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Great Expectations: Literary Allusions, Meanings, and Metaphors

An unlikely meeting place


On the many strands of meaning in this extraordinary story

One of my favourite movies is the luscious David Lean version of Charles Dickens' novel, Great Expectations, made in 1946. Although movie makers have made many adaptations since, both for screen and television, I return to this one, again and again. What is so special about the story of protagonist Pip, and what makes the narrative so filmic?

I read the book more than thirty years ago and since then, I have read it many times more. From its opening clause 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 to the final sentence I saw no shadow of another parting from her, it is a compelling read. The story pulls you into its vortex at once; Pip’s terrifying graveyard encounter with the convict, Magwitch, and his bravery in stealing food for the starving man, his unrequited love for the beautiful, unattainable Estelle, his arrogance when becoming a “gentleman”, his humility in taking care of his dying benefactor.

It is a story filled with many different metaphors and meanings, of contrasts of light and dark, the beautiful and the grotesque, rampant selfishness and exquisite generosity. Most of all, I am drawn to the book because I feel that I know Pip. In the earlier part of the story, I identify with his feelings of fear and guilt, cold and loneliness, his desire to “better himself”, the shame at his horde of embarrassing relatives. I am in accord with his longings to leave the workaday life behind, to embrace adventure and arrive at fortune. And I most certainly claim kindred with Pip’s social blunders on his journey to self-knowledge.

Dark and light

A number of the significant characters in the narrative are haunted - or hunted - by a twin or "shadow", a dark "other" that teaches them what they are. The most obvious of these twinnings is that of the young and lovely Estella with the closed-minded Miss Havisham. In the novel, she is wasting physically and mentally in the darkness of Satis House, wearing her tattered wedding gown and the decaying bridal feast alongside her. Just as her lover has betrayed her, Miss Havisham vows to wreak revenge on the male gender, to bring up Estelle to break men's hearts. The older lady succeeds and the heart that Estelle breaks - is that of Pip.

Doppelgangers and split personalities

In London, Pip meets lawyer's clerk, Mr Wemmick. During work hours, Wemmick faithfully carries out his duties for his boss, Mr Jaggers. But when Wemmick leaves the office, Pip witnesses how the clerk's personality changes, becoming friendlier and less formal. Once he leaves work, Wemmick explains this to Pip and coins one of the resonant phrases of our time: I leave the office behind me. In his suburban home, which he calls the Castle, Wemmick introduces Pip to his Aged Parent, and treats him to supper with food grown in his kitchen garden. Incredibly, Wemmick's boss Jaggers knows nothing of Wemmick's domestic life. On the return to work next day, the process is reversed; Wemmick grows less friendly and more formal on the morning walk, and by the time he reaches the office, the Castle, kitchen garden and Aged Parent, et al, are forgotten.

Pip's dark twin

John Bowen explains how journeyman blacksmith Orlick is Pip's dark twin. Like Pip, Orlick works in the forge alongside Pip's foster father, Joe Gargery. But Orlick does not have the privilege of being related to the boss. Orlick seethes with rage when Pip is given a half-day off to visit Miss Havisham on her birthday. The incident triggers a row that ends in Orlick's dismissal. The row haunts Pip when his sister, who beat him when he was a child, is found clobbered and is left disabled. Orlick is the chief suspect, but nothing can be proved against him. Pip is left with a sense of guilt because this is what he would like to have done to his sister.

For an interval in the narrative, Pip "walks out" with local girl, Biddy. To Pip's dismay, she tells him that Orlick has been stalking her. Yet, a few years later in London, Pip's behaviour mimics that of Orlick, when he - Pip - constantly contrives to be in places where he is likely to bump into Estelle.

In a more comical instance, the now unemployed Orlick breaks into Pip's Uncle Pumblechook's gardening store. He ties the man up and stuffs his mouth with nursery plants before robbing him - providential recompense for all of the odious moral lectures the uncle delivered to Pip!

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The humanity of Pip

Great Expectations is many things and yet, it is not a love story. Pip’s longing for Estelle is at least as much metaphorical as it is a passion for a real woman. Pip is the proto modern man; growing up and escaping into the world of work and money, absorbing all the bitter lessons that daily teach him who he is. His series of social blunders and brushings with authority both humble Pip and morally elevate him to something greater than he was at the narrative outset.

Pip is the most fully rounded human in literature since Shakespeare created Hamlet. In the story, Pip is metaphorically haunted by his dead father and literally, stalked by a man who has “adopted” him (without Pip’s consent and certainly against his will) as a son. It is no coincidence that in one significant episode of the book, Pip goes to see a performance of Hamlet, his old friend-turned-actor Mr Wopsle being in the cast. The story has other ties with literature.

In his introduction to the Wordsworth Classics edition, John Bowen points out Pip’s allusion to the novel, Frankenstein: The imaginary student pursued by the misshapen creature he had impiously made was no more miserable than I, pursued by the creature who had made me. Here, I question Pip’s paralleling of his benefactor, “the creature”, with the “misshapen creature”, the Monster of Mary Shelly’s novel. It seems a wretched thing for Pip to do, yet Dickens was writing from experience.

Because of his own neglectful father, Dickens had been raised by a handful of relatives who landed him by turns, in schooling and in bouts of menial work. Dickens suffered much from the latter and from an early age, he was aware of the power that a parent or guardian had on the developing person’s character. In Great Expectations, Pip’s benefactor had been in jail and out of jail, in jail and out of jail, all his life. The man had a “misshapen” character, but it was not of his own making – and that is another chilling message both in Dickens time and in ours. Children and young people are at the mercy of the adults by whom they are surrounded. When Pip gets an opportunity to study, he embraces it whole-heartedly. He writes of his teacher, Matthew Pocket: If he had shown indifference as a master, I have no doubt I should have returned the compliment as a pupil; he gave me no such excuse, and each of us did the other justice.

If we only read the book as a moral fable, this is the lesson worth embracing. But Great Expectations is much, much more; a blueprint for modernity, a tale of unrequited longing and love, and a warning of the dangers of setting ourselves above others.

Source: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens


Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on November 19, 2012:

A superb novel undoubtedly, some say the best from Dickens. I read the book when a boy and the basic plot has stuck because the characters are drawn so powerfully and thus made believable. Miss Haversham scared the wits out of me when I first came across her, dressed in that cobwebby wedding dress poor woman. Her complex relationship with Estella and then Pip is wonderfully handled by Mr D.

Magwitch's involvement on several fronts brings suspense and intrigue and reflects the fact that life can bring all sorts of twists and turns - relationships end, opportunities arise - fate lurking in the background like a familiar stranger.

The BBC dramatised the story some months ago - star names yes - but overall a decent effort.

Many thanks.

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