Bildungsroman – This is a term used to describe a particular form of narrative where the protagonist reaches maturity. Great Expectations begins with Pip as a young boy and we follow him as he looks back over his life, his mistakes and all the events that made him a man. We watch him develop as he becomes obsessed with wealth and his life in London, leaving behind, what he thinks are, lesser, ‘backward’ people.
However he realises the error of his ways and is embarrassed and guilty when he looks back at that time in his life. He comes to realise that material possessions and class are not the most important things in life. This realisation is the completion of his journey to maturity.
Wealth – Social mobility is made possible in Great Expectations through money. The money that changes hands in the novel shows that whether criminal, blacksmith or lonely woman, money is money and it can buy you a different life. However, that is certainly not portrayed as a good thing or a stable, sensible way of life. Money helps some characters for parts of their life but eventually it corrupts them and their old lives catch up with them. Ultimately those characters driven by wealth do not end up happy in comparison with those who value love and friendship.
Magwitch dies a criminal, Pip wishes he had never left the forge and Estella marries a brute for his money. On the other hand Joe ends up married to a school teacher, Herbert and Clara are happily married. Pip realises a little too late but does bring some happiness to Magwitch when he tells him his daughter is still alive.
Pip’s realisation that money does not buy virtue or happiness is what enables him to change his opinion of Magwitch and drives his attempt to help him. He sees that Magwitch, though a bad, corrupted man, tried to do good with his money and never forgot Pip’s good deed. This is in contrast to the way Pip behaved towards Joe.
Aspiration – Estella represents Pip’s aspiration to become a gentleman, and to have wealth enough to win her. Miss Havisham fuels this dream and eventually apologises for the pain she caused Pip when she knew Estella would never marry him.
Class – Pip spends the novel experiencing several rungs of the social ladder in Victorian England and his expectations of each are often distorted and change of the novel’s course. Estella appears to be upper class but is actually the daughter of a criminal. Thus the whole idea of an ordered class system is turned on its head by Dickens.
He begins life as a working class boy in a pastoral environment where he experiences the criminal class in Magwitch and the upper class in Miss Havisham and Estella. When he moves to London the more middle class Pockets as well as Jaggers and Wemmick become his companions. Eventually having traversed the spectrum and realising that it makes little difference to a person’s kindness or happiness, Pip leaves behind the structure of Britain to travel the world with a friend.
Pastoral and Urban – There is a simplicity and innocence to the environment Pip grows up in on the marshes. Though Pip soon dismisses them as inferior and is embarrassed by his connections, it is their predisposition to kindness and love that means they are left uncorrupted by money or class. Mrs. Joe is not a nice woman, yet Joe is loyal to her until the end. Biddy educated Pip to the very best of her abilities and ends up marrying Joe. A testament to their forgiving and loving nature is the fact that they name their son Pip.
The city is a crowded, dangerous place. There are dark alleyways for Compeyson to hide in and jails, rather than out at sea, are in the middle of the action, central to Pip’s story as Jaggers works in the law courts. It consumes Pip and he doesn’t spare a thought for those he left behind. He sends no money home but instead runs up massive debts by spending like an urban gentleman.
Love – In Great Expectations love can be a dangerous pursuit as Miss Havisham discovers when her fianc Compeyson leaves her on her wedding day. This tragedy shapes the rest of her life as she never gets over it and nothing else moves on in her life either, not even the clocks in her house. Pip’s love for Estella also drives the rest of his life, but rather than stagnating like Miss Havisham it propels him on as he strives to become a gentleman. Herbert and Joe both find simple happy love and marry, just as they are simpler men not driven by any ambition.