Great Expectations first edition
First edition

Great Expectations

Novel, 1861
approx. 189,000 words
On Greatest lists
Notable lines
First line

My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.

Great lines

"You must know," said Estella, condescending to me as a beautiful woman might, "that I have no heart—if that has anything to do with my memory."

"I never had one hour's happiness in her society, and yet my mind all round the four-and-twenty hours was harping on the happiness of having her with me unto death."

"Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There's no better rule."

All other swindlers upon earth are nothing to the self-swindlers, and with such pretenses did I cheat myself.

So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise.

Last line

...and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

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Great Expectations


Expectations dashed—and surpassed

The greatest expectation to be quashed in Great Expectations may be our assumption that the innocent lad at the centre of the story will turn out to be another David Copperfield or Oliver Twist.

You know, overcoming an adverse childhood and the persecution of evildoers. Maintaining an innocent and rigid integrity. Eventually triumphing. All that.

G.K. Chesterton wrote in a preface to an edition of this novel:

All [Dickens's] books might be called "Great Expectations". But the only book to which he gave the name "Great Expectations" was the book in which the expectation was not met.

This is indeed a unique Dickens novel. Fantastic and realistic by turns, with the realistic part showing how the "hero", young Pip, has his head turned by wealth. While other Dickens protagonists stay fiercely loyal to their family and oldest friends, Pip thinks to rise above his.

The most interesting thing about this is how he brings the reader along with him. Most of us probably guess, long before he does, that there is a problem with the origins of Pip's wealth. We even get a little squeamish about the compromises he makes and his condescension toward his lower-class loved ones.

But nonetheless we continue to consider the delightful Pip—as no doubt we consider each of ourselves—to be a basically decent person. We invest in him as he makes his way up in the world.

So when Pip's illusions are finally shattered, we too feel shame for how he has behaved. What we had experienced as slight moral quibbles along the way are now felt with their full force as symptomatic of a life that is a complete sham.

It is remarkable that such a clear-eyed view of human nature should be a book that also features some of the most fantastic scenes Dickens ever wrote:

• The young boy's fateful care for the escaped convict Magwitch at the beginning (as you can see in the sample text of the first chapter).

• His introduction to the bizarre, old Miss Havisham, who in her rundown estate still wears the rags of the wedding dress she'd worn the day she was abandonned at the altar, and to her beautiful but cruel ward, Estella, who bewitches him.

• The climactic desperate chase on the river.

With such scenes, this novel—along with Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol—is unsurprisingly among Dickens's most popular works for film adaptation.

Dickens is often faulted for having melodramatic narratives that conclude weakly, but his late novels (at least from A Tale of Two Cities on) are his most carefully plotted. Great Expectations is controlled and intriguing throughout. Finally the loose ends are tied up satisfyingly without the usual feeling one gets with Dickens that he's had to strain credibility, as well as several laws of physics and psychology, to make it all fit together.

The conclusion of the doomed Pip-Estella relationship is often critiqued as unrealistically salvaging a bittersweet resolution. Dickens just can't win with some readers.

But for me it is his most realistic ending, neither romanticized nor cruel.

Most importantly, intellect aside, it just feels right. The way it is. With hope for the future but, at last, a clear-eyed hope.

One's expectations of a typical Dickens novel may be disappointed, but one ends up being greatly rewarded in other ways by Great Expectations, perhaps more than by any other Dickens novel.

— Eric