Throughout literary history, the titling of a novel, play or poem can, has and will continue to define not just what a book will be filed under, but how it is received by the readership and critics alike. In the case of Dickens’ “Great Expectations”, the thematically driven ambiguity of the title allows readers and critics to draw interpretations of its implications based on theme, character and the interweaving of these in the narrative, whilst providing intrigue over its relevance and suitability to the Bildungsroman that Dickens crafts.
Naturally, the very phrase “Great Expectations” provokes intrigue as to what these expectations are, and the variation between what is great, and expected by various characters is central to the presentation of character and its depth in the novel.
For Pip, the idea of “great expectations” is precisely that, a superficial idea, and it is Pip’s vehement and frequently misguided idealism over the obstacles and events that he comes across throughout his life that shapes his actions.
One of the most important examples of this is upon his dreams of becoming a gentleman being realised- the superficial picture of the behaviour that constitutes “gentlemanliness” that he draws from the “very pretty, very proud and very insulting” Estella and the vengeful Miss Havisham lead him to begin to act in a way that is ultimately, “very pretty, very proud and very insulting” towards Joe and Biddy- he is “ashamed of him (Joe)” when Joe visits Satis House, and complains to Biddy that “I am not at all happy as I am.I am disgusted with my calling and with my life”, the ambition with which he so fervidly wishes to learn to read under Matthew Pocket, and to become “a gentleman” overtaking what he previously refers to as “a good natured companionship” with Joe and a description of Biddy, just a few paragraphs previous to his outburst, as “so clever”.However, by the end of the novel, Pip’s idealism has been replaced to an extent with a grounded compassion for life, and a partial realisation that it is not a crime to say “I work pretty hard for a sufficient living, and therefore- Yes, I do well”- however like much of the sparse praise afforded to Pip by his adult self in the novel, it stems from painful and foolish experience and ideals, and the negative influence of “Great Expectations”.
However, Pip is not the only character upon whom the suffering of perceived “Great Expectations” falls, with the inextricably linked Estella and Miss Havisham providing another side to the idea of what constitutes “expectations” and how they are “great”. For Miss Havisham, her “Great Expectations” are great in the sense that they entirely consume her- Compeyson’s jilting of her leaves her in a static inversion of marital bliss, as she decays in her wedding dress- “I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white…
as faded and yellow”, this directly describing Miss Havisham, but also serving as a metaphor for the perceptions of the good and the “white” of expectation, and how throughout the novel these expectations so often become “faded and yellow”.In fact, Miss Havisham can be put on a par with Pip with her vehement idealism, yet hers is to “break their hearts”, and her lack of realisation as to the consequence of her actions is reflected at her outrage at Estella’s “Do you reproach me for being cold, you? upon Estella’s return to Satis House, with “Look at her, so hard and thankless”- the image that Miss Havisham moulded Estella to embody. However, like Pip, she is seen to have a moment of realisation upon the climax of her role- “What have I done! What have I done! ” upon her realisation that Pip was not her idealisation of the men she thought of and sought so bitterly to crush, just as Pip sees that fortune and power are not all that one can desire or be happy from.Like Pip however, her realisation seems futile when put into context with events, as shortly after she is rendered an invalid from the fire.
In contrast to these grandiose expectations that lead to misfortune and only latent redemption, the other side of what can constitute a “Great Expectation” is how it is relevant to he or she who pursues it, and this interpretation of the title is embodied by the character of Joe.From the start of the novel he is seen as an uncompromising character, his job as blacksmith embodying this, but he is described as having “Herculean” solidarity in “strength and in weakness”, implying the later realisation of his character as one, like many who belongs in one place and cannot fit in with another. However, it is the treatment of this, and the contrast between it from Pip to Joe and Joe to Pip that really sets apart the two characters- they both struggle with identity, yet the other’s reaction to this struggle is very different.Pip states that he “Knew I was ashamed of him” when Joe comes to Satis House, and recognises him by “his clumsy manner of coming upstairs”, rather than the sense of moral goodness and solidarity that Joe exudes throughout.
This treatment he receives from Pip is antithetical almost entirely to that which he gives to Pip- “Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one man’s a blacksmith, and one’s a whitesmith, and one’s a goldsmith, and one’s a coppersmith.Divisions among such must come. . .
.”, Joe realising before it is too late, unlike Pip that changes must happen and that identity must be accepted, alongside his moral goodness but possible naivety by not blaming Pip, as perhaps he ought to, but on the inherently infallible failure of the human condition. This is furthered by the ending, as his greatest expectation is realised in his marriage to Biddy and his remaining at the forge and his hope that Little Pip “might turn out a little bit like you Pip”.Here Dickens masterfully illustrates how expectations are only truly made relevant and understood by who they are intended for, illustrating how Pip was never made to be a gentleman, yet Joe was always made to be his own gentleman, rather than the socially idealised one that is scorned throughout the text.
One of the pervading elements of the title in relation to the novel’s content is that of irony, and how the individual ironies of the plot shape the themes of the novel as a whole, and as a result shape the implications and meaning of the chosen title.One of the greatest of these stems from one of Pip’s guiding stars, his pursuit of the “very pretty and very proud” Estella. Pip’s agonies and moral naiveties over this subject are central to the novel as a whole, and this ironic naivety can be seen from the first time that they play cards. Estella describes him as a “common, labouring boy” and further on Pip states that he will “never cry for her again”, Dickens masterfully juxtaposing that childish outburst against the following adult line that is of course beneficial to hindsight, “Which was, I suppose, as false a declaration that was ever made”.
However, it is interesting that the greatest irony of her character is never realised and banished from his mind by Pip- even when he learns that his star, that all he has romantically aspired to is in fact one of the lowest of the social lows, born to a murderess and a convict, he does not alter from his cause to be with her, the book ending with the line “I saw no shadow of another parting from her”, even the happier of Dickens’ two endings still portraying the naivety in character and irony in determination Pip displays for the length of the novel, from this closing line filled with a yearning desire of unattainable companionship, back to the opening of the novel, which sees Pip describing how he drew foolish conclusions from gravestones as to their moral nature and ways, just as Pip draws foolish conclusions of the grandeur and beauty of fortune from the opulent surroundings of Satis House. This ironic quality to the novel, and the challenge and social damning of the concept of superficial idealism is one that runs throughout the novel, and is especially relevant in conjunction with the frequent doubling up of portrayals of character and theme.Thematically, the ambiguity irony of the title of “Great Expectations” means that it can be referenced in many themes reflected in the book- monetary expectations, romantic aspirations and moral fulfilment to name but a few, and as a consequence provoking thoughts over what “Great Expectations” is supposed to mean and ultimately will come to mean throughout the course of the novel. The idea of financial expectations and their outcomes (or lack of them) is one that is consistently referenced alongside those described in the title, and these manifest throughout the novel through many characters, most notably of course the eminently mediocre protagonist, Pip.
The course of his transition from the nai??vely sympathetic boy on the misty Kent marshes of Chapters 1-3, where he talks of his “good natured companionship” with Joe, to the moment of social mortification upon Joe’s appearance in at Satis House in Chapter 13 “I know I was ashamed of him- when I saw that Estella stood at the back of Miss Havisham’s chair, and that her eyes laughed mischievously”, highlights the profound impact that his exposure to the festering grandeur of Satis House and the subsequent expectation of wealth has had on him- he is moved to caring more for what is unfulfilled than what is enough, than what is satisfactory.This is highlighted by his sheer dismay when he learns that Miss Havisham had no intention of raising him to be a gentleman, “She seemed to prefer my being ignorant”, and is one of the first hints of the aforementioned ironic quality in the title “Great Expectations”. Love as an idea is one that like many of the themes of “Great Expectations”, has two sides to it caused by the ambiguity of the title, the skilful opposition of character and the reflective nature of the narrative.The first is that driven by these “Great Expectations”, the side that prompts Pip to fall in love with Estella, despite her continual “insulting” and cruelty, and the side that prompts Miss Havisham to regress into a state of vengeful decay, and mould Estella to “break their hearts”.
This reflective side to the novel can be seen in full when it comes to a close, as the two most morally sympathetic characters in Joe and Biddy finally get the affection that they truly deserved, Biddy having previously been only a confidante to Pip, and Joe having been paired with the fearsomely masculine Mrs Joe- to the extent that Dickens does not even grant her a female name.It is interesting also to note that the more minor characters of the book, those less affected by the tantalising distortion of “Great Expectations” are those who find love the most successfully- Wemmick and his beloved Miss Skiffins being a prime example. However, love in “Great Expectations” can be summarised as above- the ideals surrounding it are frequently misplaced by the characters of the novel, with Pip and Miss Havisham being prime examples, and it is only through suffering their evils or remaining true to their nature (with the exception of Miss Havisham) that can see them gain love- Dickens’ sense of social justice and commentary running through the plot more strongly through love than other aspects.However, the sense of love in “Great Expectations” is fully epitomised within the ending of the novel, and more specifically the initial ending that Dickens wished to publish.
Within this, Pip merely shakes hands with Estella, but this is enough for him to realise that “She gave me the assurance that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be”, in contrast to “I saw no shadow of another parting from her”. The change in ending’s impact on the title of the story and its continuity has a definite effect- the first ending presents the idea that Estella has to herself remained cold, but to Pip has not, yet the alternative implies a realisation in herself that she has become a better person, that she is now “a better shape”.Meisel puts this secondary ending to be a “disembodied contemplation of life by those who have left it forever,” and this interpretation in my opinion is accurate- the secondary and published ending removes Pip from the all that he has suffered for through these “Great Expectations” and leaves him almost immunised from the suffering that he has caused and went through, an unsuitable and idealistic ending to a novel that is in its very being a challenge to social ideals. A final concept and intrigue relating to the title can be drawn from the meaning of the word “great” in terms of something of power, something that can force events and drive other people through things that are cruel and unwanted, but equally good and pure.
One of these examples can be seen in Estella- the influence of Miss Havisham on her causes to treat Pip with utmost cruelty, but she also consistently tells him “I have no heart”, as if encouraging his refraining from coming near her. This is epitomised at the close of the novel, with the phrase “Now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching…
I have been bent and broken-but, I hope- into a better shape”, highlighting how the power of Miss Havisham’s expectations moulded her into the “very pretty, very proud and very insulting” character that Pip came to adore, but also showing her sense of inner struggle and depth of character that renders her as ultimately a sympathetic character of the novel, .Of similar relevance to this, but in a slightly and importantly different way is Joe- the “Hercules” of the novel, but distressingly borne of this quality “in strength and in weakness”. Despite Pip’s snobbery that is interspersed with moments of personal and retrospective regret, another example of the expectation of self improvement that Pip feels, Joe is only ever respectful, calling him “Sir” when he comes to London, despite Pip’s expectations making him uncomfortable, as his hat, a metaphor for the character that he has to adopt as a result of Pip’s unrelenting and ruthless climb, or fall as it can be interpreted, “ever afterwards falling off at intervals”.However, despite this he always comes through when required, socially and morally when Pip returns to see him eleven years after effectively abandoning him “We hoped he might grow a little bit like you” in referring to “little Pip”, and antithetically perhaps, but equally reflecting upon his kind character, economically when he pays off Pip’s debts.
This again promotes an idea of uncertainty and incongruousness in the title- these forceful “Great Expectations” are in fact more superficial, and can be “bent into a better shape” in a way that is perceivably “in strength and in weakness”. In conclusion, the implication of the title “Great Expectations” is one relating to idealism and perception, as is the entirety of the novel.The title itself is grandiose and powerful, and presents the reader with an initial view of a book about class, money, and good fortune. However, through Dickens’ varied narrative perception and use of ironies, the title is superficially seen to lose suitability, as the narrative becomes one more suited to a title closer to “Eminent Mediocrities” than anything else.
However, this is where the title is so suitable- the narrative itself challenges the title’s idealistic and ironic nature, and provides the implication that things are not what they seem- as Dickens portrays with his interpretations of class against status, money against fortune, and narrative against title.
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