The narrator of Great Expectations, Philip Pirrip or Pip, is one in a legion of orphans who inhabit the fictional world of Charles Dickens a standard sympathetic figure disadvantaged from childhood through no fault of his own. What little Pip knows of his parents is derived from their tombstones, and it is from these that Pip attempts to derive an image of them. Parenthood and above all, a search for paternity is plainly a prominent theme in the novel, and it is clearly interlaced with Pip's quest for his own identity.
Dickens presents three male figures who might serve as a surrogate male parent to Pip and who are roughly analogous to the heart, the soul, and the mind of fatherhood. Pip's brother-in-law, Joe, functions as a stepfather of sorts to the child Pip, and because he is a good-hearted, uncomplicated individual, Joe possesses the qualification of genuine concern for the boy. But Joe's efforts to shield the much younger Pip from the "tickler" of his domineering wife, Mrs. Joe, are pathetically ineffective, for the unschooled smith lacks the confidence required to serve as a self-assured father. At a fairly early juncture in the text, we learn from Pip that Joe is uncomfortable in the trappings of an adult social role, that, "nothing that he wore then, fitted him or seemed to belong to him; and everything that he wore then, grazed him" (p.23). Unlike Pip, Joe undergoes no character development whatsoever in the course of Great Expectations. He remains a child-like individual.
Then there is Abel Magwitch, the deep soul of Pip's quest for a father. Initially frightened by the fugitive in chains, it is only under a felt duress that Pip agrees to assist him by stealing food and a file. But when Pip voluntarily expresses an interest in his well-being, saying that he hopes that Magwitch enjoys the "vittles" that he has brought him, the felon responds in kind, saying "thankee, my boy, I do" (p.19). A bond develops between Magwitch and Pip. A few chapters into the text, Pip begins to refer to this desperate character as "my convict." Magwitch is an orphan himself and so he can identify with the parentless Pip, and it is, of course, Magwitch (not Miss Havisham) who is Pip's actual benefactor. But Magwitch remains outside the ken of normal society, and, worse, he harbors a desire to take revenge against Compeyson. By virtue of this baggage, he cannot become the father for whom Pip is searching.
Lastly, there is Mr. Jagger, the eminently skilled and taciturn attorney who administers Pip's affairs in London. In Jagger, Pip encounters a potential father figure who is fully able to provide him with the funds, the knowledge and a personal model for his transformation into a full-fledged gentleman. Jagger is the rational mind of Pip's prospective father. Yet that is all he is. Jagger has no personal feelings toward the youth or toward anyone else for that matter. After informing Pip that all of the necessary credit arrangements have been made on his behalf, Jagger abruptly terminates their conversation by remarking, "'Of course, you'll go wrong somehow, but that's no fault of mine'" (p.169). It is not Pip but the ruthless Bentley Drummle who Mr. Jagger is closest to in a paternal spirit. Ultimately, Pip fails in his quest to find a father and the fond relationship between the clerk Wemmick and his aged parent only underscore this failure.
Social and emotional isolation is a natural thematic correlate of Pip's orphan status. When we first see the boy Pip, he is alone in the graveyard and while he has some connection to Joe, the depth of their contact with each other is constrained by Joe's menial vocation and, above all, by Mrs. Joe's view of her younger brother as an irredeemable delinquent. Many of the other major characters in Great Expectations are socially or emotionally alienated. Mrs. Joe is devoid of any companions, Mr. Jagger is without peers, Estella is raised by Miss Havisham to reject all romantic overtures. As for Miss Havisham herself, she exists in complete separation from society (and from reality), cultivating a vindictive scheme to avenge her perpetual role as a jilted spinster.
Great Expectations is filled with irons, chains, and handcuffs which serve as external restraints, and, at the same time, as "self-forged" manacles. Characters are bound together by circumstance, but at the same time, they remain separated from each other. They are also bound by their prospects for the future, barred from realizing their dreams by their dismal situations in life. Indeed, Pip's life as a child is "dismal" (a descriptor that recurs throughout the novel), for his environment is raw...
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Below you will find three outstanding thesis statements / paper topics for “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens that can be used as essay starters. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in “Great Expectations” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from “Great Expectations” at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent paper.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: Pip’s Personal Improvement Project in “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens
One of the “great expectations" insinuated by the novel’s title is that of Pip’s “advancement in life" (See Selected Quotes, below). As “Great Expectations” opens, Pip is hardly aware of his social and educational condition, but as he becomes exposed to Estella, his consciousness becomes more astute and he desires self-improvement. He moves to London due to the generosity of a benefactor and attempts to become a learned man of class. Yet, at the end of “Great Expectations”, he reports to Estella that he is working hard and making a living, despite the fact that he has not quite fulfilled his great expectations. Given these facts, write a persuasive essay in which you state what Dickens might have wanted to convey about the nature of great expectations. Include textual evidence to support your argument. These ideas for this essay starter can also be applied to a more general character analysis of Pip.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: The Role of Joe in “Great Expectations”
Joe, Pip’s brother-in-law, is the steadiest and most loyal friend to Pip, yet the two men are quite different. Where Pip is ambitious and eager to move ahead at almost any cost, Joe is content to stay in his place. As a result, he is one of the most authentic and likeable characters in Great Expectations. Write an essay in which you explain Joe’s role in the novel’s development. Consider why Joe is a necessary contrast to Pip. You may also want to consider what Pip’s request for forgiveness and Joe’s response say about the nature of great expectations and self-improvement.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: Images of Imprisonment in Great Expectations
Clearly, one of the most obvious images of imprisonment in Great Expectations is represented by the character of Magwitch, the escaped convict who becomes Pip’s generous benefactor. There are many other subtle references to imprisonment though, among them the handcuffs made in Joe’s forge. Write an essay in which you identify the many images of imprisonment in this novel, and explain the symbolic significance of these images relative to the theme.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: Revenge as a Motivating Factor for Positive and Negative Behaviors in “Great Expectations”
Revenge is a motivating factor for both positive and negative behaviors in Great Expectations. Choose one or more instances in which a character is acting in a way that is vengeful and analyze the significance of the characters’ behavior in the overall scope of the plot. Characters that might make particularly good analyses include Magwitch, Miss Havisham, and Orlick.
Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #5: The Role of Place in Great Expectations
There is not one single setting that defines Great Expectations; rather, the novel unfolds in the city and in the country. Regardless, though, the sense of place is clearly important, as Dickens devotes his authorial attention to developing astute details that evoke particular feelings, both among the characters and within the reader. Choose two or more of these settings and write an essay in which you compare and contrast their respective functions relative to the novel’s theme.
This list of important quotations from “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “Great Expectations” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned. All quotes from “Great Expectations” contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens they are referring to.
“Conscience is a dreadful thing when it accuses man or boy; but when, in the case of a boy, that secret burden co-operates with another secret burden…it is (as I can testify)a great punishment." (20)
“Young as I was, I believe that I dated a new admiration of Joe from that night. We were equals afterwards, as we had been before; but, afterwards at quiet times when I sat looking at Joe and thinking about him, I had a new sensation of feeling conscious that I was looking up to Joe in my heart." (55)
“I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt for me was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it." (64)
“I set off on the four-mile walk to our forge; pondering, as I went along, on all I had seen, and deeply revolving that I was a common labouring boy; that my hands were coarse; that my boots were thick; that I had fallen into a despicable habit of calling knaves Jacks; that I was much more ignorant than I had considered myself last night, and genderaly that I was in a low-lived bad way." (68)
“So unchanging was the dull old house, the yellow light in the darkened room, the faded spectre in the chair by the dressing-table glass, that I felt as if the stopping of the clocks had stopped Time in that mysterious place, and while I and everything else outside it grew older, it stood still….It bewildered me, and under its influence I continued at heart to hate my trade and to be ashamed of home." (125)
“I was to leave our village at five in the morning…and I had told Joe that I wished to walk away all alone. I am afraid—sore afraid— that this purpose originated in my sense of the contrast there would be between me and Joe, if we went to the coach together. I had pretended with myself that there was nothing of this taint in the arrangement; but when I went up to my little room…I felt compelled to admit that it might be done so…." (156)
“And as to the condition on which you hold your advancement in life—namely, that you are not to inquire or discuss to whom you owe it—you may be very sure that it will never be encroached upon, or even approached by me, or by any one belonging to me." (177)
“[I]t was many months, that Sunday, since I had left Joe and Biddy. The space interposed between myself and them, partook of that expansion, and our marshes were any distance off. That I could have been at our old church in my old church-going clothes, on the very last Sunday that ever was, seemed a combination of impossibilities, geographical and social, solar and lunar. Yet in the London streets, so crowded with people and so brilliantly lighted in the dusk of evening, there were depressing hints of reproaches for that I had put the poor old kitchen at home so far away….’" (179)
“It is not easy for even you…to know what satisfaction it gives me to see those people thwarted, or what an enjoyable sense of the ridiculous I have when they are made ridiculous. For you were not brought up in that strange house from a mere baby….You had not your little wits sharpened by their intriguing against you, suppressed and defenseless, under the mask of sympathy and pity and what not, that is soft and soothing….You did not gradually open your round childish eyes wider and wider to the discovery of that impostor of a woman who calculates her stores of peace of mind for when she wakes up in the night…. (257)
“And now, though I know you have already done it in your own kind hearts, pray tell me, both, that you forgive me! Pray let me hear you say the words, that I may carry the sound of them away with me, and then I shall be able to believe that you can trust me, and think better of me, in the time to come!" (453)
Reference: Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1994