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How Does Dickens Introduce the Main Themes

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How does Dickens introduce the main themes and concerns of the novel in the opening chapters of “Great Expectations”? “Great Expectations” is a “Tragi-comedy” written by the famous novelist Charles Dickens during the early 19th centaury. It is synonymous with the suffering of real people during the Victorian Era, and it looks at life from the downcast eyes of a small boy unknowingly pitched as an apt pinup boy for the era of poverty and hardship, in harsh juxtaposition with the perspective later on in the novel of a boy with whom the riches of life cling to like moss on an old oak.

The novel itself was originally designed to keep Dickens’ weekly magazine, “All year round” in business; to do this he needed a novel that would appeal to all types of readers: those who favoured romance, those who craved mystery and those who loved gruesome horror, those who loved a little bit of excitement and those who wanted easy reading as well as those, like dickens himself, who a objectionable rusted mirror, a book that would change things, signify the hard times.

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It is this patchwork quilt of genres that the book was supposedly meant to slot into, without losing its moral compass or excitement or plot, that shape the novel into a mismatched melange of themes, stuck haphazardly together by the glue that makes the very basis of all good reads, a decent writer. The themes of the book vary and clash but in short they include: self achievement/improvement, justice and betrayal, pride and revenge, crime and guilt, astonishing imagery and of course romance.

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The aim of this paper is simply to scrutinise these said themes and examine how Dickens introduces them in the early steps of the book, so to start as we mean to continue, let’s begin with examining the very first of these themes, and one could argue the most important or at least the most commonly referred, that of self improvement. The moral theme of Great Expectations is quite simple: affection, loyalty, and conscience are more important than social advancement, wealth, and class.

Dickens establishes the theme and shows Pip learning this lesson, largely by exploring ideas of ambition and self-improvement—ideas that quickly become both the thematic centre of the novel and the psychological mechanism that encourages much of Pip’s development. At heart, Pip is an idealist; whenever he can conceive of something that is better than what he already has, he immediately desires to obtain the improvement. We see this very early on in the novel, when he first sets eyes on Satis House and Estella; he longs to be a wealthy gentleman.

It may not make him a better person, or even make him happy, but he does not realise this. And maybe this is something we can forgive, as when he originally longs for improvement he is indeed very young and naive in the ways of the world, but maybe it is something that he should have grown out of with age. We see Pip’s desire for self improvement rear its scarred head once or twice again during the early stages of the novel, for example, in the early chapters when he thinks of his moral shortcomings, he longs deeply to be good. “”, and again, when he realizes that he cannot read, he longs to learn how.

Pip’s desire for self-improvement is the main source of the novel’s title: because he believes in the possibility of advancement in life, he has “Great Expectations” about his future. Ambition and self-improvement take three forms in Great Expectations—moral, social, and educational; these motivate Pip’s unwaveringly throughout the novel. First, Pip desires moral self-improvement. When he steals the food Magwitch, he feels awful about his immoral actions and because of this he is extremely hard on himself and feels powerful gut-renching guilt that spurs him to act better in the future.

When he leaves for London, for instance, he torments himself about having behaved so wretchedly toward Joe and Biddy. Second, Pip desires social self-improvement from the very first torment that gleefully trickles from Estella’s mouth shaming Pip and his humble background, “ he calls the Knaves, Jacks, this boy” , he longs to become a member of her social class, and, encouraged by Mrs. Joe and Pumblechook, he entertains fantasies of becoming a gentleman.

The working out of this fantasy forms the basic plot of the novel; it provides Dickens the opportunity to gently satirize the class system of his era and to make a point about its capricious nature. Significantly, Pip’s life as a gentleman is no more satisfying—and certainly no more moral—than his previous life as a blacksmith’s apprentice. Third, Pip desires educational improvement. This desire is deeply connected to his social ambition and longing to marry Estella: a full education is a requirement of being a gentleman. As long as he is an ignorant country boy, he has no hope of social advancement.

Pip understands this fact as a child, when he learns to read at Mr. Wopsle’s aunt’s school, and as a young man, when he takes lessons from Matthew Pocket. Ultimately, through the examples of Joe, Biddy, and Magwitch, Pip learns that social and educational improvement are irrelevant to one’s real worth and that conscience and affection are to be valued above erudition and social standing. Justice and betrayal (and ironic ends), also play a major role in the plot, with constant obvious and less obvious twists and turns in the plot being credited to them.

There is the natural justice in events in the story, sort of Karma if you like- with examples like the incident with Mrs Joe, who after years of beating and abusing Pip and Joe, is finally subdued by a psychical blow to the head, ironically reflecting the physical damage she enforced upon Joe and Pip. Also, the repugnant Miss Havisham, who after decades of decaying slowly in darkness, comes to her end as a result of a bright, shocking wild fire, her abhorrent belongings perishing in brilliant , vivid light, juxtaposing her lurid dank lifestyle.

After years of inflicting the pain she herself felt upon others, it seems right that she should die before the novel was out. Loyalty and goodness are also rewarded; we feel that sweet and loyal Joe deserves his happy ever after with Biddy. We may also court the idea that after he is reforms and reborn back as he was at the beginning, Pip has been “good” enough to have repaid his debt of sin, and that him and Estella can be allowed their happy future, after having paid for their vanity and folly. Magwitch is a contraption of justice, distributing it fairly and thickly, in his own way.

He tries to reward Pip for helping him in the marshes, he ensures that Pip does not get into trouble for stealing the food to help him by owning up and saying that he took it himself. He tries to help Pip out financially as a “thankyou” gift almost. He forces Compeyson to pay the price for his past crimes, helping out where the public justice system failed. The legal system itself is portrayed as unfair, brutal, arbitrary and open to corruption by bribery, but this is true to form of the genuine justice system at the time of Dickens.

Jaggers is one who manipulates the justice system, but once again counteracts his actions by saving one tiny little girl from the horrors of its grasp. Crime and guilt twist and twine throughout the plot, and is explored throughout the novel largely through the characters of the convicts and the criminal lawyer Jaggers. From the handcuffs Joe mends at the smithy to the gallows at the prison in London, the imagery of crime and criminal justice pervades the book, becoming an important symbol of Pip’s inner struggle to reconcile his own inner moral conscience with the institutional justice system.

In general, just as social class becomes a superficial standard of value that Pip must learn to look beyond in finding a better way to live his life, the external trappings of the criminal justice system (police, courts, jails, etc. ) become a superficial standard of morality that Pip must learn to look beyond to trust his inner conscience. Magwitch, for instance, frightens Pip at first simply because he is a convict, and Pip feels guilty for helping him because he is afraid of the police.

By the end of the book, however, Pip has discovered Magwitch’s inner nobility, and is able to disregard his external status as a criminal. Prompted by his conscience, he helps Magwitch to evade the law and the police. As Pip has learned to trust his conscience and to value Magwitch’s inner character, he has replaced an external standard of value with an internal one. Another theme is pride and revenge; these are reflected in most of the characters, most notably obviously the wretched Miss Havisham, who after being hurt by a single man single-mindedly longs for the absolute annihilation of all men.

Pride and desire are shown to be greatly caustic, Miss Havisham feeds these destructive forces by surrounding herself with objects that remind her of her betrayal, stooping herself in utter eternal desolation, her life is dysfunctional and distorted, as if viewed reflected off one of her now rusted silver gauntlets that lies upon the untouched dining table, her view of the world is bent out of shape by grief and bitterness. Romance is a obvious and more upbeat theme of the tale, there are various hook-ups throughout the plot, Joe and Biddy, Herbert and Clara,Drummle and

Estella (briefly and unsuccessfully albeit) and we can hope that Pip and Estella in the future. Pip’s story has one main point: no matter what happens to a person in their life, a person cannot change who they are inside. Pip does not realize this at first however. From the time he met Estella and Miss Havisham, Pip tried to change himself to fit a mould that he thought they desired. He began simply, learning to read and write. As time went on, and his circumstances changed, Pip pulled farther and farther away from where he came from and in doing that, whom he was.

Through his story, people see that this type of change brings him no joy, and in Pip’s case, exactly the opposite. Pip’s story is not about living happily ever after with Estella. Dickens never tells us what happens, if anything, between them in the end. He leaves it only that they remain friends. There is a purpose for this. Dickens novel is about Pip’s quest for Estella’s love and what he is willing to do to gain it. The story is never about the love itself.

We can see this because in the majority of the story, Estella is only present in Pip’s heart and thoughts. The actual interaction between the characters Dickens keeps at a minimum. Great Expectations is a story that the public can relate to because at some point, everyone goes through the struggles that Pip must battle. It shows that possessions and wealth do not change who people are inside, and that finding one’s self can be a long tedious process until finally the mists rise and everything becomes clear.

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How Does Dickens Introduce the Main Themes. (2018, Aug 23). Retrieved from

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