Engaging with the text

Working with a literary text, whether it be a novel, play or poem, requires more than simply reading it and knowing ‘what happens' or what it is ‘about'. If you are to write good essays and be successful in examinations, it is important that you should engage with the text – in this case Great Expectations – as deeply as possible.

Reading and working with Great Expectations

  • Remember the kind of novel that Great Expectations represents – that it tells the story of a young man whose life is turned upside down and who has to undergo many painful experiences before he understands himself and learns true values
  • Allow yourself time to become accustomed to the language: the novel was written nearly one hundred and fifty years ago and linguistic forms have inevitably changed, so don't worry if you read slowly at first
  • Put yourself into the novel: try to imagine what it might be like to be Mrs Joe, left alone with her baby brother, or Herbert Pocket, trying to establish himself in the world and seeing how Pip deals with his good fortune
  • Set aside time for reading: identify blocks of time when you can read without interruption
  • Make notes as you read: this is the best way of keeping your reading alert and active – note down such things as the relationships between people, perhaps in a diagram form, and the locations of various parts of the story
  • Make links with other books, films or TV programmes with similar plots and themes – about coping with the sudden acquisition of wealth or about a young woman or man growing up and learning about the world.

Get to know the text

  • Read Great Expectations at least twice: this is essential if you are to develop a well-informed response to the novel
  • Follow up advice on reading given by your teacher or in study guides.
  • BUT don't rely on plot summaries
    • they tell you nothing about language and style
    • they don't identify themes and motifs in the text
    • however detailed, they are intended as reminders not substitutes
  • Read the text in different ways; once you have a firm grasp of the overall narrative you may wish to
    • re-read a particular section, such as the reappearance of Magwitch or the death of Miss Havisham
    • concentrate on a theme or motif, such as the use of dark settings, or the contrast between Pip's village and the new world of London
    • trace the development of a character or a relationship between characters, such as Pip and Biddy, or Miss Havisham and Estella.

Know the complete text

This requires a separate section because examiners often report that students know the start of a play or novel well, but not the end. Classroom study often emphasises the beginning of a book or play, where the author introduces characters, themes and imagery, and is then less detailed about the remainder of the text. So:

  • do not ignore the impact of significant scenes or episodes in the later chapters of Great Expectations
  • remember that themes, motifs and images may be developed and modified as the book goes on
  • remember that characters change and develop and that the reader's attitude towards them may also change.

Keep a record of your reading

  • make notes under headings, with page references to particularly useful passages
  • for major topics, you may find it helpful to have separate pages: one for Pip, say, or for Miss Havisham, or for ideas about the use of settings:
    • but don't let your notes become too separate and take care to comment on links and relationships
    • use specimen essay questions to give you ideas for headings for your notes.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.