Great Expectations is the story of the orphan Pip told by the protagonist in semi-autobiographical style as a remembrance of his life from the early days of his childhood until years after the main conflicts of the story have been resolved in adulthood. The story is also semi-autobiographical to the author Dickens, as are some other of his stories, drawing on his experiences of life and people.
The story is divided into three phases of Pip's life expectations. The first "expectation" is allotted 19 chapters, and the other two 20 chapters each in the 59-chapter work. In some editions, the chapter numbering reverts to Chapter One in each expectation, but the original publication and most modern editions number the chapters consecutively from one to 59. At the end of chapters 19 and 39, readers are formally notified that they have reached the conclusion of a phase of Pip's expectations.
In the first expectation, Pip lives a humble existence with his ill-tempered older sister and her strong but gentle husband, Joe. Pip is satisfied with this life and his warm friends until he is hired by an embittered wealthy woman, Miss Havisham, as an occasional companion to her and her beautiful but haughty adopted daughter, Estella. From that time on, Pip aspires to leave behind his simple life and be a gentleman. After years as companion to Miss Havisham and Estella, he spends more years as an apprentice to Joe, so that he may grow up to have a livelihood working as a blacksmith. This life is suddenly turned upside down when he is visited by a London attorney, Mr. Jaggers, who informs Pip that he is to come into the "Great Expectation" of a handsome property and be trained to be a gentleman at the behest of an anonymous benefactor.
The second stage of Pip's expectations has Pip in London, learning the details of being a gentlemen, having tutors, fine clothing, and joining cultured society. Whereas he always engaged in honest labour when he was younger, he now is supported by a generous allowance, which he frequently lives beyond. He learns to fit in this new milieu, and experiences not only friendship but rivalry as he finds himself in the same circles as Estella, who is also pursued by many other men, especially Bentley Drummle, whom she favours. As he adopts the physical and cultural norms of his new status, he also adopts the class attitudes that go with it, and when Joe comes to visit Pip and his friend and roommate Herbert to deliver an important message, Pip is embarrassed to the point of hostility by Joe's unlearned ways, despite his protestations of love and friendship for Joe. At the end of this stage, Pip is introduced to his benefactor, again changing his world. The third and last stage of Pip's expectations alters Pip's life from the artificially supported world of his upper class strivings and introduces him to realities that he realises he must deal with, facing moral, physical and financial challenges. He learns startling truths that cast into doubt the values that he once embraced so eagerly, and finds that he cannot regain many of the important things that he had cast aside so carelessly. The current ending of the story is different from Dickens's original intent, in which the ending matched the gloomy reverses to Pip's fortunes that typify the last expectation. Dickens was prevailed upon to change the ending to one more acceptable to his readers' tastes in that era, and this "new" ending was the published one and currently accepted as definitive.
Dickens has Pip as the writer and first person narrator of this account of his life's experiences, and the entire story is understood to have been written as a retrospective, rather than as a present tense narrative or a diary or journal. Still, though Pip "knows" how all the events in the story will turn out, he uses only very subtle foreshadowing so that we learn of events only when the Pip in the story does. Pip does, however, use the perspective of the bitter lessons he's learned to comment acidly on various actions and attitudes in his earlier life.
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