In both Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations, the audience sees the novels’ respective protagonists, Catherine and Pip, rise from “obscurity” and “coarseness” to higher social stations. For Catherine, this advancement in social standing occurs as a result of her marriage to Linton, a man she does not truly love. Catherine recognizes that as Mrs. Linton she will be rich, proud of her husband, and “the greatest woman of the neighborhood.” These reasons display the more selfish aspects of Catherine’s characterization and perhaps demonstrate the inherent selfishness of desiring to rise in society’s ranks in the name of pride and pride only. However, Catherine later reveals that her motive for marrying Linton is not entirely selfish, as her decision is not merely informed by her pridefulness and desire to be wealthy and highly esteemed. Rather, in marrying Linton, Catherine endeavors to raise not only herself from her coarse and disenfranchised situation at Wuthering Heights but seeks to lift Heathcliff from the same conditions, as well. Indeed, Catherine tells Nelly that her marriage with Linton will free Heathcliff from her “brother’s power” and that, if she were to marry Heathcliff instead of Linton, they would be beggars. Catherine has great expectations, for herself and Heathcliff, and is willing to sacrifice her own happiness and integrity in order to ensure that the two will eventually meet the great expectations she establishes for them. Upon the novel’s close, it appears that Catherine’s great expectations have been met, though the reader must wonder: at what cost? While Catherine was able to experience an ephemeral moment as “the greatest woman of the neighborhood” and while Heathcliff rose out from under Hindley’s thumb, the two ultimately die tragically. However, they are reunited in death and freed from the societal constricts and plots that initially separated them.
Pip also creates great expectations for himself, though he believes that these great expectations have been assigned to him. While Pip is assigned a guardian and an anonymous sponsor who supports his transformation into a gentleman, Pip truly begins this transformation far earlier in the novel, when Estella first chastises him for his coarseness and thick boots. After this moment, Pip begins to resent his humble upbringing and seeks to become a gentleman, instead of a blacksmith, despite being apprenticed to Joe. Thus, Pip sets great expectations for himself and begins to distance himself emotionally from those he perceives as unrefined, such as Joe and Biddy, who nevertheless love him fiercely. Pip ultimately, through the prodding of his guardianship and sponsorship, sets off for London to formally begin his training as a gentleman. Since the novel is told from the perspective of an older Pip, there is a fair amount of reflection embedded within the novel, thus, the reader is privy to some of Pip’s regrets regarding his behavior and his establishment and pursuit of his great expectations. Indeed, there is a sense of regret imbued within each of these reflections, particularly those surrounding Pip’s treatment of Joe and Biddy.
Thus, both Catherine and Pip illustrate the danger of great expectations. Though both characters sought to improve their social situations, their motives were in part selfish, and while one might consider their desire to raise their social standings as a byproduct of an unjust, hierarchical society, the benefits of their social improvement are ultimately offset by the loss, however temporary, of loved ones that Catherine and Pip both experience. Indeed, Catherine, in marrying Linton, inadvertently sends Heathcliff away for many years and sacrifices what might have been a happy, albeit poor, life with her soulmate for a brief, though comfortable one with Linton. While I have not yet completed Great Expectations and cannot know how Pip’s relationships with Joe and Biddy will turn out, I know that Pip does not intend to visit either during his time home, choosing to spend the entire trip with Estella, instead. Perhaps Pip will succeed where Catherine failed and recognize that true love reaps more benefits than the great expectations of rising in a flimsy society, itself built on unjust principles.