Criticism “Great Expectations” Essay, Research Paper

Criticism “Great Expectations”

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, published in book form in 1861, is considered by many to be one of the greatest works of Victorian fiction. It is through the use of characterization and imagery that Dickens is able to make his ideas most prominent in the minds of readers. Through his expert use of these authorial techniques, Dickens successfully criticizes the prison system, the morals of society, and the social injustice of his time.

In the novel, Dickens takes an innocent young orphan boy through childhood and on through adulthood showing the lasting effects of the transition. The novel begins in a marshy cemetery with Pip, a lonely orphan boy who lives with his sister and her husband Joe Gargery. While Pip is curiously studying “five little stone lozenges” (Dickens 9), an escaped convict approaches him and demands that Pip gets him a file and some wittles. Being scared of the man, Pip does as he asks. As Pip grows older, he forgets about Joe and the convict and becomes closely aquatinted with Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter Estella. He soon becomes infatuated with their lifestyle and Estella’s beauty. As Pip continues his expectations, he comes into the possession of money from an anonymous benefactor and changes into an egotistical snob and develops selfish dreams for the future. It is not until his benefactor, the convict who is Magwitch and also the father of Estella, is revealed that Pip begins to change himself. His goodness seems to return and he eventually find true happiness in the meaning of life. It is through each of these characters that Dickens not only shapes the plot of the novel around, but also as tools to express his ideals of the time.

Dickens literary craft is shown in the fact that he creates a believable world in which Pip lives that the reader can relate to. The reader is taken to Victorian England and allowed to experience the emotions and occurrences that surround Pip. It is through the use of “visual images as well as other aspects of figurative language” (”Imagery in Great Expectations”) that Dickens is able to accomplish this task. Dickens also has Pip speak in a first-person narrative, which allows the readers to view occurrences through the eyes of Pip. This allows readers to view Pip’s direct stream of conscience allowing for Pip’s crisis of conscience to be better understood.

Though the “usage of physical descriptions that indicate something about the moral and spiritual nature of the character,” (”Characterization in Dickens”) readers become aware of each character’s role in society. Each individual depends upon by the next individual so that all people may fulfill their roles in society. This is quite prevalent in Dickens’ intricate character connections. An example of this occurs in Magwitch’s role in society. Despite being one of the convicts, he is also the benefactor of Pip, and the father of Estella.

The characters in the novel stand for everything that Dickens believes their real life counterparts can easily be identified as. The first person that Pip encounters in the novel is Magwitch, the convict. Magwitch represents the oppressed and social outcast in society. Even though he appears a threat at first, Dickens masterfully allows Magwitch to become generous and gracious by the end of the novel. To further show his sympathy towards the criminals and outcasts in society, Dickens allows Magwitch to die peacefully during sleep rather than being hung from the hands of political injustice. “With a last faint effort, which would have been powerless but for my yielding to it, and assisting it, he raised my hand to his lips?The placid look at the white ceiling came back, and passed away, and his head dropped quietly on his breast” (Dickens 364). Dickens sympathy towards the socially oppressed is also seen in the characterization of Joe Gargery. Joe is a blacksmith who has a fire in his heart greater than any fire that could ever be contained in his forge. “He was a mild, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easy-going, foolish, dear fellow–a sort of a Hercules in strength and also in weakness” (13). Joe is uneducated and unmannered, yet his high morality and goodness shines bright. Dickens characterization of Magwitch and Joe clearly shows his sympathy towards the socially oppressed.

Dickens not only criticizes the poor, but also the rich and powerful of society. In the characterization of both Estella and Miss Havisham, Dickens criticizes the rich in society. Dickens portrays the rich as snobby, cold- hearted, and cruel. Estella embodies to the fullest extent as to what Dickens viewed the high-class to be. This is seen in Estella’s harsh comment regarding love directed towards Pip. “When you say you love me, I know what you mean, as a form of words; but nothing more. You address nothing within my breast, you touch nothing there. I don’t care for what you say at all” (287). Estella recognizes that she is incapable of love. This can be seen in the statement made towards Miss Havisham. “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” (245). Miss Havisham is likewise cold and heartless. This can be readily seen in her plan for Pip and in her definition of love. Miss Havisham defines love as a “blind devotion, unquestioning, self-humiliating, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to smitter as I did” (224). Pip also makes the comment that Miss Havisham’s usage of the word love could also be replaced with “despair, revenge, dire, death, it could not have sounded from her lips more like a curse” (224). Clearly Estella and Miss Havisham are prime examples of the social evils that dwell within high society in which Dickens criticizes. Dickens uses characterizations to not only resemble what he saw in the people in society, but also to describe his view of society itself.

Throughout the novel, Dickens uses his mastery of characterization and imagery to exemplify his views of society in a manner that gives the reader a strong impression of how Dickens regarded life. His characters represent the prison abuses, the social immorality, and the social injustices that he felt were a part of everyday life in Victorian England. His usage of imagery allows the reader to visualize the believable world in which the reader can relate to. Clearly Dickens’ usage of characterization and imagery leave strong impressions on the reader in the understanding his concepts and views. There will continue to be injustices towards humanity, but Dickens views will continue to effect the minds of readers for times to come and allows them to understand that humanity can not be defined by physical appearance, wealth, or even social status (Class Lecture Notes).


Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. New York: Airmont Publishing Company, 1965.

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