickens was born in 1812 near Portsmouth where his father was a clerk in the navy pay office. The family moved to London in 1823, but their fortunes were severely impaired. Dickens was sent to work in a blacking-warehouse when his father was imprisoned for debt. Both experiences deeply affected the future novelist. 

In 1833 he began contributing stories to newspapers and magazines, and in 1836 started the serial publication of Pickwick Papers. 

Thereafter, Dickens published his major novels over the course of the next twenty years, from Nicholas Nickleby to Little Dorrit. He also edited the journals Household Words and All the Year Round. Dickens died in June 1870.

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