The Theme of Guilt and its Function in "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens

Updated on January 31, 2018
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I am a high school English teacher who is passionate about writing, theater, directing and enjoying a positive life with family and friends.


Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, is a novel that deals with the formative years and spiritual education of the main character, Pip. About a year before Dickens began writing the novel, Charles Darwin published his theory on human development. The question of human development and the effects of nature versus nurture on development immediately became an important topic for public debate. Dickens incorporated this debate into his novel by experimenting with the effect of nurturing and environment on development. Keeping in mind that Pip is on a journey through his formative years, Dickens places Pip in a world layered with guilt and describes the effect that this environment has on his development.

Pip has the guilt beat into him...

Pip begins life in a guilty environment. He lives with his sister and her husband Joe, the blacksmith. Mrs. Joe continually makes Pip feel guilty for living when the rest of the family, their parents and five brothers, are lying in the churchyard. It is continually mentioned in the first few chapters by Mrs. Joe and her friends that Pip is lucky that Mrs. Joe has taken on the awful task of bringing him up ‘by hand.’ She makes him feel guilty for just about everything he does, and she emphasizes her point by beating him with a switch that is named the Tickler. “Tickler… represents the corporal punishment meted out to children, “ in this case Pip, for all the things that he has done and should feel guilty about (Morgentaler 5).

The blacksmith’s forge and house are set in the countryside near the marshes. The Hulks, or prison-ships, loom over this scene across the marshes. These prison-ships symbolize the guilt that looms over the novel. Pip and his family discuss these prison-ships over dinner in chapter two after Joe has heard the firing of a gun indicating the escape of another convict. Pip asks so many questions about the mysterious place that Mrs. Joe loses her patience and reprimands Pip, placing guilt on him once again.

It was too 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...(Dickens 15).

With this statement, she has placed into Pip’s young mind that he will grow up to be a criminal, because it is part of his nature.

Living in this guilt ridden environment, Pip encounters the convict Magwitch in the churchyard. Pip agrees to help Magwitch in his escape by bringing him food and a file from the forge. Stealing the file and the food “produces agonies of guilt in Pip” (Stange 113). Dickens describes this guilt by making the environment in which Pip has to run through dark, misty, shady and mysterious. In his words, “the mist was heavier yet when I got upon the marshes, so that instead of my running at everything, everything seemed to run at me. This was very disagreeable to a guilty mind” (Dickens 17). This incident in Pip’s youth stays with him throughout the rest of the novel in his unconscious; “he associates guilt not with particular events, but with a general unease which he has felt as long as he can remember (Trotter x).

In the next phase of the novel, Pip moves to London to begin his new life of great expectations. The lawyer, Jaggers, is the overseer of Pip’s new fortune in place of the unknown benefactor. Jaggers is connected with guilt as well. He is a lawyer who works with guilty criminals on a daily basis. He is an overbearing man who “dominates by the strength of his knowledge the world of guilt and sin – called Little Britain – of which his office is center” (Stange 119-120). Jaggers brings Pip from one guilty environment into another. In place of the Hulks is Newgate Prison which looms over Little Britain just like the Hulks loom over the marshes. Jaggers works with criminals that are detained in Newgate Prison on a daily basis. At the end of the day, he obsessively washes his hands, suggesting the attempt to wash the dirt and grime of his clients’ guilt off of his hands.

Pip can't escape the guilt...

While Pip is in London working on fulfilling his great expectations, he attempts to forget his past and leave his guilty youth behind. Whenever he returns home to the country, he stays in the inn, visits Miss Havisham, and returns home to London. He doesn’t ever go to visit the forge or any of the people connected with his past. He believes that Miss Havisham is his benefactor, so he returns only to visit this woman who supposedly gave him his new life. However, Joe goes to London to visit Pip, which Pip has no control over. When Joe arrives, Pip is cruel to him, the only man who has ever been true to him and wanted the best for him with nothing expected in return. He treats Joe like a low class, stupid child. After Joe has left, Pip realizes that he should have treated Joe better. He feels guilty once again.

Dickens accentuates Pip’s guilt in London in the scene where Wemmick takes Pip into Newgate Prison. Pip goes into the prison with Wemmick to pass the time while he waits for Estella to arrive on the coach. When he comes out of the prison he is covered with dust. He tries to shake it off, but finds that this is almost an impossible task. He gets the feeling that

‘convict’ is … a part of his grain…that it is born into him, arising out of the marshes of his childhood – the primordial slime – and pervades every aspect of his life. No amount of shaking and exhaling and beating will ever cleanse him of the despised, primitive degenerate part of himself (Morgentaler 6).

A close up of my tattered copy of the novel.
A close up of my tattered copy of the novel. | Source

Orlick: Pip's Guilt Personified?

Most of the characters contribute to Pip’s feelings of guilt in some way, such as Mrs. Joe, Jaggers, and Magwitch as explained above. Dickens also created Orlick for this purpose. Orlick seems to shadow Pip throughout the novel, symbolizing the guilt that shadows Pip. He works with Joe in the forge throughout Pip’s childhood and short apprenticeship. He is in love with Biddy, who has come to live in the Gargery household to take care of Mrs. Joe. Pip and Biddy have a rather close relationship, which Orlick is quite jealous of. Orlick lurks in the shadows and listens to conversations between Pip and Biddy. During one of Pip’s visits to Miss Havisham, Orlick is present as the gate man of Satis House. He seems to be everywhere that Pip goes.

In the end the reader finds out that Orlick is definitely the person who attacked Mrs. Joe. He hit her over the head with the leg iron that Magwitch filed off using the file that Pip stole from the forge. The use of the leg iron as a weapon seems to implicate Pip as an unknowing accomplice. This knowledge, which Pip acquires after Orlick has taken Pip hostage, intensifies Pip’s ever-growing guilt. Many critics believe that even though Pip didn’t knowingly contribute to Mrs. Joe’s demise, he wanted it to happen. He wanted revenge on Mrs. Joe for all of the guilt she made him feel as a child, and Orlick “fulfilled [this] function by executing Pip’s unacknowledged fantasies of violent revenge” (Trotter x).

The world of desire vs. the world of guilt...

Pip’s feelings of guilt come to a climax when Magwitch enters his life for a second time. When Magwitch returns, Pip is forced to face the reality of his new life. He finally finds out that his benefactor is not Miss Havisham but Magwitch. Added to his feelings of loss and guilt is the “task…[of replacing] a fairy godmother by an escaped convict; or…the world of desire by the world of guilt” (Trotter x). Pip realizes that Magwitch has provided for him without asking for anything in return. When he believed that Miss Havisham was his benefactor, he thought that he was part of a grand plan that would end in his marrying Estella and keeping her away from the life Miss Havisham has led in isolation. It was difficult for Pip to understand why Magwitch would work so hard to make him a gentleman. Pip was scared of Magwitch and he wanted to get as far away from him as possible at first. However in the end, Pip realized that even though Magwitch had committed many crimes, he was a good man at heart. He grew to love this man who was his “second father” (Dickens 320).

Dickens places Pip in a world layered with guilt in Great Expectations to show the reader the effect that environment has on development. The reader watches Pip’s journey through a life that began with an uneducated boy in a blacksmith’s forge and ended with a man who had become a true gentleman. By making Pip a gentleman with a convict as his benefactor, “Great Expectations maintains that the upper-class world of the gentleman is implicated in the criminal domain of the underclass, and that the relationship between the two, far from being mutually exclusive, is redolent of complicity and interdependence” (Morgentaler 4). Through his journey Pip learns that in this interdependent world a true gentleman is not found by climbing up the social ladder but by looking into a person’s heart. Through Pip’s development in a world of guilt, Dickens shows the reader that the “issues of a young man’s rise or fall are conceived as a drama of the individual conscience; enlightenment (partial or best) is to be found only in the agony of personal guilt” (Stange 112).

"Great Expectations" on Film Then...

... and "Great Expectations" on Film Now

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. London: Penguin Classics, 1996. Trotter, David. “Introduction.” pp. vii-xx.

Morgentaler, Goldie.“Meditating on the Low: A Darwinian Reading of Great Expectations.” Studies in English Literature, autumn 1998, vol. 38, issue 4, p. 707, 15p.

Stange, G. Robert.“Expectations Well Lost: Dickens’ Fable for His Time.” The Victorian Novel. Ian Watt, editor.London: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Donna Hilbrandt


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      • profile image

        Kavija sakvavi 

        2 years ago

        A nice article and it helped me a lot in my studies. Thank you.

      • profile image


        4 years ago

        Fascinating article. I read the book a while back and my overriding impression was that though Pip was a flawed character he was ultimately a good guy. What a wonderful storyteller Dickens is.

      • Chathushkie profile image

        Chathushkie Jayasinghe 

        4 years ago from Sri Lanka

        simply love it! And nice choice , 'great expectations' is an all time favourite of anyone who's read it. You've touched o the points so well. I'm new to hub pages,yours is the first hub I read, job well done! In sri Lanka,where I come from,this is a recommended book for higher studies in English

      • profile image

        Amrit k. 

        4 years ago

        I love it while reading it I feel that I was in place of pip who is poor,little fellow with great expectation I am.....

      • profile image

        Amrit k. 

        4 years ago

        I love it while reading it I feel that I was in place of pip who is poor,little fellow with great expectation I am.....

      • donnah75 profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Hilbrandt 

        5 years ago from Upstate New York

        Thank you, missirupp

      • profile image


        5 years ago

        Loved reading this article. Charles Dickens is a favorite and Great Expectations was one of those books that I never could quite shake for many reasons. So much to learn about it.

      • donnah75 profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Hilbrandt 

        7 years ago from Upstate New York

        AJ: I didn't know a new film was coming out. That's exciting. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • ajwrites57 profile image

        AJ Long 

        7 years ago from Pennsylvania

        donnah75 Interesting Hub! Dickens always has poverty, crime and class as themes in his novels. After reading your Hub, I'm inclined to add guilt as a major theme in all of his works. It's been awhile since I read Great Expectations--it might be time to re-read the story.

        By the way, I liked the 1946 movie version, directed by the great David Lean, but didn't care too much for the 1998 version, although I do like some of the characterizations. There will be a new version in 2013 with Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter. Thanks so much donnah75! :o)

      • donnah75 profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Hilbrandt 

        7 years ago from Upstate New York

        Kasman: I always find that I enjoy the classics more now that I am an adult. I get way more out of them than when I read them the first time around. Thanks for the read!

      • Kasman profile image


        7 years ago from Bartlett, Tennessee

        I want to read this one again as well from this new perspective. I read this one years ago and rather enjoyed it, but considered it to be a bit of a downer. I read the hobbit right after and wasn't enthused to pick this one back up. Thanks for taking the time to truly explain some of the guilt nuances. Good hub, voting up!

      • donnah75 profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Hilbrandt 

        7 years ago from Upstate New York

        I wish it were still compusory reading, but it is too difficult for today's students (at least my students). Enjoy it, Quietwarrior. Thanks for the read and comment.

      • The-Quietwarrior profile image


        7 years ago

        Having this as "compulsory" reading in years gone by, I never opened myself up to understanding or perceiving it in this way. You've given me the desire to read it again...from a different perspective. Good writing!!!

      • donnah75 profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Hilbrandt 

        7 years ago from Upstate New York

        Thanks teaches! You are right. We don't see great literature of this kind anymore. Thanks for reading.

      • teaches12345 profile image

        Dianna Mendez 

        7 years ago

        I read this book when I was very young and enjoyed it so much I read it a couple of times. They just don't write stories like this anymore. What a classic and the theme of guilt is one that does show itself throughout the book. Much to learn from this hub. Voted way up.

      • donnah75 profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Hilbrandt 

        7 years ago from Upstate New York

        B in blogs: The beauty of literature is that we can often focus our interpretations on different aspects. In this case, I focus on the guilt, but there are so many more layers that come together to make this a classic novel. Thank you for reading.

      • B in blogs profile image

        B in blogs 

        7 years ago from Alabama, USA

        Huh, I didn't remember all of that guilt. Of course when I read this book long years ago I might not have given it my full attention either. I must read it again. Thank you for a fabulous take on such a classic.

      • donnah75 profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Hilbrandt 

        7 years ago from Upstate New York

        Thanks, Mhatter! I appreciate the read and comment.

      • Mhatter99 profile image

        Martin Kloess 

        7 years ago from San Francisco

        Thank you for your take on Great Expectations. It is well grounded. You did a good job painting your point.

      • donnah75 profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Hilbrandt 

        7 years ago from Upstate New York

        Thanks, Bill. I am going to check out the BBC Masterpiece Classic film. It looks fantastic. For those who don't have time to tackle this novel, that might be the way to go. I appreciate the read and comment.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        7 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Great summary of a fairly complex book. I read this years ago...many years ago....and staggered through it. Perhaps it is time for another read.


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