“The story of Philip Pirrip”

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					                              “The story of Philip Pirrip”
                                      A synopsis

                                    PART ONE

The setting is the marshy regions of the Hoo peninsula in North Kent in the second
decade of the nineteenth century. A seven year old orphan, Philip Pirrip, commonly
known as “Pip”, is looking at the graves of his dead parents in the remote village
churchyard on the edge of the marshes, when he is terrified by the appearance of a
strange man, who threatens Pip with terrible violence if he does not bring him some
food and drink the next morning along with a file. Unknown to Pip, the man is a
convict, Abel Magwitch, just escaped from one of the nearby prison ships, or
“Hulks”, and the file is wanted by him to saw off the remains of his leg-iron.
After swearing to do Magwitch’s bidding and to keep his existence a secret, Pip runs
home to the forge of the kindly, phlegmatic blacksmith, Joe Gargery, who is married
to Pip’s older sister, known only as Mrs Joe, who is some twenty years his senior and
his surrogate mother. She spends her whole time telling him how much she resents
having to mother him, while Joe does his best to help Pip, without putting up much of
a resistance to his bullying wife. They all hear canon fire from the house, the signal
that a convict’s escape has been discovered.
The next morning, Pip steals various food items from his sister’s pantry and a file
from the forge, and meets Magwitch in the gloomy marsh mists to deliver his
package. On the way there, Pip has seen Magwitch’s old enemy, Compeyson, also
newly escaped from the “Hulks”. When Magwitch hears Compeyson is escaped, he is
determined to stop him escaping, even at the price of his own freedom.
Back at the forge, it is Christmas morning, and Pip has to endure much bullying and
disapproving talk from the dinner guests, which include Joe’s pompous uncle, Mr
Pumblechook, a corn and seed tradesman. When Mrs Joe goes to fetch the pork pie
which Pip stole, he is about to run away, when the whole party is interrupted by a
Sergeant who is leading the hunt for the escaped convicts and wants Joe to mend the
handcuffs. Joe, Pip and Mr Wopsle then follow the Sergeant onto the marshes to
witness the man-hunt.
Compeyson and Magwitch are discovered fighting to the death in a ditch when they
are separated by the Sergeant. Magwitch’s savage hatred for Compeyson is evident in
his bitter account of their recent trial. After Compeyson is drafted back on board the
Hulk, Magwitch claims responsibility for the theft from the Gargery forge in order to
save Pip from trouble, before being taken back on the Hulk himself.
Pip begins to learn to read with Biddy, another orphan a little older than him, and then
asks Joe about his education and childhood. It is clear that Joe’s illiteracy is largely
down to his abusive father, and his unwillingness to stand up to Mrs Joe stems from a
desire not to replicate his father’s treatment of his mother, both of whom are long
Pip has been asked, via the servile Pumblechook, to “go and play” at Satis House, the
Elizabethan red-brick mansion of the eccentric and rich recluse Miss Havisham. Mrs
Joe is especially excited as she believes Miss Havisham may leave Pip some money if
she takes a liking to him.
At Satis House, Pip meets Miss Havisham’s haughty adopted daughter, Estella, who
is about Pip’s age, but has been brought up by her to be very aware of her own beauty
and to “break the hearts” of all males; this is intended by Miss Havisham to fulfil her
personal revenge against the man who jilted her on her wedding day. Inside the house,
Pip finds all daylight excluded by curtains, Miss Havisham still in her tattered and
fading wedding dress and all the clocks stopped at twenty to nine, the time at which
Miss Havisham was jilted. Pip and Estella play cards, and Pip is humiliated by her at
not being genteel enough – calling “knaves” “Jacks” and having coarse hands are his
two main offences. He is already entranced by her beauty, however, despite her
When questioned about his visit by Pumblechook and Mrs Joe, Pip invents all sorts of
elaborate lies about the place to impress them, but confesses to Joe they were lies after
At the “Three Jolly Bargemen”, the local tavern, Pip meets an ex-convict who gives
him money and mysteriously produces Joe’s file from his pocket. It seems Magwitch
has asked for the cost of the stolen food to be given back to Pip’s family. Only Pip
recognises the connection, however.
When he returns to Satis House, Pip finds Miss Havisham being visited by her
hypocritical relations on her birthday. He also meets Mr Jaggers, Miss Havisham’s
lawyer and a certain “Pale Young Gentleman” who challenges him to a boxing match
in the grounds, which Pip easily wins. Estella allows Pip to kiss her.
After years of visiting Miss Havisham every alternate day, she decides he is ready to
begin his apprenticeship to Joe, something Pip looked forward to as a small child, but
now dreads as being too coarse and common for Estella.
A year into Pip’s apprenticeship, a quarrel erupts at the forge when Joe gives in to
Pip’s request for a half-day holiday to see Miss Havisham again. Orlick, Joe’s
journeyman, demands the same, and then engages in a battle of insults with Mrs Joe
when she objects. Mrs Joe works herself up to a pitch of hysteria so that Joe is obliged
to fight Orlick in order to defend her, and then stages a faint once Orlick is knocked
At Satis House, Pip finds, to his disappointment, that Estella has gone to France to be
“educated for a lady”.
That night, Mrs Joe is struck over the head by an unknown assailant, believed by Pip
to be Orlick, with the very leg-iron, now rusted, which Magwitch had worn and
discarded on the marshes years earlier. She is rendered utterly incapable and, no
longer able to command the household, she is tended by Biddy, who moves into the
Pip confides to Biddy his desire to be a “gentleman” for Estella’s sake,
acknowledging the sense of Biddy’s advice to forget Estella, yet ignoring it all the
same. Pip also learns, to his fury, that Orlick is pursuing Biddy.
In the fourth year of Pip’s apprenticeship, he and Joe are visited at the forge by Mr
Jaggers, who announces that an anonymous benefactor has “adopted” Pip and wishes
him to be brought up as a gentleman in London. Joe, after reacting angrily to Jaggers’
patronising, accepts the inevitable, while Pip angers Biddy by suggesting she should
try and “improve” Joe so that he will be more “worthy” of his company as a
Pip bids farewell to Miss Havisham and she delights in leading him to believe she is
the anonymous benefactor, if only to make her grasping relations jealous.
In London, Pip meets Jaggers again as well as Wemmick, his eccentric clerk, who has
one personality for his “professional capacity” and another for his “private and
personal capacity”. He observes what a figure of awe Jaggers is in London and is
taken by Wemmick to the chambers of Herbert Pocket, the son of Matthew Pocket,
the only honest one amongst Miss Havisham’s relations. He discovers Herbert to be
none other than the “Pale Young Gentleman” and takes to him as a perfect companion
almost immediately. He also learns more details of Miss Havisham’s jilting from
Pip dines in various houses, firstly at Matthew and Belinda Pocket’s. Theirs is a
modest middle class home, yet Matthew is shambolic in every way and his wife
spends all her time convincing herself that her ancestors were all knights and lords
and that she should be treated accordingly.
Secondly, Pip dines at Wemmick’s fantasy home, the “Castle”, where he meets
Wemmick’s octogenarian and intensely deaf father.
When dining at Jaggers’ in company with Herbert and Matthew Pocket’s other two
pupils - Startop and the boorish aristocrat Bentley Drummle - all are unnerved when,
during a drunken competition over arm strength, Jaggers insists on showing off the
abnormally strong wrists of his housekeeper, Molly, to the company, to her obvious
Pip is visited in London by Joe, who is desperately uneasy in the company of Pip’s
new persona and cannot find the correct terms for their new relationship. After
Herbert leaves them alone, however, Joe tries to convince Pip that the village is where
their old friendship can best flourish. Joe’s generosity puts Pip’s snobbery to shame.
He also delivers the message that Estella has now returned from France and Miss
Havisham has invited Pip to come down and meet her.

                                    PART TWO

On the coach down, Pip is horrified to be sat in front of two convicts being taken
down to the Hulks, one of whom is the strange squint-eyed man he met at the “Three
Jolly Bargemen”.
At Satis House, Pip finds the adult Estella much friendlier, even encouraging, now
that he has been lifted to her social level. Yet she still insists that she “has no heart”
and warns Pip not to fall in love with her. Miss Havisham makes her desire to see
Pip’s heart broken by Estella explicit to Pip, and he seems almost willing for this to
happen. During Pip’s visit, Jaggers shows up.
Back in London, Herbert tries to persuade Pip that Estella will never be in love with
him and that Miss Havisham must never have intended for Pip to marry her. Estella is
sent to London to introduce her to English high society and Pip is instructed to be her
escort to many social occasions.
Pip is informed of his sister’s death and learns exactly how she died from Biddy when
he attends the funeral. Biddy, much to Pip’s anger, is sceptical of his claim that he
will visit Joe often now his sister is dead.
In London, Pip continues to be Estella’s perpetual escort, and becomes wildly jealous
of Drummle, who is pursuing her doggedly.
He also witnesses a bitter quarrel between Miss Havisham and Estella at Satis House,
when Miss Havisham finds the coldness she has taken such care to foster in Estella is
being practised on herself.
Having received extra money from his benefactor at the age of twenty-one, Pip
continues his extravagant lifestyle, spending way beyond his means and generating
huge debts. He does use some of his money, however, to buy a partnership in a local
firm, for Herbert.
Two years later, after Pip and Herbert have moved chambers, Pip is visited by none
other than Magwitch one night when alone, he having, at the peril of his life, travelled
back to England from a transportation sentence in Australia. Pip learns, to his horror,
that his inheritance and new status come not from Miss Havisham, but from
Magwitch, using the gains of the sheep farming and stock breeding he undertook in
Australia when he had served his time.
After confirming with Jaggers that this is indeed the truth, Pip tells Herbert he can no
longer accept Magwitch’s money and that he must help him to escape England, for,
despite having served his time in Australia, his sentence to exile was permanent and
returning to England will definitely lead to his execution if he is caught.
Pip and Herbert learn more of Magwitch’s past and his association with Compeyson,
and Pip begins to feel some pity for him.
Pip goes down to Satis House and confronts Miss Havisham over her wilful deception
over the years and, when he learns Estella is to be married to Drummle, finally
confesses his feelings for her, much to her bewilderment.
Having walked all the way back to London, he is warned in a note from Wemmick
that his chambers are being watched and that Magwitch should be put into hiding until
they are ready to smuggle him out of the country.
Pip learns from Jaggers that Estella has married Drummle and that he may prove a
violent and abusive husband. Pip is suddenly struck by a strange resemblance between
Jaggers’ housekeeper, Molly, and Estella, and asks Wemmick to tell him the full story
of how she came into Jaggers’ service. He becomes convinced that Molly is Estella’s
natural mother.
Pip visits Miss Havisham at her request and finds her desolate and alone, her planned
revenge on men having backfired horribly on herself. She now feels only pity for Pip
and wishes to make amends. Her scant knowledge of the true origins of Estella and
the involvement of Jaggers in her adoption further convince him that Molly is
Estella’s natural mother. Miss Havisham gives Pip the money to pay for the rest of
Herbert’s business partnership and then collapses into a fit of remorse for her actions,
begging Pip for forgiveness and understanding. Pip leaves her a moment, but as he
returns to look in on her, a log from the fire sets her dress alight. She is laid, horribly
disfigured, on the very bridal table where she said she would be laid.
Whilst dressing Pip’s burnt arm, Herbert repeats to him further details of Magwitch’s
past which he has told Herbert during Pip’s absence. The similarity of this story to
Molly’s convinces Pip that Magwitch is Estella’s natural father.
When Pip confronts Jaggers with this information, even he turns out to be ignorant of
Magwitch’s involvement and then explains to Pip his apparently humanitarian
motives for having “rescued” the infant Estella.
Herbert and Pip receive news from Wemmick that it is now safe to smuggle
Magwitch aboard a steamer bound for the continent and Herbert rows them down the
Thames for a whole day and a morning. As they are about to board a steamer for
Hamburg, however, they are intercepted by a custom-house boat; Compeyson has
informed the authorities of Magwitch’s presence in England. Magwitch drags
Compeyson overboard and the two fight in the water until Compeyson is drowned.
Magwitch is wounded in the chest, but is dragged aboard the custom-house boat and
He is condemned to death at his trial, but dies of his wounds in the prison hospital,
tended by the now devoted Pip, who has learned to love him and see him for what he
really is. As he dies, Pip tells him his long-lost daughter, whom he believed dead, is
still living and loved by him.
Pip falls into a dangerous fever while Herbert is away on business and hallucinates
about all the most recent events of his life. He is about to be arrested for debt when
Joe appears, pays his debts out of his savings and nurses him back to health. Pip is
struck by remorse and deeply humbled when he revives and realises it is Joe who has
rescued him, after he has rejected him for all these years. As he grows stronger, Joe
becomes a little more formal again, however, and leaves for the village.
Pip follows him, planning to propose to Biddy only to find she has married Joe. He
begs for their forgiveness and decides he will accept Herbert’s offer to be a clerk in
the new branch-house he is opening in Cairo.
Eleven years on, Estella has been widowed, Miss Havisham is long dead and Satis
House has been pulled down. Pip returns to the forge and meets Joe’s and Biddy’s
son, Pip. During a walk to visit the grounds of Satis House, he encounters Estella, and
finds her no longer hard and haughty, but softened and melancholy. They leave the
grounds together and, it is implied, remain together.

Charles Dickens was at the height of his powers as the most successful and popular
novelist of the nineteenth century to date in 1859, when he first mentioned to his
friend John Forster that he had a “new and rather striking idea involving an orphan
village boy and an escaped convict” for his next novel. Most of the novels for which
he is now famous had already been completed – “Oliver Twist”, “Nicholas Nickleby”,
“David Copperfield”, “Hard Times”, “A Tale of Two Cities” – all these and many
more had been published, acclaimed by his readership, achieved record sales and had
already passed into the Dickensian canon. In fact, after “Great Expectations”, he was
only to complete one more novel, “Our Mutual Friend”. He was a good way into the
serialisation of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” when he was felled by a fatal stroke in
1870, at the age of only fifty-eight.

“Great Expectations” represents, in some ways, a new departure in Dickens’ fiction.
Naturally, his most popular works, and the ones from which he drew his famous series
of public readings which he undertook in the last decade of his life were his earliest;
the murder of Nancy from “Oliver Twist”, the Dotheboys Hall episodes from
“Nicholas Nickleby”, the Mrs Gamp monologues from “Martin Chuzzlewit”, amongst
others, drew huge adoring crowds to hear and see Dickens’ remarkable narrative and
dramatic powers in the flesh. His own personal favourite was the murder of Nancy, at
the climax of which he often became so agitated, that he had to be carried offstage in
a faint!! Much of this early work helped established the now familiar Dickensian
ingredients – somewhat melodramatic plotting, often relying rather heavily on
coincidences and very clearly delineated good and evil characters; a passionate sense
of moral outrage at the way contemporary society abuses the most vulnerable and a
fascination with characters from the invisible and squalid underbelly of that society; a
fixation with the grotesque and eccentric, especially with regard to more minor
figures in the “sub-plot”, of which there are usually many. The favourite plot structure
of these early novels involved the return of an orphan outcast into a respectable
member of the middle classes to which he rightfully belonged, whilst the ultimate
goal of so many Dickens heroes is marriage to a dutiful and longsuffering woman,
whose virtues he may only come to recognise after many mistakes and much
suffering, but who is always conveniently waiting for him at the conclusion of the

In the years leading up to the composition of “Great Expectations”, however,
Dickens’ fiction had begun to darken. The comic elements were still there, but his
faith in his own myths was beginning to wane. The classic orphan narrative of “Oliver
Twist” is completely reversed in “Great Expectations”. Pip does not turn out to be a
gentleman at all – the social status he hankers after, and which he does nothing to
merit when it is conferred on him, boils down to little more than an endless round of
parasitic consumption and accumulation of debt and is ultimately ephemeral. Dickens
reinforces the falseness of the values Pip embraces by having him spin a whole fairy-
tale narrative around himself, whish casts him as the heroic knight who will rescue the
cold, impassive Estella from her life of wreaking revenge on men and render her
human at last. There are many signs that this narrative is all false from the beginning,
however, not the least being that most of its details are supplied by Pip’s imagination.

It was Dickens’ master stroke to make Abel Magwitch, the convict, the one baleful
figure from Pip’s past whom he would most like to forget and of whom he is most
ashamed, the actual source of his wealth. The narrative of Pip’s life really does begin
in that unforgettable and terrifying churchyard scene, for Magwitch has effectively
created Pip’s adult identity and has made the narrative of his own life Pip’s narrative.
It is no accident that Pip first encounters him whilst looking at the graves of his dead
parents, for from that moment on, Magwitch really has, as he later tells Pip, become
his “second father”. The fact that Pip has to overcome considerable prejudice and
disgust in his initial rejection of this surrogate parent before he can finally recognise
his true worth is a mark of just how deluded he has become and how false and twisted
his values. Yet it is Magwitch who, in his final hours, helps Pip to rediscover the
simple, unconditional humanity he first showed when he fed him on the marshes all
those years ago.

Once Magwitch is dead, Pip’s personality effectively disintegrates during his delirium
and can only be rebuilt with the help of the other paternal figure in his life, the selfless
and devoted Joe. Dickens denies Pip a cosy return to the domestic certainties of the
forge, however, which he would most certainly have accorded him in his earlier
fiction. Pip may comment during his illness that he “fancied he was little Pip again”,
but a return to his childhood relationship with Joe is not an option; too much has
changed. Dickens also denies Pip marriage with the one character closest to his
favourite “angel in the house”, Biddy. She is reserved for the loving Joe, the one true
“gentle man” whose long suffering at the hands of Pip’s sister, with whom he almost
certainly enjoyed a sexless marriage, is finally rewarded. Pip himself is only
redeemed by the very Victorian and middle class virtues of thrift and hard work as a
clerk in Herbert’s branch-house in Cairo. The Pip who returns to Satis House and
perhaps is at last united with the similarly humbled Estella is a much older, wiser and
sadder man.

Dickens’ original ending was much more melancholy than the one familiar today.
Estella was still widowed, but was then remarried to a Shropshire doctor, and met Pip
in London in company with Joe’s and Biddy’s son. She assumed he was married and
that little Pip was his son, and so the novel originally ended on a misunderstanding. It
was at Dickens’ friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s suggestion that Dickens revised the
ending to allow for the possibility of a softened Estella and a union between her and

Finally, a note on the historical setting of the novel. For a figure so often thought of
today as quintessentially Victorian, a remarkable amount of Dickens’ work actually
has a pre-Victorian setting. His favourite period was the pre-railway decades of the
1820s and 1830s, those during which his writing career began. Thus, the scenes of
Pip’s childhood take place during the 1810s and the key narrative of Pip’s adult life in
the late 1820s. Where in earlier fiction, he aimed to expose abuses that were very
contemporary, such as the Poor Law Amendment Act in “Oliver Twist” or the
Yorkshire schools in “Nicholas Nickleby”, there is no such apparent purpose in
“Great Expectations”. By the early 1860s, when the novel was first serialised, the
transportation of convicts to Australia had all but ended, as had the use of out of
commission men-o’-war as floating prisons or “Hulks”. More than one Reform Act
had been passed through parliament, softening considerably the so-called “Bloody
Code” which imposed the harshest of penalties for the pettiest of crimes. Yet
indirectly, he was undermining an ideal very close to the heart of many of his
contemporaries in the 1860s. As society grew more democratic and the growth of the
middle class began to erode many of the old class distinctions, a very middle class
notion of the “gentleman” began to emerge, reliant less on rank and station, but on
manners and personality. One of the most popular books of the 1850s had been
Samuel Smiles’ “Self-Help” in which the aspiring social climber is advised on how to
better himself, the kind of manual Pip himself could have read.
Dickens, in “Great Expectations” exposes the whole philosophy of self-improvement
as a sham and as essentially based on the same snobberies as the old class distinctions.
The whole notion of a “gentleman” is a deeply damaging one at almost every turn in
this novel; Pip’s obsession with his new status causes him to reject the truthful and
honest Joe, while Compeyson’s shadowy “gentleman” status buys him a softer
sentence than his accomplice, Magwitch. Magwitch’s own notion of “making a
brought-up London gentleman” in Pip is based on an ugly desire for revenge on the
society which had cast him out.
                     A NOTE ON THE PRODUCTION

The idea of adapting Dickens’ masterpiece first occurred to me last January when we
took year twelve students who had studied the text to see a local dramatisation and we
all felt considerable frustration at how much of the original text was omitted, altered
or distorted to fit a two-hour show. The serial method of publication meant that
Dickens could afford to introduce a huge gallery of characters and variety of incident
without confusing his readers. Although “Great Expectations” is far more tightly
organised than many of his earlier novels, I still felt that the only way to present it
honestly on stage was to give it the room to breathe which it needs. Inspired by the
phenomenally successful mammoth nine-hour dramatisation of “Nicholas Nickleby”
adapted by David Edgar for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early 1980s, I
decided that a two-night show – of more like six than nine hours! – would be the ideal
way to do the novel justice and to involve cast members from as wide a range of year
groups as possible.
One of the beauties of reading Dickens, and one which is usually lost in dramatic
adaptation, is his unique narrative voice. “Great Expectations” is narrated in first
person by the character of Pip, and you will hear at key moments of the play the voice
of our Pip – Keegan Curran - reading some of the more essential sections of this
narrative. Another unusual feature of the production is the use of some photographic
images which are projected onto our white drop curtain. All of these are of locations
in Northern Kent traditionally thought to be Dickens’ original models; thus, you will
see Cooling churchyard at dusk, various shots of marshland in the Hoo Peninsula, and
shots of the front and interior of Restoration House, the Elizabethan red-brick
mansion in Rochester on which Dickens is thought to have based Satis House, the
home of Miss Havisham.