As the United States went to war with itself, Charles Dickens introduced his readers to an orphan named Pip, whose story relates that character does indeed matter.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1860-61), among the last of the novels of Charles Dickens, is one of the less important and widely-read of his works. It marks, however, a reversion to an earlier type of his fiction, wherein the characters, rather than any social or institutional reform, are the chief source of interest. It is perhaps freer of any animus of criticism than any of the novels, except possibly its successors, ‘Our Mutual Friend’ and ‘Edwin Drood.’ The scene is mainly in and near Rochester in Kent and, as always with Dickens, in London. The story consists mainly in taking the hero, Pip, from about the age of five years, to the time when he becomes settled in early middle life.
In the course of this tale, Pip, after certain not very great hardships of childhood, alleviated by the kindness of his brother-in-law, the large-hearted Joe Gargery, and somewhat complicated by the mystifying patronage of an eccentric lady, Miss Havisham, becomes heir to great but mysterious expectations. The source of his sudden prosperity is thought to be Miss Havisham but it turns out to be a convict whom Pip as a small boy had befriended and who had escaped from Botany Bay where he had made a fortune. On the recapture and death of the latter, Pip's expectations vanish, but he has meanwhile gained enough by experience and education to be able to pursue his way successfully.
The novel is less notable as a coherent and likely story than as a picture of boyhood, and for the presence of typical Dickens characters of the appealing sort, Joe Gargery, Biddy and others, the somewhat caricatured people like Wemmick, the Pockets, Wopsle, Pumblechook and a large array of grotesques, Jaggers, the lawyer, Provis, the convict, Miss Havisham, Orlick, the superfluous villian, and many more, who are, as usual with Dickens, depicted by means of habitual acts and sayings. Though none of these people are as well-known as Pickwick, the Wellers, Uriah Heep, Pecksniff, Mrs. Gamp and many of the earlier household portraits, the novel remains one of the freest from sentimentality, false pathos and grotesque oddity that Dickens ever wrote.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920