Issues in Literature and Culture




                       P2 Essay on 

                              Great Expectations                

Department of English

Choose one of the following topics and write a 1,000-word essay on Great Expectations.

Follow the guidelines for writing Formal Essay Assignments.


Suggested Essay Topics


What significance does the novel’s title, Great Expectations, have for the story? In what ways does Pip have “great expectations”?


 For much of Great Expectations, Pip seems to believe in a stark division between good and evil, and he tends to classify people and situations as belonging to one extreme or the other: for instance, despite their respective complexities, he believes that Estella is good and the convict is evil. Yet, both socially and morally, Pip himself is often caught between extremes; his own situation rarely matches up to his moral vision. What is the role of moral extremes in this novel? What does it mean to be ambiguous or caught between extremes?


Discuss the character of Miss Havisham. What themes does she embody? What experiences have made her as she is? Is she a believable character? How does she relate to Pip and Estella?


Think about the novel’s two endings—the “official” version in which Pip and Estella are reunited in the garden and the earlier version in which they merely speak briefly on the street and go their separate ways. Which version do you prefer? Which version seems more true to the thematic development of the novel? Why?

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Great Expectations creates, within a realistic context, an array of characters for whom expectations change dramatically from what they originally anticipated.  Consider the nature of how "expectations" function in the framework of the novel.  How do they respond to novelistic conventions, or to social practices, or to conventions of realism?

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Discuss the significance of  Dickens’s decision to tell the story from the first person point of view.


Discuss the theme of guilt and how this has affected Pip’s life.


Discuss the theme of right and wrong or good and evil.


Show how the relationship between Pip and his sister is different from the relationship between Pip and Joe.


How are the attitudes of Pip and Joe toward the first convict similar? How does the convict’s behavior warrant some compassion?


Compare and contrast Joe’s relationship with Pip and his relationship with his wife.


Discuss how Pip’s day at Miss Havisham’s changes him forever.


Discuss the first stage of Pip’s life. How can this stage be called one of innocence or childhood?


Discuss the two settings in the novel—that of Satis House and that of the forge with its marshes. What characters are associated with each, and how do they affect Pip?


1. It was then I began to understand that everything in the room had stopped, like the watch and the clock, a long time ago. I noticed that Miss Havisham put down the jewel exactly on the spot from which she had taken it up. As Estella dealt the cards, I glanced at the dressing-table again, and saw that the silk stocking on it once white, now yellow, had been trodden ragged. Without this arrest of everything, this standing still of all the pale decayed objects, not even the withered bridal dress on the collapsed form could have looked so like grave-clothes, or the long veil so like a shroud. (Dickens, Great Expectations 55)

For fifty-four years she will sit on a blue velvet chair before the window in an upper room — staring now straight before her down the cluttered thoroughfare of Water Street to the Ouse but it is doubtful whether she will see these things. She will retain the paradoxical pose of one who keeps watch — but over nothing. She will not lose her beauty. Her upright, forward-looking posture will convey an undeniable grace. Even in old age when her flesh has shrunk but the firm mould of her bones remains, she will preserve the sadly imperious demeanour of an exiled princess. (Swift, Waterland 78)

Both of these excerpts describe women who are relics of the past, of frozen time, their conditions caused by the actions of men whom they were going to marry/were married to. Both Miss Havisham and Sarah Atkinson live in the days of yesterday, yet maintain a hold over the lives of today. In Great Expectations, Miss Havisham maliciously encourages Estella in the breaking of Pip's heart. In Waterland, rumors abound of Sarah's communication with her sons and of her gift of prophecy in the town of Gildsey, and of her apparition seen after her death. In what other ways are Miss Havisham and Sarah Atkinson similar? In what ways are they different? In what ways do both still maintain a grasp over the present and the future from their "blue velvet chairs," unable to relinquish the past, and like Madame Defarge inexorably knitting in Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities "sees nothing," yet sees everything? (Juliet Liu)

2. In Great Expectations, Pip describes his surroundings with the wide-eyed fascination of any young boy:

It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders' webs; hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade. On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy; and the marsh-mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village--a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there--was invisible to me until I was quite close under it. Then, as I looked up at it, while it dripped it seemed to my oppressed conscience like a phantom devoting me to the Hulks. (17)

Pip's perceptions of his village are governed by youth and fear. The fear lying in the runaway prisoners threatening to eat him and from his sister, Mrs. Joe, who raised him "by hand." This technique of deep description can be taken from Wordsworth and Keats, but Dickens does so in prose. Therefore, the heavy description serves a double purpose--not only to provide an image for the reader but to show Pip's youthful depiction of the world around him. How are these two purposes balanced? How does Dickens's way of portraying nature compare and contrast to Wordsworth's and Keats's? How is Pip's youthfulness subdued by the dull environment around him?

3. Charles Dickens's Great Expectations makes much use of metaphor, intertwined with folk and religious parables, in order to create much of the imagery in the text. One particular passage is:

I struggled through the alphabet as if it had been a bramble-bush; getting considerably worried and scratched by every letter. After that, I fell among those thieves, the nine figures, who seemed every evening to do something new to disguise themselves and baffle recognition. But at last I began, in a purblind groping way, to read, write, and cipher, on the very smallest scale. (Dickens 44)

Here, Pip's road to education is seen as a sort of archetypal journey. The allusion to brambles could not only be referring to several folk and fairy tales (the thorns covering the castle in Sleeping Beauty, the brambles that scratch out the Prince's eyes in Rapunzel, the briar patch), but also to Christ's crown of thorns. This is followed by the idea of Pip falling among thieves, which is noted as a reference to Christ's tale of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35). Themes of disguise, stumbling, and youthful mistakes are evoked. How much of Dickens fairy tale imagery is intentional? How does this relate to the idea of Great Expectations as a Bildungsroman, with Pip on a road towards self-discover and moral redemption? Do the references transform this story beyond a merely personal level and into some greater significance? (lexi adams)

4. "I wonder who's put into prison-ships, and why they're put there?" said I, in a general way, and with quiet desperation.
It was to much for Mrs. Joe, who immediately rose. "I tell you what, young fellow," said she, "I didn't bring you up by hand to badger people's lives out. It would be blame to me, and not praise, I had. 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!" (Charles Dickens' Great Expectations 14-15).

Mrs. Joe explains to Pip why people are put on prison ships: "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." Pip's encounter with the convict did, indeed, whet his curiosity and inspire him to ask questions. Further, he finds himself boxed into stealing for the convict, and thus presumes himself to be on the path to prison: "I was clearly on my way there. I had begun by asking questions, and I was going to rob Mrs. Joe" (15). Pips's concerns represent a process of definition by projection; that is, Pip thinks himself a budding convict because he has followed the earlier stages of Mrs. Joe's description of the path to incarceration. What is faulty about his logic? Indeed, in the context of the book's mechanisms of reality, is his logic faulty at all? Consider the fact that when the convict conjures up the story of a fierce young man on page 6, a mysterious, bruised young man does appear out of the mist on page 17. (Darren Smith)

5. I had often watched a large dog of ours eating his food; and I now noticed a decided similarity between the dog's way of eating and the man's. The man took strong sharp sudden bites, just like the dog. He swallowed, or rather snapped up, every mouthful, too soon and too fast; and he looked sideways here and there while he ate, as if he thought there was danger in every direction of somebody's coming to take the pie away. (16)

Charles Dickens' Great Expectations is packed with similes at every turn. Described by the narrator, Pip, elements of comparison are ostensibly drawn from Pip's life. His comparison of the convict to the dog is very much a young boy's observation. His description also, on the other hand, suggests to the reader perceptions of which Pip himself is not aware. Thus Dickens is constantly present within the text as a source of authorial perspective. This is true throughout his use of similes as well as in his ways of naming characters such as Pip, Joe, Mrs. Joe, Also Georgiana, and Estella.

How is the voice of the narrator in Great Expectations related to both Pip and Dickens? What is Dickens' purpose in using Pip's observations to describe people and events? What sort of hierarchy is thus established? Is Dickens more or less realistic as a result? (Wendy Eberhart)

6.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 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.

In Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, the narrator, Pip, describes his sister as raising him "by hand" and he tells the reader that the neighbors and people surrounding him admire that about her. We also learn that Pip's sister Mrs. Joe Gargery is the wife of a blacksmith (Mr. Joe Gargery). Already, there seems to be an emphasis on hands. A denotation, in Pip's community, of hands on work and physical labor. Is this an symbol of the class Pip lives in? Does the stratification of class coincide with a gap between the physical, tangible and the indirect or distant. Will later reading of the novel provide a contrast to the qualities of Pip's social class that seem to be presented in the first chapters regarding Pip's background? (Ama Codjoe)

7. As I passed the church, I felt (as I had felt during service in the morning) a sublime compassion for the poor creatures who were destined to go there, Sunday after Sunday, all their lives through, and to lie obscurely among the low green mounds (147)

Pip's description of the peasants' lifestyle in this passage from Great Expectations is reminiscent of Tom Crick's description of the uneventful, phlegmatic lifestyle of the fenlanders. Pip, like Tom, feels painfully different, separate from them, but instead of envying them their peace (as does Tom) he pities them. The notion of "sublime" is also brought up in this passage; the pain of sublimity seems to hold more value for Pip than does peacefulness of ignorance. Is this a carryover of Romanticism? Also (though it's a bit early to ask) what side do you feel Dickens is on? Does he sympathize with Pip's sentiments, or is he ridiculing them? (Erin Suzuki)

8. Joe had sanctified it [home], and I had believed in it. I had believed in the best parlour as a most elegant saloon; I had believed in the front door, as a mysterious portal of the Temple of State...I had believed in the forge as the glowing road to manhood and independence. Within a single year, all this was changed. Now it was coarse and common, and I would not have had Miss Havisham and Estella see it on any account." (107)

When Pip was young, he did not have an ideal life. His life was one of contrasts: Mrs. Joe was mean, strict, and strong-willed while Joe was kind and generous. Pip preferred Joe, of course, and Pip and Joe being the best of friends, Pip often sat on Joe's lap and told him all sorts of interesting observations. Thus, from when he was young, Pip knew how to distinguish goodness from mean-spiritedness, generosity from selfishness. He admired Joe's virtues, and those virtues ennobled their modest home and Joe's trade of the blacksmith.

Later, in his life, in the hopes of being given great fortune, he is sent regularly to Miss Havisham's house. At her house, he meets snobby, cruel Estella and Miss Havisham dressed in a yellowed, frayed bridal gown. Miss Havisham's house's buildings are deserted, the garden in a tangly mess of weeds, her old wedding cake is rotting. This should have been repulsive. Yet, Pip is captivated by the gentlewoman-ness of Miss Havisham, the beauty of Estella, and the dress and manner of Miss Havihsam's other guests. Soon, he wants to climb the ladder to the social class of gentlemen and gentlewomen. All that is below this ladder, including his own modest home and Joe's trade as a blacksmith becomes "coarse and common".

Having grown up knowing what good virtues are because of Joe's example, virtues such as kindness and generosity, why does Pip want to join a social class of gentlemen and gentlewomen, whose example, so far, such as Estella's snobbery, are so opposing to those virtues? (Juliet Liu)

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1. What are these "great expectations" that young Pip has? He tells us:

In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and finely felt as injustice It may be only a small injustice that the child can be exposed to, but the child is small, and its world is small. (Penguin edition, p. 63] What is Dickens trying to do as he clearly establishes Pip as a character with a high level of moral consciousness and insight? Is this injustice that Pip understands from his sister (and now Estella) an indication of Dicken's feelings toward the world at large? And are these "expectations" a reaction to the hardship has endured? (Molly Rosen)

2. In Great Expectations Pips's desire to better himself, to become a gentleman is born of some innate stirring. Rather he finds himself wanting to get out of the world in which he has lived since birth only after his encounters with Estella and Miss Havisham. He recognizes that what these encounters have instilled in him is more self-hatred and discontentment than anything else. At theoutset he also feels that he might have been better off never to have met them, and thus have been able to accept his life at the forge. He says to Biddy:"see how I am going on. Dissatisfied, and uncomfortable, and - what would it signify to me, being coarse and common if no nobody had told me so!"(128). However ill-begun his motivation may be, knowing what we do about his life in the marshes, it seems that he isn't entirely wrong to want to make a life for himself elsewhere. It seems that ambition has its advantages, no matter what form in comes in. Are the discomforts and feels of self-hatred seen as too much of a price to pay, or a necessary step to get Pip on his path? (Kieran Heffernan)

3. From the very beginning of this novel there is no distinction between victims of society and society's criminals. They relate to each other almost by instinct, because, although Pip has plenty of reason (such as fear of being considered a traitor) to hope that, while he is searching for the convicts with the officers, the convicts have escaped, Joe really has none, yet he still says, "I'd give a shilling if they had cut and run, Pip" (41).

By creating this allegiance, Dickens characterizes society into two simple fractions, those who are "poor" and "wretched" (words Dickens uses throughout the novel, mostly in dialogue) and those who are "given to government," so to speak (58). The group with which Dickens does not sympathize is discernible in his characterizations of them through their dialogue. At the Christmas dinner in the beginning of the novel, for example, the dialogue involving people such as Uncle Pumblechook, and the other adults (except Joe, who then again, is thought of as an overgrown child) is usually ambiguous in its meaning:

"Good stuff, eh, sergeant?" said Mr. Pumblechook. "I'll tell you something," returned the sergeant; "I suspect that stuff's of your providing." Mr. Pumblechook, with a fat sort of laugh, said, "Aye, aye? Why?" "Because," returned the sergeant, clapping him on the shoulder, "you're a man that knows what's what." "D'ye think so?'" said Mr. Pumblechook, with his former laugh. "Have another glass!" "With you. Hob and nob . . . May you live a thousand years, and never be a worse judge of the right sort than you are at the present moment of your life." (40) Although I don't believe that the sergeant is actually making fun of Pumblechook by claiming him to be a man of exquisite style and taste when he obviously isn't, Dickens is making fun of him. Making fun of both of them. It is extremely reminiscent of the satire Austen uses in describing Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine DeBourgh. But why does Dickens create such a strong and clear cut boundary between those that are good in the sense of being wretched and taken advantage of (whatever their faults may be) and those that run the show, those who take advantage? Why does he create such a tight allegiance among each group so that a criminal is willing to protect a little boy he's just met, and a blacksmith is willing to hope that a frightening criminal escapes successfully from prison, without even knowing him? (Melissa Rodriguez) 4. As a product of a particular time, a novel becomes a kind of historical landmark in itself. Yet as the novel occupies a particular space in history, it also contributes to a chain of literary influences whose links can be traced up to postmodernism. Both Graham Swift and Charles Dickens have produced novels that are specific to the particular era during which they were written. Further, their novels attempt to diagram the discourse of time. Swift focuses on the events of history, while Dickens explores the life of a man. The discourses of theme that navigate their way through these novels are time conscious. Swift asserts the cyclical nature of time as his narrator states, "How it repeats itself, how it goes back on itself, no matter how we try to straighten it out" (142). Dickens maintains that an event influences one's fate as that event becomes the first link to a long chain of events. He writes,

Think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold...that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day. (p. 72) Perhaps as Dickens assembles and disassembles the experiences of one man, he is presenting more than a chain, but a series of links that connect from beginning to end--and around again. Perhaps Swift's affirmations are a link to the chain of a Dickensian theory of time. Compare the two authors' notions of time as distinct entities that exist with their respective novels, as well as connected links of a chain that extend far beyond both novels. Good luck. (Kristen Dodge)

5. In chapter 17, Pip spends an afternoon with Biddy, divulges some of his innermost secrets and thoughts with her, and reflects upon his experiences with Miss Havisham and Estella. In doing so, ends up comparing Bibby to Estella and, in the process, seems to be comparing the solidity of common life with the tempting yet elusive world of wealth. On pp. 130-131, Pip says:

Biddy was never insulting, or capricious, or Biddy to-day — and somebody else to-morrow; she would have derived only pain, and no pleasure, from giving me pain; she would far rather have wounded her own breast than mine. How could it be, then, that I did not like her the much better of the two? Pip seems to have mixed emotions. He knows that he should desire Bibby's company more, for she is a true friend and is, more importantly, someone he can trust. Nevertheless, he is greatly attracted to the gorgeous, yet rude and conceited Estella — a girl whose presence ultimately gives him more pain than pleasure. What does this passage indicate about Pip's satisfaction with his own life? Has Pip been corrupted in any way by beauty? Has Pip's strict upbringing prepared him or made him more immune to the rigors of Estella's insults? In what way does this moral quandary compare to some of the other moral questions Pip has had to confront? (John Rosenblatt)

6. Joe and Pip have obvious and innumerable links, both are repressed by Mrs. Joe, both male, and both are in an uncertain space between childhood and adulthood. Pip refers to Joe "in our already-mentioned free masonry as fellow sufferers", and that he "always treated him as a larger species of child, and as no more than my equal." Though Pip is plagued by the guilty conscience of a child, in the first few chapters, he speaks with the words of an adult, drawing parallels between house cleaning and religion. In this way, has Dickens empowered Pip with the support of a man, so that Pip might have the courage to venture out on his own? (Julianna Sassaman)

7. In Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, Pip experiences two distinct and profound types of self-loathing. The first arises from his meeting Estella, and is a rejection of his home, family, and all that is innate about him:

I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider thema very indifferent pair. Her contempt was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it, (60) The second type is a more mature form. Once Pip has become a gentleman, he regrets his rejection of Joe's simple goodness and begins to consider himself hopelessly immoral and artificial:

Ah! Had I given Joe no reason to doubt my constancy, and to think that in prosperity I should grow cold to him and cast him off? Had I given Joe's innocent heart no cause to feel instinctively that as I got stronger, his hold upon me would be weaker, and that he had better loosen it in time and let me go, before I plucked myself away? (470) Pip's self-loathing is essentially the same feeling in each case, but the causes are different. What are the distinct causes in each case, and how do they tie into the thematic pattern of innocence, experience, and regret? (Megan Lynch)

8. Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus ("The Tailor Retailored") is in part a result of the author's own horror at at the philosophical doctrine of determinism, in which every state of being is precisely caused by its immediately preceding state, and of utilitarianism, under which there is one goal of obtaining happiness, and every action should be weighed to see sort of how much happiness is obtained from doing that action.

"Doubt has darkened into Unbelief," says he; "shade after shade goes grimly over your soul, till you have the fixed, starless, Tartaren black." To such readers have reflected, what can be called reflecting, on man's life, and happily discovered, in contradiction to much Profit-and-loss Philosophy, that Soul is not synonymous with Stomach . . . In what does Carlyle find hope? Does he make a positive suggestion for what people should believe, or the philosophy that should govern their lives? What is the role of religion in that doctrine? (Geoffrey Litwack)

9. Since Pip met Estella as a young boy, he has gone through conflicting emotions of love, desire, hatred and anguish. Estella treats him cruelly one day, while on another allows Pip to kiss her cold cheek, which he compares to a statue. Yet, while she puts him through this anguish, Pip continues to want her. When Pip moves to London, to become a gentleman, he begins to realize the extent of which he wants Estella to love him:

I loved Estella with the love of the man, I loved her simply because I found her irresistible. Once for all; I knew to me sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness...I loved her none the less because I knew it, and it had to be more influence in restraining me, than if I had devoutly believed her to be human perfection (253-54). Pip becomes ashamed with his past and his relationship with Joe, and is also embaressed of himself. Is Estella worth this pain; does Pip really love her? I feel as if Estella represents everything that Pip desires: beauty, wealth, and the ability to be part of the upper class in England. Pip gives up himself and sacrifices everything — including the people that truly love him - to chase after Estella. Yet his love is an infatuation, and an impossible one at that. He loves Estella not for who she is, but for what she represents. (Kate Edwards)

10. I am interested in why Pip blatantly states to Biddy: "If I could only get myself to fall in love with you...If I could only get myself to do it, that would be the thing for me" (131). What does this say about Pip's view of love? After he comes into money, does he ever consider Biddy in this way again? Or was this just a fleeting thing, and he just wanted to be able to settle for Biddy because he knew he could never have Estella? What would it say about the legitimacy of Pip and Estella's love if he only got her because he was suddenly rich?

I think that Pip over analyzes here. He is immature to think that you could ever make yourself fall in love with someone, just because it would be convenient. However, it is a sign of the time that Dickens was writing in, that people only married within their class, and a girl like Estella would never marry Pip (before his money). So, this unromantic view of marriage was more accepted at this time period. I feel that his love for Biddy is legitimate, but that it is not romantic love. Once he gets the money, he sets his sights on Estella. (Erin Emlock)

11. How does Pip's perspective as a man looking back on his childhood permit humor in Great Expectations? It removes Pip from the moment of the event and allows him to tell the story in good-natured retrospect. At his first encounter with the convict, the convict terrifies Pip, but by the time he tells the story to the reader, Pip realizes that the convict is not inherently terrible; he is a man presenting himself as such to a small boy whom he wishes to terrify. Knowing this at the time of the storytelling, Pip comments, "After each question he tilted me over a little more, so as to give me a greater sense of helplessness and danger." (Chapter 1) How does this perspective add to the humor of Pip's situation? (Lily Huang)

13. In the beginning of Dickens's Great Expectations we as readers are greeted with an unreliable narrator: a man remembering his life as a small boy, frightened of both strangers and his closest family. How are we to perceive the story he relates? Dickens makes the reader aware of this problem in the second chapter through the voice of Pip's sister, Mrs. Joe: "'Drat that boy,' interposed my sister, frowning at me over her work, 'what a questioner he is. Ask no questions, and you'll be told no lies,'" (14). The fact that Mrs. Joe may lie a few lines later, "'Lord bless the boy!', makes space for us to question her judgement; we must ask questions of Pip's story, because by the nature of this narrative we encounter certain untruths or distortions. In particular, the influence of fearful people over Pip's life calls into question what he says they feel. (Kate Williamson)

14. Great Expectations opens immediately with the use of puns, or at least Pip's humorous misinterpretations of his parents' tombstone and of the religious instruction he has received. The narrator continues to play around with the meanings of words: "They seemed to think the opportunity lost, if they failed to point the conversation to me, every now and then, and stick the point into me" (25). This seems to indicate that the narrator has had a relatively good education, especially considering his upbringing and the fact that we know he is to be apprenticed to Joe. Can we infer simply from these first few chapters that Pip is to undergo some rise in fortune or social status that will provide him with the education he clearly has by the time he narrates the story? Can we assume education and learning are highly valued by Dickens? (Devin McIntyre)

15. Dickens's style is a far cry from Austen's. Reading Pride and Prejudice, its style suggests its seriousness, its pretentions, if you will. But after reading the first three chapters of Dickens' novel, its style seems to suggest only good story-telling; it does not reveal the Victorian aspiration of a high art with mass appeal. Rather, only the mass appeal is, so far, apparent. (Wes Hamrick)

16. In creating the characters of Pumblechook and Wopsle, Dickens appears to be making some comment on the middle class. The two businessmen are, after all, the primary source of Pip's torment and provide him with an overall sense of worthlessness be! fore he gains his benefactor and after he loses his money. Evidence of such is apparent in his humiliation of Pip within chapter four when he takes Pip to be bound as Joe's apprentice. However, when Pip is with money, Pumblechook brags of raising hi! m to his position and is almost completely responsible for turning Pip into the pretentious young man he becomes. What then, does Dickens perceive the existence of such people within the middle class to represent? He seems to make them out to be infectious exceptions to an otherwise noble class. (Dan Shindell)

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