Great Expectations

Great Expectations

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Themes and Colors
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Ambition and Self-Improvement Theme Icon
Integrity and Reputation Theme Icon
Parents Theme Icon
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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.
Parents Theme Icon

As the novel distrusts British culture's traditional blind faith in family lines, it also looks skeptically at the traditional family unit. Great Expectations includes very few models of healthy parent-child relations. Many of the novel's characters—including Pip, Provis, and Biddy—are orphans, and those that aren't orphans come from broken or dysfunctional families like Herbert's, Miss Havisham's, Estella's, Clara's, and Joe's. Though Wemmick's relationship with the Aged Parent seems like an exception, it's important to note that Dickens introduces us to them at a stage of their lives when their dynamic has inverted and Wemmick parents his father rather than being cared for by him. Not until the last few pages do we encounter the functional traditional family newly started by Joe and Biddy.

Instead of showcasing traditional mothers and fathers, Dickens chooses to feature adoptive parents, mentors, and guardians. Among these characters, Joe epitomizes selfless kindness, protecting and nurturing Pip throughout his life in spite of Pip's teenage ingratitude. Though Provis doesn't participate in raising Pip, he too exemplifies steadfast devotion as he dedicates his life's fortune to Pip's future. Guardians like Mrs. Joe and Miss Havisham demonstrate more selfish modes of child-rearing as they use their charges to fulfill their own needs: Mrs. Joe to better her public image and Miss Havisham to avenge her betrayal. As in his treatment of social class, Dickens challenges a system organized by blood and presents a model of parentage determined by love and care, regardless of the genetic relation between parent and child.

Parents ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Great Expectations related to the theme of Parents.
Book 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

"People are put in the Hulks because they murder, and because they rob, and forge, and do all sorts of bad; and they always begin by asking questions. Now you get along to bed!"

Related Characters: Mrs. Joe Gargery (speaker), Pip Pirrip
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

Pip hears canons being fired from the Hulks (ships where prisoners were kept) and asks about the reason for the noise. His sister, Mrs. Joe, responds by scolding him for his inquisitiveness.

Mrs. Joe takes advantage of the question to offer a moral lesson for Pip, beginning a trend in the novel in which various characters offer both solicited and unsolicited advice for the adolescent protagonist. Hers is an warning against asking too many questions—which she introduces by scaling back slowly from the severity of crimes that land people in the Hulks. She begins with the worst crime of all—“they murder”—and then reduces the severity to “they rob,” then “forge,” and “do all sorts of bad." Mrs. Joe thus establishes the moral opening of the novel and stresses how harsh punishments will be leveled on those who commit a wide variety of crimes.

It is somewhat flippant to leap from murder to “asking questions” as types of bad action, and Mrs. Joe’s link thus indicates that the novel sets high stakes on digging too deeply into things. This idea will haunt Pip throughout the text, as he tries to delve deeply into London society, while remaining sufficiently ignorant of its misdoings to stay out of guilt. Mrs. Joe's scolding also foreshadows how Pip will be aided by his curiosity, particularly when it pertains to the criminal activity of the Hulks.

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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.

Book 2, Chapter 33 Quotes

"We have no choice, you and I, but to obey our instructions. We are not free to follow our own devices, you and I."

Related Characters: Estella Havisham (speaker), Pip Pirrip
Page Number: 207
Explanation and Analysis:

Contrary to Pip’s hopes, Estella still remains extremely distant. Here she summons their need to remain separate and conform to social mandates instead of personal desires.

Her ambiguous comment has a series of different interpretive layers. In the most direct sense, she means that in the moment they must take the carriage at once to Richmond. More broadly, she implies that Miss Havisham has selected a destiny for her in Richmond that leaves her “no choice” as to who she will marry—or who she will be close to. Both characters must “obey [the] instructions” of their benefactors and are therefore unable to follow their “own devices.” More broadly, the line speaks to the way all the characters of the novel are enmeshed in their social systems, leaving them with relatively pre-determined and pre-scripted lives. Estella’s comment taunts Pip precisely because it speaks to both their banal social interaction and to a fundamental issue of human free will.

Yet while Estella’s tone is cold, she also makes a notable attempt to parallel her and Pip’s experiences. Before, Pip has been distraught that he and Estella lead different lives, and he desperately wishes to inhabit her same social sphere. Her comment seems to indicate that he has succeeded—particularly due to the way she follows each clause that begins with “We” with the reiterating “you and I.” Estella insists on equating them in the style of her sentence, even as the meaning of the sentence stresses how they must remain separate. Dickens suggests that the characters are united, oddly, precisely in the way they are both socially contained.

Book 2, Chapter 38 Quotes

"I am what you have made me. Take all the praise, take all the blame; take all the success, take all the failure; in short, take me."

Related Characters: Estella Havisham (speaker), Miss Havisham
Page Number: 238
Explanation and Analysis:

When Estella pulls away from Miss Havisham, the older woman grows possessive. The two quarrel in front of Pip for the first time, and Estella makes this comment on how all her actions are the result of her upbringing.

With characteristic coldness, Estella describes her behaviors in a deterministic way. She reasons that she cannot be judged accountable for them because, as Miss Havisham’s pet, all her behaviors are the direct result of Miss Havisham herself. The repeated use of the word “all” to apply to “praise” and “blame,” “success” and “failure” highlights that Estella is entirely the result of Miss Havisham’s work. Her language denies any separate sense of self—as if this heritage absolves her of any moral guilt or even free will.

As we have seen before, however, the content of Estella’s language contradicts the way in which she speaks. She may be claiming that Miss Havisham dictates her life, but she is also rebelling with that exact statement. Her declarations are phrased as commands, and her language is curt, in particular the phrase “in short.” Dickens implies that Estella is rejecting Miss Havisham in the only way that she can: by employing Miss Havisham’s exact tactics against her. The very coldness that has been cultivated so carefully in Estella is now turned on its creator—but the extent to which she is intentionally doing so remains up for debate.

Book 3, Chapter 44 Quotes

"Miss Havisham gives you to him as the greatest slight and injury that could be done to the many far better men who admire you, and to the few who truly love you. Among those few, there may be one who loves you even as dearly, though he has not loved you as long as I. Take him, and I can bear it better for your sake."

Related Characters: Pip Pirrip (speaker), Estella Havisham, Miss Havisham, Bentley Drummle
Page Number: 284
Explanation and Analysis:

When Pip finally confronts Miss Havisham and Estella at Satis House, he expresses his deep love for Estella. He begs her not to marry Drummle, but rather to select someone who truly cares for her.

This passage characterizes Pip’s increasingly selfless behavior. He does not phrase his criticism of Drummel in terms of personal motivation, but rather is perturbed by how it is “the greatest slight and jury” to a variety of “far better men.” That is to say, Pip is more concerned with the theoretical ethics of Miss Havisham’s cruel act than with his own desires to be with Estella. Though he reiterates his love, he actually points out that “there may be one who loves you even as dearly”—thus accepting both that he will not marry Estella and that someone else may have sentiments that equal his own. Pleading that she “take him” thus reflects an entirely earnest wish that Estella be happy in her marriage, whether or not it's to Pip.

Pip’s moving speech is thus an affront to Miss Havisham in two ways: first, because it directly criticizes her actions for how cruel they are to Estella and other men, and second because it expresses an entirely honest, selfless, and non-manipulative sentiment. Miss Havisham has taught Estella to be cruel partly out of a world-view that love is empty and disingenuous, but Pip’s wish that Estella be happy above all expresses a true and total love—providing the counterexample to Miss Havisham’s beliefs. Though his love for Estella has previously driven Pip to deceptive and crooked actions, here it causes him to act fully nobly—a critical indicator of his personal development.

Book 3, Chapter 49 Quotes

"Believe this: when she first came to me, I meant to save her from misery like my own. At first I meant no more…But as she grew and promised to be very beautiful, I gradually did worse, and with my praises, and with my jewels, and with my teachings, and with this figure of myself always before her, a warning to back and point my lessons, I stole her heart away and put ice in its place"…[Miss Havisham] burst out again, What had she done!

Related Characters: Miss Havisham (speaker), Estella Havisham
Page Number: 313
Explanation and Analysis:

During Pip’s visit, Miss Havisham repents the way she has raised Estella. She claims that her intentions were originally relatively kind but became crueler as Estella grew older.

Though we should remain skeptical of Miss Havisham by this point in the novel, her tone does seem honest and repentant. That she originally “meant to save [Estella] from misery like [her] own” casts Miss Havisham’s intent as selfless, even feminist: her goal was to protect her daughter from being preyed upon by men, and thus she prevented her from forming emotional attachments. Yet Miss Havisham was, in a sense, herself seduced by Estella’s beauty—for it was only as Estella aged and became increasingly attractive that Miss Havisham sought to cultivate a true monster.

Her language highlights the power of her own teaching: a combination of “praises” and “teachings,” with the monetary addition of “jewels” allowed Estella to become fully inhuman. Her “heart” is replaced with “ice”—speaking to the entirely cold way she treats everyone around her, even Miss Havisham herself. This passage parallels in many ways Pip’s own regret at being deceived by money and by the teachings of the upper class—though Miss Havisham regrets the role of the teacher instead of the student. Dickens thus gathers the characters together, at the novel’s end, in a common narrative of realization and regret. Inspired by Pip’s own selflessness, Miss Havisham concludes that her own tactics have been similarly diabolical.

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

Dear Joe, I hope you will have children to love, and that some little fellow will sit in this chimney-corner, of a winter night, who may remind you of another little fellow gone out of it forever. Don't tell him, Joe, that I was thankless; don't tell him, Biddy, that I was ungenerous and unjust; only tell him that I honoured you both because you were both so good and true, and that, as your child, I said it would be natural to him to grow up a much better man than I did.

Related Characters: Pip Pirrip (speaker), Joe Gargery, Biddy
Page Number: 376
Explanation and Analysis:

Joe and Biddy have just been married, and Pip gives this moving speech as he prepares to depart. He asks that they not tell their children of Pip’s previous selfishness, but rather only use him as a way to reiterate the goodness of Joe and Biddy.

Pip first compares himself to Joe’s future child, referring to his younger self as “another little fellow.” We have a glimpse here of the way Pip will retroactively narrativize his life through the novel—as well as the confirmation that Joe has been Pip’s father figure and mentor throughout the text. He subtly adds the descriptor “gone out of it forever” to show that he does not intend to return soon to their lives, finally separating in the way Joe had long said they must.

Pip then uses the figure of their hypothetical child to make his final request: he does not want his legacy to be a tale of “thankless” actions “ungenerous and unjust”—which implicitly acknowledges that he has been all these things—for these memories would not actually serve their child’s development. Rather, he wishes for evil to be scrubbed entirely from the tales the child will be told, and for Pip to become a mere foil to highlight how “good and true” Joe and Biddy are. This wish implicitly targets those in the novel—such as Miss Havisham and Mr. Jaggers—who have sought to cultivate and investigate the qualities of evil and selfishness. Miss Havisham, after all, explicitly raised Estella amidst memories of injustice, and thus Pip’s final lesson is an implicit renunciation of what she has done. He hopes that eliminating his misdeeds rather than recounting them will allow Joe and Biddy’s child to have a purer life.