Thematic structures

Analysing the novel thematically reveals Dickens' concerns and the various ways in which he presents them. This section is devoted to three key themes – education, class and money. These are very closely connected and the third is dealt with in less detail to give you the opportunity to make your own connections with the other two. (This section should be read in conjunction with Themes and significant ideas).


Dickens' treatment of education ranges from the comic, in the village school, to the very serious, as with Joe or Magwitch's ‘lessons' for Pip:


  • it forms part of his social criticism in the novel
    • he laments the lack of opportunity for children in Joe, Pip and Biddy's situation
    • he is angry about the advantages enjoyed by Compeyson, who has a veneer of education but lacks moral strength
    • he deplores the lack of preparation for life in a ‘gentlemanly' education

Formal teaching

  • Pip's formal schooling at the hands of Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt and Biddy is very inadequate and can be seen as a partial cause of some of his mistakes
  • Biddy teaches Joe to read and write properly as an expression of her love for him

Social aspiration

  • what happens at Satis House, where Pip decides he wants to be educated, develops into a new form of education: what Pip sees or hears, or is told, or yearns for, his introduction to a 'different world'
  • in London Pip's ‘education' is designed to fit him for the life of a ‘gentleman', though quite how is never made clear; it certainly does not fit him to earn his own living or to make a useful contribution to society

Education for revenge

  • Magwitch's ambitions for Pip represent a means of class revenge after he observes Compeyson's preferential treatment at the hands of the law
  • Miss Havisham's ‘education' of Estella is a means of sexual revenge on men because of Compeyson's betrayal

Role models

  • Joe's example as a means of education for Pip is, in the end, very powerful, but not in the early stages of his life
  • the education provided by the presence of Magwitch is perhaps the clearest kind: at first Pip is socially appalled by Magwitch's reappearance, but by the end he has become the devoted friend of a simple man in need of support.

NOTE: Philip Collins's book, Dickens and Education (1963) (see also Resources and further reading: Booklist) is an excellent study of this important subject in Dickens's work. (See also Social/political context: Pip's education in Great Expectations).


Class, status and morality

Closely related to the theme of education is that of class and status. Again this is part of Dickens' social criticism:

  • he is very anxious to make it clear that there is no necessary relationship between social standing and moral worth: this is evident from the characters of both Compeyson and Bentley Drummle
  • another way of putting this is that the outward marks of class may conceal moral failings: again Compeyson and Drummle are examples of vicious individuals from ‘good' families
  • by the same token the outward marks of class may conceal moral strength, as in the case of Joe and Biddy, who enjoy few social advantages but are two of the novel's most moral character
  • snobbery is seen as a vice, comic at best (e.g. Pumblechook), dangerous and damaging at worst: (Mrs. Pocket is so obsessed with status that she neglects her family)
  • overall, Dickens refuses to categorise people by class:
    • Herbert and Mathew Pocket and Clarriker are ‘good' middle-class characters – not least because they have to earn their livings
    • Orlick is a weak and vicious member of the lower classes.

A warmint makes a gentleman

Pip and Magwitch are at the centre of the novel's concern with class and status:

  • in class terms, Magwitch defines himself as a ‘a warmint', a piece of vermin that society expels from its body by sending him to Australia
  • Compeyson, although imprisoned, is allowed to stay and is treated leniently because of his middle-class background
  • when Magwitch encounters Pip on the marsh and the small boy is kind to him, the convict vows to rescue Pip from ever becoming a ‘warmint' and to make sure that he enjoys Compeyson's advantages

Magwitch's impulse is generous, but he fails to think it through:

  • what he acquires over many years of hard work comes to Pip too suddenly
  • Pip's wealth and rapid entry into a new social world disturbs his equilibrium
  • gentleman are not made by money alone and being gentlemanly means more than being able to talk your way out of trouble in a court room – it is also about how you behave towards people
  • by bestowing this new status on Pip, Magwitch changes the nature of any relationship they might have when he returns from Australia
  • the Pip he has created looks down on him socially, and is disgusted by the source of his good fortune.
  • The theme of social climbing develops throughout the novel.
  • Is Great Expectations simply the story of the rise and fall of a snob?
  • Which of the following characters would you consider to be a gentleman? Explain why (or why not):
    • Joe Gargery
    • Herbert Pocket
    • Bentley Drummle


Money, in both small and large sums, plays an important role in the plot and thematic concerns of the novel. Here are a few of its many appearances in the novel:

  • the mysterious stranger who hands Pip a shilling wrapped in two pound notes (Ch. 10; Vol. 1, Ch. 10)
  • the payment of Pip's apprenticeship premium (Ch. 13; Vol. 1, Ch. 13)
  • Pip and Herbert's attempts to sort out their finances (Ch. 34; Vol. 2, Ch. 15)
  • Pip's secret payments to establish Herbert at Clarrikers (Ch. 37; Vol. 2, Ch. 17).

  • List the other appearances of sums of money in the novel
  • Note down some of the ways in which money affects people's lives, for good or ill
  • What is the effect of money on how other people treat Pip?
  • What is the effect of money on Pip himself?
  • How is the theme of money related to education and class?


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