Charles Dickens selected the names for his characters with admirable care, and Great Expectations is no exception. Among the colorful cast, Pip, Estella, Magwitch, and Miss Havisham’s names are particularly fitting for their personalities. Early in the story, Pip explains the reason for his odd name: “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. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip” (p. 1). However, “Pip” suits him because a pip is a small seed of a fleshy fruit, and like a seed, we watch Pip grow up physically and emotionally. He grows from a poor boy living on the marshes into a fashionable gentleman. He also matures significantly, so that by the end of the book, he has changed in every sense for the better—produced “fruit,” so to speak.
Estella is so aptly named because estella means “star” in Latin. On his first day with Estella in Miss Havisham’s gloomy house, Pip elaborates, “her light came along the dark passage like a star” (p. 45). Throughout the rest of the story, the girl becomes his “guiding star.” Because of her, he aspires to become a gentleman and develops contempt toward Joe, Magwitch, and his old underprivileged life. Interestingly enough, when he discovers the truth about her and her heritage, Pip is inspired to become a much humbler, more open-minded person.
Magwitch’s first name is Abel, which is a definite allusion to Abel from the Bible, the son of Adam and Eve who was betrayed and murdered by his brother Cain. Compeyson, Magwitch’s former partner, betrays Magwitch in a chillingly similar fashion. When both men are arrested for their crimes, Compeyson does everything possible to protect himself but never gives Magwitch a second thought. When talking about Compeyson, Magwitch makes no attempt to hide or sugar-coat his hatred for the man: “And when the verdict come, warn’t it Compeyson as was recommended to mercy on account of good character and bad company, and giving up all the information he could agen me, and warn’t it me as got never a word but Guilty? And when I says to Compeyson, ‘Once out of this court, I’ll smash that face of yourn!’ ain’t it Compeyson as prays the Judge to be protected, and gets two turnkeys stood betwixt us? And when we’re sentenced, ain’t it him as gets seven year, and me fourteen, and ain’t it him as the Judge is sorry for, because he might a done so well, and ain’t it me as the Judge perceives to be a old offender of wiolent passion, likely to come to worse?” (p. 274) Toward the novel’s end, Compeyson stabs Magwitch in the back once more by alerting the authorities to Magwitch’s attempted escape on the German steamer, and this time Magwitch defies the consequences and gets into a final brawl with the man right in the middle of the Thames, resulting in Compeyson’s drowning.
Finally, the significance of Miss Havisham’s name can be found by the pronunciation of her surname: “Have-a-sham.” The old dowager is a literal sham toward Pip, and she raises Estella to become a sham, too. When Pip makes the crushing discovery that Miss Havisham is not his benefactor and that she had never meant for him and Estella to be together at all, the woman readily admits that she very knowingly played the boy so falsely. “‘Yes,’ she returned, again nodding, steadily, ‘I let you go on’” (p. 281). Because a man had so cruelly deceived her, the former bride makes it her lifelong goal to deceive other men in the same way.
As aforementioned, Pip believes for the longest time that Miss Havisham is responsible for his financial and social ascent. For a while, there are plenty of hints that she might very well be. To start with, Pip’s benefactor couldn’t possibly be Joe or Biddy; he makes it explicit that his life with them as a smithery apprentice is tedious and unrewarding: “I now fell into a regular routine of apprenticeship life, which was varied, beyond the limits of the village and the marshes, by no more remarkable circumstance than the arrival of my birthday and my paying another visit to Miss Havisham” (p. 96).
Also, the renowned Jaggers, who informs Pip of his unexpected fortune and elaborates on the future legal procedures, was first seen in Miss Havisham’s house. “The stranger did not recognize me, but I recognized him as the gentleman I had met on the stairs, on the occasion of my second visit to Miss Havisham. I had known him the moment I saw him looking over the settle, and now that I stood confronting him with his hand upon my shoulder, I checked off again in detail, his large head, his dark complexion, his deep-set eyes, his bushy black eyebrows, his large watch-chain, his strong black dots of beard and whisker, and even the smell of scented soap on his great hand” (p. 106).
Possibly Pip’s biggest and most credible clue is that Matthew Pocket, who is appointed as his tutor, is Miss Havisham’s cousin. “Ah! I caught at the name directly. Miss Havisham’s relation. The Matthew whom Mr. and Mrs. Camilla had spoken of. The Matthew whose place was to be at Miss Havisham’s head, when she lay dead, in her bride’s dress on the bride’s table” (p. 108). From Pip’s viewpoint, if having one of Miss Havisham’s direct relatives tutor him isn’t proof enough that she is his generous patron, what other proof is there?
If anything else is needed to further convince him, Estella tells him while they are out together, “We have no choice, you and I, but to obey our instructions. We are not free to follow our own devices, you and I” (p. 207). This strengthens Pip’s belief that not only is Miss Havisham his patron, but the old dowager also means to bring him and Estella together—which makes the actual truth all the more surprising and devastating.
Several of the characters appear bad at first, but end up changing for the better. Starting with Mrs. Joe, Joe’s first wife and Pip’s older sister and guardian, she appears as nothing more than a cruel and abusive warden who harasses her husband and punishes her brother dearly even for something as simple as wandering about in the churchyard where most of their family is buried. “My sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, was more than twenty years older than I, and had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbours because she had brought me up ‘by hand.’ Having at that time to find out for myself what the expression meant, and knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand, and to be much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me, I supposed that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand” (p. 5).
Mrs. Joe’s character changes in a tragic fashion: Orlick hits her horribly about the head with an iron shackle, leaving her physically and mentally impaired. “Her sight was disturbed, so that she saw objects multiplied, and grasped at visionary teacups and wine-glasses instead of the realities; her hearing was greatly impaired; her memory also; and her speech was unintelligible. When, at last, she came round so far as to be helped down-stairs, it was still necessary to keep my slate always by her, that she might indicate in writing what she could not indicate in speech” (p. 95).
Despite this terrible tragedy, not all the changes in Mrs. Joe are entirely bad. Pip elaborates, “However, her temper was greatly improved, and she was patient. A tremulous uncertainty of the action of all her limbs soon became a part of her regular state, and afterwards, at intervals of two or three months, she would often put her hands to her head, and would then remain for about a week at a time in some gloomy aberration of mind” (p. 95). The woman is essentially transfigured from a screeching, violent, virulent creature to a quiet, mellow, and docile creature.
Miss Havisham also undergoes a most remarkable transformation in a most unfortunate manner. Upon realizing just how cruel she had been to Pip and Estella, how she had caused so much pain in a hopeless attempt to alleviate her own pain, the old woman is literally consumed with guilt and grief. Much as he’s hurting, Pip can’t help but pity her. “That she had done a grievous thing in taking an impressionable child to mould into the form that her wild resentment, spurned affection, and wounded pride, found vengeance in, I knew full well. But that, in shutting out the light of day, she had shut out infinitely more; that, in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences; that, her mind, brooding solitary, had grown diseased, as all minds do and must and will that reverse the appointed order of their Maker; I knew equally well. And could I look upon her without compassion, seeing her punishment in the ruin she was, in her profound unfitness for this earth on which she was placed, in the vanity of sorrow which had become a master mania, like the vanity of penitence, the vanity of remorse, the vanity of unworthiness, and other monstrous vanities that have been curses in this world?” (p. 312)
When Miss Havisham’s dress catches fire, it illustrates the “burning” in her heart and soul. It’s also a symbol of purgatory. Fire is recognized as a form of purifying for souls destined for heaven. Thus, Miss Havisham is literally and figuratively “purged,” and she dies in peace after Pip extends his wholehearted forgiveness.
Even Estella experiences a change of heart. At the end of the novel, after having endured a terrible marriage, she is changed both inside and out. The beauty of her youth has diminished, but her emotional and mental changes are astounding. Standing with Pip at the Satis house, Estella realizes what she had, what she could have had, and how she’d missed out on and wasted so much. She could have had a happy and loving relationship with Pip, but she sold him out for a husband who made her miserable every day. She confesses to Pip, “There was a long hard time when I kept far from me, the remembrance, of what I had thrown away when I was quite ignorant of its worth. But, since my duty has not been incompatible with the admission of that remembrance, I have given it a place in my heart” (p. 380).
Since the past can never be undone, Estella only hopes now to learn from her mistakes and become a much better person than she was before. “I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape” (p. 380).
Dickens very cleverly uses his novel to criticize class differences in society. Estella serves as the prime example of Dickens’s social commentary. In the beginning, Estella lives with a wealthy guardian and appears too good for Pip in every sense. Because of her, Pip becomes ashamed of who he is and aspires to improve his identity as well as his situation. “‘He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!’ said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. ‘And what coarse hands he has! And what thick boots!’ I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt for me was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it” (p. 46).
As irony would have it, Estella hails from a class even lower than that of Pip. She is Abel Magwitch’s child—the daughter of a common-law convict—and her mother is a gypsy maidservant accused of murder. She has no memory of either of her parents, as Miss Havisham adopted her when she was a baby and everyone believed the girl to be an orphan.
Miss Havisham initially took the girl in to keep her safe, but ultimately used her as a tool of revenge. Due to Estella’s striking beauty, Miss Havisham seized the opportunity and taught her to be cruel and callous toward every man, no matter who that man was. Miss Havisham tells Pip as much, “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” (p. 313).
Despite Miss Havisham’s efforts, however, despite Estella’s constant ill treatment of Pip, he remains steadfastly in love with the girl, and we receive a glimpse of hope at their final meeting that things between the two of them just might work out after all. The last line in the book reads, “I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her” (p. 380).
In this way, Dickens proves that social class does not determine happiness, and that love ought to be the guiding principle. The lowest-ranking people in Dickens’s cast, from Joe to Magwitch, prove to possess the noblest traits and the greatest amount of love. As Pip and Estella both discover, the hard way, all the money and prominence in the world can (and should) never substitute for morality and mutual affection.
This was probably one of my most favorite books of the class. It was really great to read something from Dickens that wasn't A Christmas Carol, much as I love that little story. The 1946 movie with John Mills is wonderful, too; my professor called it the version that did the book the most justice.