Great Expectations

Great Expectations

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Ambition and Self-Improvement Theme Analysis

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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Great Expectations, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Ambition and Self-Improvement Theme Icon

A "pip" is a small seed, something that starts off tiny and then grows and develops into something new. Pip's name, then, is no accident, as Great Expectations is a bildungsroman, a story of the growth and development of its main character. Dickens presents the ambition to improve oneself that drives Pip along with many of the novel's secondary characters as a force capable of generating both positive and negative results. Pip's early ambitions focus on elevating his social class, on making himself into someone who seems worthy of Estella, but in the process he turns himself into someone who feels like a sham, is unkind to those who were kindest to him such as Joe and Provis, and ruins himself financially. Through these humbling experiences, Pip eventually comes to understand self-improvement as a more complex process involving moral and spiritual development as well. Pip's own ambitions are echoed by the self-improvement efforts of secondary characters like Joe and Ms. Havisham, who learn to write and to empathize, respectively, at Pip's encouragement.

Ambition and Self-Improvement ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Ambition and Self-Improvement appears in each chapter of Great Expectations. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Ambition and Self-Improvement Quotes in Great Expectations

Below you will find the important quotes in Great Expectations related to the theme of Ambition and Self-Improvement.
Book 1, Chapter 9 Quotes

"…lies is lies. Howsoever they come, they didn't ought to come, and they come from the father of lies, and work round to the same. Don't you tell no more of ‘em, Pip. That ain't the way to get out of being common, old chap…If you can't get to be uncommon through going straight, you'll never get to do it through going crooked."

Related Characters: Joe Gargery (speaker), Pip Pirrip
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

Pip regrets telling a series of lies about his visit to Miss Havisham’s, and eventually confesses what he did to Joe. Joe then reproaches him, pronouncing all lies to be indiscriminately bad.

Joe asserts here a strict and universal ethical framework. He does not differentiate between types of falsehoods as other characters might, but rather claims they are the same “howsoever they come.” Dickens thus casts Joe as the moral center of the novel. Despite his low social status and lack of education, he holds strongly to his principles in a way no member of the middle or upper class ever does. Thus when Pip rejects Joe as he ascends through society, he is also implicitly rejecting these sturdy ethical codes.

These comments prefigure both Pip’s moral decline and his failure to fully assimilate into the upper class. Joe insightfully observes that lying is correlated to Pip’s social ascent, and warns him that this will not be an effective way “to be uncommon.” “Uncommon” means, for Joe, unusual or special, but it also signifies for Pip becoming a member of the elite class instead a commoner. In addition to denying the morality of “going crooked,” Joe also implies that it is an ineffective way of changing one’s social position, particularly with the phrase “you’ll never get to do it.” Thus Dickens subtly equates pragmatism and morality here: whereas for other characters the two are are often opposed—and an evil act can generate selfish benefits—Joe believes that only honest acts can produce positive, honest ends.

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Book 1, Chapter 15 Quotes

I wanted to make Joe less ignorant and common, that he might be worthier of my society and less open to Estella's reproach.

Related Characters: Pip Pirrip (speaker), Estella Havisham, Joe Gargery
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

Pip begins to give Joe weekly lessons. While they might seem to come from a spirit of goodwill, he explains here that they are partially selfish: an effort to be less embarrassed by Joe in front of Estella.

Pip here adopts an increasingly judgmental and patronizing tone. He describes Joe as “ignorant and common” and positions himself as a kind educator. That Pip differentiates “my society” from Joe’s shows just how snobbishly distant he has become from his upbringing. Their respective societies, after all, are not yet different in any real way—but Pip feels them to be so, based off of his education and experiences with Miss Havisham and Estella. His distaste of Joe is thus twofold: the result of how he perceives Estella would react, as well as his own personal dissatisfaction at having to communicate with someone not worthy of his society. Beyond establishing Pip’s increased social snobbishness, Dickens stresses how extensively Pip’s recent experiences have corrupted his moral sensibilities: even actions that seem to be generous carry a hidden motive, predicting the frequent deceit Pip will encounter when he leaves for London later in the novel. There, a whole host of characters will pretend to aid each other with the actual goal of elevating themselves in society.

Book 1, Chapter 18 Quotes

…as Joe and Biddy became more at their cheerful ease again, I became quite gloomy. Dissatisfied with my fortune, of course I could not be; but it is possible that I may have been, without quite knowing it, dissatisfied with myself.

Related Characters: Pip Pirrip (speaker), Joe Gargery, Biddy
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

When Pip learns he has come into a great fortune due to an anonymous benefactor, he is at first thrilled. But as the hubbub about the announcement settles down, he grows oddly depressed by how he has responded the events.

Dickens again makes use of the dissonance between the younger and older Pips’ perspectives. The first only experiences the feeling of being “gloomy” and remains unable to pinpoint any precise reason, whereas the older Pip attempts to determine what might be causing the gloominess. He logically rules out that he is “dissatisfied with my fortune” and thus guesses that the frustration is rather with “myself.” The text thus stresses that mental states are determined less by external events or social status and more by self-perception. By all accounts, Pip should be thrilled, and his negative mood predicts the way self-disgust will haunt him throughout the novel.

The passage also indicates that Pip struggles with introspection: he senses a feeling of gloominess, but he is unable to pin it to its source. And even the wise, older Pip cannot quite pin down the origin, as there is an uncertainty conveyed in the phrases “it is possible” and “I may have been.” Thus while Dickens’ narrative structure offers the benefit of elder Pip’s wisdom, the text also clearly maintains that retrospection can only grant partial clarity into one’s mental state. 

Book 2, Chapter 21 Quotes

"...it is a principle of [Matthew Pocket's] that no man who was not a true gentleman at heart, ever was, since the world began, a true gentleman in manner. He says, no varnish can hide the grain of the wood, and that the more varnish you put on, the more the grain will express itself."

Related Characters: Herbert Pocket (a.k.a. the pale young gentleman) (speaker), Matthew Pocket
Page Number: 140-141
Explanation and Analysis:

While recounting Miss Havishman’s life story, Herbert notes that Matthew Pocket was able to observe that her suitor was not a real gentlemen. Herbert turns this point into a broader comment on the difference between comportment and actual gentility.

By presenting this point as “a principle,” Herbert stresses that it is a universal position—not just anecdotal evidence useful in certain specific moments. Indeed, it will become an important “principle” throughout the novel, as Pip attempts to navigate a world composed of both true and false gentlemen. Pocket’s belief rests on the idea that identity is both fundamentally unchanging and always perceptible to outsiders. If one is a “true gentlemen at heart,” he reasons, this essence will be reflected in “manner.” To express this idea, Pocket uses the metaphor of putting “varnish” on wood with a “grain” (flawed texture), claiming that the deficiencies in material will only become more notable as one attempts to obscure them.

That Pocket does not distinguish between “heart” and “manner” has a series of important consequences for Pip: It firstly implies that if Pip is not inherently a gentleman, he will never be able to cover this in the metaphorical varnish of new wealth. But it also indicates that being a gentleman has far less to do with social status than with one’s “heart” or natural disposition. Indeed, Pocket seems to be giving a more eloquent formulation of Joe’s earlier point that Pip will never become uncommon by being crooked. That Pip came into his fortune through his kind actions toward Provis is further evidence of the point that true social ascent is the result of an honest, ethical sensibility. Dickens may not himself fully identify with this position, but he does house this viewpoint in a number of characters—implying that the retrospective Pip narrator considers it valuable.

Book 3, Chapter 55 Quotes

For now my repugnance to [Provis] had all melted away, and in the hunted wounded shackled creature who held my hand in his, I only saw a man who had meant to be my benefactor, and who had felt affectionately, gratefully, and generously towards me with great constancy through a series of years. I only saw in him a much better man than I had been to Joe.

Related Characters: Pip Pirrip (speaker), Provis (a.k.a. Abel Magwitch) (a.k.a. the convict), Joe Gargery
Page Number: 350
Explanation and Analysis:

After Provis is imprisoned, Pip’s attitude toward his benefactor continues to become more favorable. He sees him, at last, in a positive, grateful light and without the critical lens of class consciousness that has previously clouded this view.

Whereas before, Provis’s lowly status had been a constant source of anxiety for Pip, here his weakness actually becomes a source of endearment. Though Pip describes his as a “hunted wounded shackled creature”—highlighting the qualities of subservience and weakness—these are no longer character criticisms. That Pip can still identify these qualities without holding a disposition of “repugnance” demonstrates how they are not inherently deplorable features, but rather become so only under an ungrateful eye. Pip transitions into the more grateful perspective, causing him to see that Provis has acted “affectionately, gratefully, and generously.”

Even more importantly, Pip is able to transfer this realization to his readings of other characters. His reference to Joe implies that this new view of Provis applies to people from his home and expresses a belief that he should not have treated Joe with such condescension. Dickens thus portrays a complete transformation in the way Pip thinks about his relationships: from valuing only class distinctions to finding fulfillment in genuineness and care.

Book 3, Chapter 58 Quotes

We owed so much to Herbert's ever cheerful industry and readiness that I often wondered how I had conceived the old idea of his inaptitude, until I was one day enlightened by the reflection that perhaps the inaptitude had never been in him at all, but had been in me.

Related Characters: Pip Pirrip (speaker), Herbert Pocket (a.k.a. the pale young gentleman)
Page Number: 377
Explanation and Analysis:

After moving to Cairo to work in the same firm as Herbert and experiencing a much-improved financial condition, Pip wonders how he could have doubted Herbert’s economic aptitudes. He concludes that their earlier struggles with money were likely his own fault.

As has become characteristic in these final chapters, Pip revises his earlier critical opinion, and places the blame for past negative events onto himself. The “inaptitude” that he believed Herbert to have with financial matters “had been” in himself the entire time. This realization does not come immediately, but rather through slow, ever-difficult introspection. First, Pip observes the fact that Herbert is essential to the company’s success. Then, he “often wondered” about his earlier beliefs, demonstrating a period of analysis and “reflection.” Finally, he arrives at the conclusion in the sentence “I was one day enlightened.”

Dickens demonstrates that Pip has become increasingly capable of introspection—of interrogating which of his perceptions are reasonable and which have been clouded by selfishness or prejudice. In particular, this process tends to shift guilt from others onto himself. Maturity, for Pip, no longer means social ascent but rather the ability to carefully reflect and to hold oneself accountable for one’s behaviors and beliefs.

Book 3, Chapter 59 Quotes

"…now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape."

Related Characters: Estella Havisham (speaker), Pip Pirrip
Page Number: 380
Explanation and Analysis:

In the novel’s final scene, Pip and Estella reunite at the remnants of Satis House. Estella comments on her tortuous marriage with Drummle and how it has changed her character deeply from the one that Miss Havisham crafted years before.

Estella juxtaposes two forms of teaching: the “suffering” she experienced in her marriage and “all other teaching” that had been provided by Miss Havisham. Whereas the second type had given her an emotionally-vacant heart of ice, the first has allowed her to make sense of human emotions. Evidently, Estella has experienced great physical and/or psychological abuse, implied by the phrase “bent and broken,” which can operate both literally and metaphorically. Like Pip, she has gone through a period of maturation and learning and come to reject her colder, judgmental personality. Dickens portrays their journeys as parallel ones, indicating they may finally come together at the novel’s end.

Yet while Estella considers these experiences to have improved her character, she continues to use oddly-aloof language. She considers herself “a better shape,” a phrase that makes her a tool, much as Miss Havisham always had. And she is able only to “understand” Pip’s heart, not actually reciprocate or feel the emotions. It remains unclear, then, whether the two will actually unite, but Dickens at the very least affirms how their parallel sufferings have brought them together at last.