Growing up in Great Expectations

Great Expectations belongs to the genre of novels known as 'Bildungsroman' – 'bildung' means education and 'roman' means novel in German. This type of novel focuses on the moral, spiritual and physical growth of the central character, beginning the narrative with them as a child and following their development into adulthood – in this case it is Pip who we follow. In Great Expectations we are also shown other characters who progress from childhood to adulthood, namely Estella, Herbert and Biddy. The development of children was always a principal theme for Dickens in many of his novels – some of his most famous creations are young people.

Pip, as a child and as an adult
Pip, as a child and as an adult

Social and historical context

Growing up was not an easy time for any child in Victorian Britain. If you were rich you were probably looked after by a nanny and had little parental contact. You would possibly have been spoiled and certainly taught to look down on your social inferiors. If you were poor you probably lived in squalid conditions and may have had to go out to work from as young as five years old. Parents were often uncaring and unloving. Because of high death rates, many children had no parents at all - both Pip and Estella fall into this category.

How is the theme of growing up shown in the novel?

In Great Expectations, Dickens shows us that growing up is a difficult business and according to him there are three main things that have a major effect on a child's development:

  • parenting (or a lack of parenting)
  • education
  • self-perception

How does Dickens show this?EvidenceAnalysis
ParentingBoth Pip and Estella are orphans so lack direct parental contact. Pip is brought up by a substitute mother and father (Joe and Mrs Joe) and Estella by Miss Havisham alone.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.Originally being brought up by hand meant being raised by someone other than the child's natural mother. Dickens plays with words and makes it clear that Mrs Joe often uses physical violence to control her younger brother – and, indeed, her husband. The brutality that Pip suffers is also carried out by other parental figures he comes into contact with – Magwitch (physical violence), and Miss Havisham (psychological violence).
EducationPip lacks formal education apart from what he receives at the local village school. Biddy helps him to develop his abilities but again this is limited. Once he comes into money, Pip has lessons in becoming a gentleman. Estella is taught by Miss Havisham and then attends a posh school to finish her education.Mr. Pocket and I had a long talk together. He knew more of my intended career than I knew myself, for he referred to his having been told by Mr. Jaggers that I was not designed for any profession, and that I should be well enough educated for my destiny if I could "hold my own" with the average of young men in prosperous circumstances. I acquiesced, of course, knowing nothing to the contrary.When Pip is in London he is not being educated for the sake of it or so that he becomes employable. Rather, he is learning how to become a leisured gentleman so he will be able to have conversations on a number of topics with other young members of society. Pip does not object and interestingly admits to 'knowing nothing'.
Self-perceptionPip's sense of how his choices affect himself and others grows throughout the novel. By the end of the book he is highly critical of some of the decisions he has made.All other swindlers upon earth are nothing to the self-swindlers, and with such pretences did I cheat myself. Surely a curious thing. That I should innocently take a bad half-crown of somebody else's manufacture, is reasonable enough; but that I should knowingly reckon the spurious coin of my own make, as good money!The older Pip, who is narrating the story, is able to look back on his younger self and comment on his own behaviour. Here Dickens uses a metaphor about fake money – highly appropriate as the story is all about the power of wealth.

Analysing the evidence


How does Dickens show that Pip's conscience develops during the novel?

  • As a child Pip often displays a guilty conscience – for instance when he is taking the file and the food to Magwitch he imagines that the cattle on the marshes are accusing him of theft.
  • After becoming rich he seems to have little conscience at all. When Joe visits him in London, Pip is embarrassed by him.
  • When Magwitch returns, Pip's conscience prompts him to take the right actions and look after the old man.

By the end of the novel Pip has learned about true repentance and becomes a much better person.