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Free Study Guide-Great Expectations by Charles Dickens-Free BookNotes
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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS

Charles Dickens is said to have explored a new ground in his novel, Great Expectations. The theme of self-knowledge explored in the novel expresses in part Dickens' own search for a sense of self. May readers and historians have suggested that Pip has a touch of Dickens in him, making the fictional book feel almost autobiographical.

Structurally, the novel is a narration by a mature and retrospective Pip. It is divided into three distinct "stages," each labeled as a specific "stage of Pip's expectations." In chronological fashion, these chapters trace Pip's progress from industrious obscurity as a child through willful idleness as an adolescent and young adult, to a resigned and modest acceptance of his true place in society. This is an obvious variation on the picaresque theme and carries with it many of the significant overtones of earlier picaresque novels.


The first stage introduces all the major characters and sets the plot in motion. Pip's situation is developed fully, including the first seeds of his desire to be "uncommon." It leads to the revelation by Mr. Jaggers, the lawyer, that Pip is to inherit a huge fortune and become a gentleman. It is something Pip considers as miraculous, though mysterious, as his patron's identity is not to be revealed for the time being. Mr. Jaggers only imparts to him that his benefactor has great expectations from him and so with the support of his anonymous provider, Pip's expectations of himself also rise, and the action shifts to London.

The second stage of Pip's expectations, therefore, has a change of setting. In this section, Pip's development into a "gentleman" is explored. It describes the spendthrift and idle way Pip squanders wealth and what kind of person he has become. On the surface of things, Pip believes that he is living up to his great expectations. He also expects to have Estella's hand in marriage. But this stage of his expectations is brutally shattered when Magwitch discloses his identity to Pip.

The third stage of Pip's expectations explores the complete collapse of Pip's great expectations, which are replaced by a more mature sense of life and respectability. This section primarily constitutes his transformation, which has been at the heart of the novel. Such a pattern of growth, development and reeducation reflects the Bildungsroman tradition of Great Expectations.

The novel, though divided into these three stages, is further divided into episodic chapters due to the publication of the novel serially. Each chapter must necessarily have a complete movement as well as some sort of trigger that will induce the reader to buy the magazine the following week in order to see what will happen next.

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