Great Expectations

The title drew me to Dickens’ novel. I suppose that Charles Dickens should have been enough incentive to pick up this book, but in any case, I was intrigued by the notion of expectations, great expectations . . .

  • whose expectations?
  • expectations for what?
  • did they come true?

expectation: The action of waiting; the action or state of waiting for or awaiting (something) – Oxford English Dictionary

This is the way I understood “expectation” upon opening this book. Pip, the young orphaned narrator, is waiting for something. He’s waiting to be something. A pretty yet heartless girl he falls in love with at an early age calls him “common,” and this word propels him to pursue the life-long task of “making [him]self uncommon.” He wants to get on in life and be somebody.

Luckily, he gets the opportunity to do this due to the “great expectations” of a generous benefactor. And this is when I clued in that Dickens was using “expectations” in a completely different way in the 19th century.

And the communication I have got to make is, that he has great expectations . . .He [is] to be immediately removed from his present sphere of life and from this place, and be brought up as a gentleman – in a word, as a young fellow of great expectations.”

expectations: Prospects of inheritance or of profiting by testament – Oxford English Dictionary

Pip learns of his expectations

So there went my expectations for what I thought the title was referring to. Yet I like the mixture of both these definitions and how they correspond to Pip’s journey in this coming-of-age story (also known as a bildungsroman). With the status and money of a gentleman comes certain social and moral expectations. This story is very much a story of how Pip wants to but doesn’t quite live up to these expectations. These expectations get shattered, in both senses of the word.

Pip leaves his “common” life on the wild Kent marshes for a taste of the “uncommon” life of a gentleman in the big bad city of London.

“Is it a very wicked place?” I asked.
“You may get cheated, robbed and murdered in London. But there are plenty of people anywhere, who’ll do that for you.”
“If there is bad blood between you and them,” said I, to soften it a little.
“Oh! I don’t know about bad blood,” returned Mr. Wemmick; “there’s not much bad blood about. They’ll do it, if there’s anything to be got by it.”
“That makes it worse.”   

Pip sitting with the beautiful Estella and Miss Havisham

“You think so?” returned Wemmick. “Much about the same, I should say.”

Despite my own shattered expectations for the title, I loved this novel. I love books that surprise me in whatever way – like teaching me new definitions for words I take for granted. One critique of Dickens if I may be so bold: he should have stuck with his gut instinct on the ending. Give me a sad but truer ending any day over a more hopeful yet less convincing one.

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