Great Expectations by Charles Dickens was published in 1861 and is widely regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written. Though it has great acclaim as a novel, following the story of Pip, a boy from a small town with hopes of being a gentleman, it is also thought that Dickens used it to commentate on nineteenth century society. In 1861, Queen Victoria’s reign was halfway through its course and with the industrial revolution in full swing, society was changing dramatically. Through Great Expectations, Dickens expresses his view on many aspects of society, including crime and punishment, the upper classes and Britain as a whole. In much of this he demonstrates that appearances can be deceptive, and many of the settings, characters and themes of this book show this as well.
The setting at the very start of the book has an appearance that Dickens shows to be deceptive. It is the Kent marshes, which Dickens describes at the beginning of the book as “the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates”. However, Pip later says, “A stranger would have found them [the marshes] insupportable… but I knew them, and could have found my way on a far darker night”. So the marshes, even though they appear to be desolate and dismal, can come to be known and comprehended, as Pip comes to find in the novel.
From the marshes, Pip moves on to London to become a gentleman. Before he arrives in London, he expects it, being the capital city, to be a magnificent city. In spite of this, on his arrival, he “had some faint doubts whether it was not rather ugly, crooked, narrow and dirty”. By using this description, Dickens shows that expectations can often be exaggerated and misleading. He also shows in this that Britain at that time believed itself to be the best and that “it was treasonable to doubt our having and our being the best of everything”, even though the reality, like with London, may not be as good as this.
Whilst Pip is in London, Dickens expresses to the reader his views on something else that is not as it appears – the upper classes. He demonstrates that those of the upper classes or the nobility are not necessarily ‘noble’, and that those considered more common often have more noble values than those who call themselves noble. One character in whom Dickens shows this is Bentley Drummle. He is one of the most aristocratic characters in the novel, yet Dickens describes him as “a compound of pride, avarice, brutality, and meanness”. In the character of Joe Gargery, Dickens demonstrates the other extreme of this. Joe is a simple village blacksmith and would have been regarded as common in the nineteenth century. In spite of this, he is one of the most noble-hearted characters. Throughout the novel, he commits acts of immense kindness, symbolised most by his looking after of Pip for weeks on end when Pip is ill, to which Pip can only penitently whisper, “‘God bless this gentle Christian man!'”. The fact that ancestry and financial status are more valued by society than kindness and goodness is regarded as one of the key criticisms of society that Dickens wished to make in writing Great Expectations.
When Pip is living with Joe, he lives in a small house beside the forge. Pip’s view of the house throughout the novel is another method Dickens uses to show that appearances can be deceptive. At the start of the novel, it is all Pip has, but once he meets Miss Havisham he sees what more life can offer and he begins to be “ashamed of home”: “Now, it was all coarse and common”. At that time, he feared that the punishment for such a crime would be “retributive and well deserved”.
He is proved correct, when he learns that Magwitch, not Miss Havisham, is his benefactor, to which he laments, “O, that he had never come! That he had left me at the forge – far from contented, yet, by comparison, happy!” Even then, he still considers his home as an unworthy place, just slightly better than his current situation. Finally, in the closing chapters of the book, he sees the forge more as he saw it at the very start of the book; he finds that his “heart was softened” by his return. This theme of Pip’s life being cyclic is represented in many other aspects of the book too, for example in his feelings towards Joe. Dickens uses this to show that expectations are not as ‘great’ as one can believe them to be. Pip began as a kind boy who was content with what he had, but grew to be dissatisfied and eventually, when he “came into property”, came to look almost resentfully upon those ranked below him in society, such as Joe. At the end of the book, when he falls ill, his love, respect and dependence upon Joe return, and he looks upon the rest of society in a different way, this being aided by Magwitch being a part of his life.
The way in which Dickens writes the entire novel is an aide to him in showing that appearances can be deceptive. It is written entirely in the first person, by old Pip looking back through his younger point of view. Therefore, the reader can only think what Pip thinks and see what Pip sees. This allows Dickens to portray his views on aspects such as being a gentleman through Pip. The early Pip is shown by Dickens to be a stereotypical Englishman, believing that one should aspire to be a gentleman, whereas the later Pip shows that Dickens wants to show that being a gentleman isn’t as good as it may appear.
The other way in which Dickens uses Pip’s point of view is to show that events that seem unimportant at the time can become highly significant. As the reader only see what Pip sees, they might not notice some very crucial things. The most striking of these is the very opening chapter; the first meeting in the churchyard between Magwitch and Pip. For the next almost forty chapters, this appears to be merely a chance meeting with no significance to the novel, but it turns out to be the key point of the book. If the novel were written from the point of view of Magwitch, it would appear to be a turning point in his life. So Dickens is using Pip’s point of view to portray to the reader that small, seemingly minor happenings can turn out to be extremely central in one’s life.
There are other examples when Dickens uses apparently irrelevant characters that become important to show that appearances are deceptive. One of these is Orlick, who in the beginning seems to be an unimportant, though nasty, labourer. The language Dickens uses with Orlick contributes to this: he is described as “gruff” and when he speaks “growling”. Orlick’s direct speech gives the impression that he is dim-witted, for example, “wot” is used rather than ‘that’ on numerous occasions. As the novel progresses, however, Orlick has a greater importance and shows greater intelligence – he attacks Mrs Joe and then Pip, which means that Dickens had the aim to show that all people should be respected and are capable of anything.
Another character who has a greater role than is apparent is Mr Wopsle. From the first impression of him, he is merely a villager who comes round for Christmas dinner. But his significance is made apparent later when, at a theatre performance in which Wopsle is starring, he notices Compeyson standing behind Pip “like a ghost”. This shows how well Dickens had planned his novel, as only someone who had been in the marshes when Magwitch and Compeyson were arrested would be able to warn Pip in this way. Also, Pip was reluctant to go the theatre, but if he had not gone, he would not have found that Compeyson was tailing him. So a small event or occurrence can be more important than it may appear.
Herbert Pocket is the other character who appears to have a minor role initially. He first appears at Satis House as the “pale young gentleman” whom Pip fights. This first appearance, as an enemy of Pip, would appear to show the character is either insignificant or will be a bad character later in the book. However, Herbert is later shown as Pip’s best friend and one of the noblest characters in the book, in every sense of the word. Dickens shows here that first impressions do not always show the whole of a person’s character.
Pip first meets Herbert at Miss Havisham’s house, and she is another character whose appearance is deceptive. She is essentially a great red herring; all the way through the book up to chapter 39 Pip believes, therefore the reader is led to believe, that she is Pip’s benefactor. Pip’s first thought when he discovers his “great expectations” is “Miss Havisham was going to make my fortune on a grand scale”. Dickens uses her, therefore, to show that appearances can be deceptive, to show that one should not jump to conclusions. The choice to use Pip as narrator once again aids Dickens to show that appearances can be deceptive: it is only his view that Miss Havisham is his benefactress, whereas if, for example, the novel was written from the point of view of Mr Jaggers, Miss Havisham’s importance in Pip’s life would be significantly reduced, and Magwitch would be the key figure. Therefore Dickens needs Pip to be narrator to allow him to make the point that appearances can be deceptive and that one should not jump to conclusions.
Miss Havisham’s adopted child, Estella’s appearance is another appearance that Dickens shows to be deceptive. She is described as, when Pip first sees her as “very pretty”, and, nearer the end of the novel, as “very beautiful”. Dickens describes her appearance as obviously one of the most perfect in the book. However, she is also described when Pip first meets her as seeming to be very proud. This is continued throughout the book, showing that Dickens had the aim of highlighting the common proverb ‘beauty is only skin deep’ The other way in which Estella’s appearance is deceptive is the appearance of her parents. The reader expects a beautiful, well-spoken lady to have similarly beautiful, well-spoken parents; on the contrary, Dickens gave her the convict, Magwitch, and Mr Jagger’s housekeeper as parents. He did that to show that, even though one would not expect a child of such parents to go far, it can happen. In some ways, this is parallel to Dickens’ own life. His father was regularly in debt, which led to him being imprisoned and Dickens being sent to a workhouse. Despite this, Dickens obviously managed to go incredibly far in his life, become one of history’s greatest novelists.
Estella’s father, Magwitch, is used by Dickens to show how appearances can be deceptive on his own as well. His appearance is as a common criminal, a convict who initially has just escaped from the hulks. He is first described as “a fearful man”, who frightens Pip into bringing a file and “wittles”. Despite this, Magwitch is evidently moved by the encounter, possibly due to discovering that Pip is an orphan, as he then resolved to give all he earned to Pip. Pip goes on to show another point that Dickens wanted to make, that people would hold prejudices towards criminals, despite obvious reform. Pip has just found that he owes his entire wealth to this man, yet he still uses a cruel metaphor to describe him:
“The abhorrence in which I held the man, the dread I had of him, the repugnance with which I shrank from him, could not have been exceeded if he had been some terrible beast.”
With this repetition of three heartless phrases and then the use of a horrifying metaphor, Dickens is trying to show that, in spite of popular relief at the time, criminals can reform, and they should not be seen as people for the rest of their lives. Dickens wants to emphasize the fact that the legal system of the time did not allow for reform. An obviously reformed character, Magwitch is still sentenced to death for returning to Britain after exile, whereas Dickens believes that the legal system should take change for the better into account.
The way in which the novel is written is incredibly clever, as even the most apparently different characters are all related to one another. For example, Magwitch, a convict, and Miss Havisham, an upper-class lady, who are two characters that couldn’t be more dissimilar, have multiple connections between them. They both coincidentally use Mr Jaggers as a lawyer, which is one of the reasons that Pip is led to believe that Miss Havisham is his benefactress. Magwitch’s former partner, Compeyson, was Miss Havisham’s fiancï¿½, the one who led her into misery for the rest of her life. Furthermore, Magwitch’s own daughter, Estella, was brought up by Miss Havisham. Both characters die before the end of the book, having never met, yet being in so many ways linked. They have the appearance of being totally unrelated, yet Dickens one more shows how immensely deceptive appearances can be. This immense complexity of plot is one of the things that makes Great Expectations one of the greatest novels ever written.
Aside from the plot and all the characters, the novel as a whole is deceptive, because of its genre. Dickens experiments with genre in Great Expectations, not using any genre as a total base for the book. Parts of it make it seem like a romance, for example, Miss Havisham’s experience with Compeyson and Pip and Estella. As it is written in the first person, it is obviously autobiographical, but as it is fictional, it cannot simply be called an autobiography. It is also partly mystery, since there are the mysteries of Pip’s benefactor and, to a lesser extent, Mrs Joe’s attacker. The involvement of crime in such a way could also be seen to mean the genre is thriller. This illustrates that Dickens wanted to show that appearances could be deceptive as he hasn’t given the entire book a clear appearance.
In conclusion, Dickens uses a variety of complex methods to demonstrate that appearances are deceptive. Though this highly intensifies the power of the novel, Dickens also used it to commentate on nineteenth century society, particularly on class difference. His central social point is that the appearance of the nobility is deceptive, in that it is not ‘noble’, as such, and often quite the opposite. He also shows that it is not worth aspiring to, and one’s ‘great expectations’ of noble life are often flawed.
In summary, Dickens uses virtually all the major characters, settings and themes of Great Expectations to show that appearances are deceptive, especially highlighting the lack of ‘nobility’ in the upper-classes and that irrelevant details and events can become relevant.