Saturday, February 13, 2010

Significance of the Title of Charles Dickens's “Great Expectations”

The title of Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations mainly refers to Pip’s "great expectations" which are many dimensional and ever-evolving. His great expectations arrive in the form of his fortune and are embodied in his dream of becoming a gentleman. These expectations also take the shape of his longing for a certain cold star named Estella. Each of the three parts of the novel treats a different expectation, and we watch how Pip changes in the face of his changing expectations.

Pip undergoes 3 phases in his life, in which he has different expectations:

The first stage of Pip’s expectations

Pip is a poor orphan living with his sister and her husband the blacksmith. He has an encounter with an escaped criminal on Christmas and the help he gives him results in the criminal setting him up with a secret inheritance. One day a lawyer comes and says that he has money coming or "great expectations" and he has to have a different education now that is he is to be a gentleman rather than a blacksmith.

The title also alludes to the idea of great things to come or things that are expected to come but aren't there yet.

The second stage of Pip’s expectations

When Pip receives riches from a mysterious benefactor he snobbishly abandons his friends for London society and his 'great expectations'.

The third stage of Pip’s expectations

On his arrival in London, Pip’s initial impression is London is unattractive and dirty. Nonetheless, his great expectations lie before him, and he is informed by Jaggers and his clerk, Wemmick, of his new living quarters. When Pip turns 21 years old, he visits Jaggers for further information on his expected fortune and hopefully the identity of his benefactor. Jaggers tells him he will have an annual allowance of 500 pounds until his benefactor is made known to him, but refuses to tell him when his benefactor will be revealed to him. He also tells Pip that when his benefactor is revealed, Jaggers’ business will end, and he need not be informed about it.

In yet a fourth (metafictional) sense, we can say that the title refers to the readers’ great expectations, which Dickens builds upon for his wonderful plot twists. All of these layers of meaning in the title make for a rich reading experience.

Dickens portrays the expectations of other characters very efficiently in the novel .

Miss Havisham’ Expectation

Miss Havisham is the wealthy, eccentric old woman who lives in a manor called Satis House near Pip's village. She is manic and often seems insane, flitting around her house in a faded wedding dress, keeping a decaying feast on her table, and surrounding herself with clocks stopped at twenty minutes to nine. As a young woman, Miss Havisham was jilted by her fiancé minutes before her wedding, and now she has a vendetta against all men. Her expectation is to obtain revenge on the male sex and so she adopts Estella and deliberately raises her to be the tool of her revenge, training her beautiful ward to break men's hearts.

Magwitch’s Expectation

Magwitch and Pip first meet when Pip is a boy and Magwitch an escaped convict. Magwitch does not forget Pip's kindness in the marshes, and later in life devotes himself to earning money that he anonymously donates to Pip.
Magwitch’s expectation is to make Pip gentleman in a full sense and so his expectation is great.

The sad irony of the title is that expectations are never great. A man is what he does. A man who expects to be given is a parasite and a fool. The title has something to do with the nature of Pip's perception of society. He comes from a poor blacksmith family and has these great expectations of what he's missing out on. As the book progresses these "great" expectations become less and less great to Pip. He meets Magwitch (as Uncle Provis) and he is just realizing how much he'd rather be back at home at the forge than live out all of these great expectations he had for the rich social class.