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Examine How Dickens Deals With the Issue of Social Class in Great Expectations

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This novel is about the desire for wealth and social advancement yet was produced out of financial necessity. Dickens conceived of Great Expectations as a way of restoring his publication’s fortunes. It was begun in 1860 and was published in weekly instalments in his magazine, “All The Year Round.” The Victorian age was one of marked contrasts in wealth, class, sexuality, gender and health. There was much social injustice and Dickens saw himself as a reformer in an unjust world. As a result he attacked society subtly through his writings. When speaking of the Victorian novel, the critic Barbara Dennis states,

“From its beginning the novel has looked to society for its themes: social experience has always been the source from which it has drawn its material. In the Victorian period two of the great themes of the novel are the depiction and analysis of society as a whole, and the adjustment of the individual to this society. Victorian society was seen to be shaped and formed by individuals: it followed therefore that the emphasis of the novel was on ‘characters’, who would reflect the ‘Victorian values’ on which society was based.”

In Great Expectations Dickens explores the class system of the early 1800’s and the Victorian era, through characters varying from the most desolate criminal, Magwitch, to the unfortunate inhabitants of the marsh region, Joe Gargery’s family, to the middle class businessman, Pumblechook and the exceptionally rich Miss Havisham who represents the Victorian higher class. Social snobbery is fundamental to the novel’s plot and to the crucial theme of the book- how Pip eventually realises that wealth and class are of less importance than affection, loyalty and inner worth. This is evident when referring to Joe’s son he says,

“Don’t tell him, Joe, that I was thankless; don’t tell him, Biddy, that I was ungenerous and unjust; only tell him that I honoured you both, because you were both so good and true, and that, as your child, I said it would be natural to him to grow up a much better man than I did.”

Through the exploration of the theme of social class, Dickens has given himself the opportunity to introduce the novel’s other themes of ambition and self-improvement.

Miss Havisham is a character that Dickens has cleverly used to convey his views generally of the upper class citizens of his time. He has created one of the most unforgettable characters, whose purpose in the novel is together significant and influential to the life of Pip, whose mind has been haunted by an obsession to become a “gentleman” fit for the hand of Estella. Pip tells Biddy,

“Biddy, I want to be a gentleman… I am not happy as I am. I am disgusted with my calling and with my life… I never shall or can be comfortable – or anything but miserable – unless I can lead a very different sort of life I lead now… The beautiful young lady at Miss Havishams… I admire her dreadfully and I want to be a gentleman on her account.”

Pip at heart is an idealist, and frequently longs for self-improvement even before he meets Estella in the novel. For example, when he realises he cannot read, he longs to discover how and joins Mr Wopsles’ great aunts evening class.

“Mr. Wopsle’s great aunt kept an evening school in the village… she was a ridiculous old woman of limited means… who used to go to sleep from six to seven every evening, in the society of youth who paid two pence… for the improving opportunity of seeing her do it.”

There is no doubt that Dickens is criticising the injustice of educational provision in such a forthright attack on Dame schools of his time. Later he enlists the further help of Biddy to improve his education.

“With the help of Mr Wopsle’s great aunt and Biddy ‘at last I began in a purblind groping way to read, write and cipher, on the very smallest scale'” Pip proudly tells the reader.

When he sees Satis House for the first time, Pip becomes aware of social class differences and this is the beginning of his wish to become a gentleman. Soon we hear him confess,

“I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too.”

Pip’s determination for self-improvement motivates his best and worst behaviour in the novel, as well as the powerful ambition he holds with it. One critic states,

“So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we despise most.”

Pip, after experiencing a day at Satis House with Miss Havisham, but more importantly with Estella is profoundly discontented with his life and seeks social self-improvement. Estella creates this obsession in Pip’s mind by calling him a, “common-labouring boy.” This phrase had a major impact on Pip’s life, and it is the source of his hunger for change.

“I set off…deeply revolving that I was a common labouring boy; that my hands were coarse; that my boots were thick; that I had fallen into a despicable habit of calling knaves Jacks; that I was much more ignorant than I had considered myself last night, and generally that I was in a low-lived bad way.”

Peter Ackroyd comments that, “Pip’s sense of being ‘common’ while engaged in manual work bears no obvious relation to Dickens’ own early life, similarly Joe Gargery’s visit to the ‘Blacking Ware’us’.”

It is Estella, and the deep attraction Pip holds for her, that causes him to want to be a member of a higher social class. This fantasy forms the central plot of the remainder of the novel and cunningly provides Dickens with the opportunity to ridicule the class system of his age. Dickens did not agree with many aspects of the social and political system of the country. Through his work as a novelist he was able to criticise and highlight injustices.

It is generally assumed that the events depicted in Great Expectations and David Copperfield is parallel to many of the events from Dickens’s early life, which gave him the realisation that he was not assured of being of a gentlemanly rank, so he despised this. G.K. Chesterton stated that the novel is “a study in human weakness and the slow human surrender” of a man yet to realise his faults and weaknesses. Pip thinks himself as a superior figure in his surroundings.

This statement is true until the reader sees the end of the novel, how Pip, the protagonist gains self-knowledge and is freed from the psychological chains of snobbery and pretentiousness. Pip fantasised about material success for a long time and when he gets it he takes it for granted. His ambition was a barrier to seeing the true values of life. The novel’s venom is aimed at human rather than institutional limitations. Most important is the false gentility and the harm created by attaching too much value to money.

Satis House represents the world Pip is determined to fit in to. One very important symbol, which I have yet to mention, is Miss Havisham herself and her surroundings. In Satis House, Dickens creates a dark, enigmatic setting where various elements symbolise Pip’s romantic insight into the upper class. On her delicate body, Miss Havisham’s wedding dress becomes an ironic symbol of death and decay. The wedding dress and wedding feast symbolise her determined effort to freeze time by refusing to change anything.

The brewery next to the house symbolises the connection between commerce and prosperity: Miss Havisham’s fortune is not the product of a refined birth but of a previous success in industrial capitalism. Finally, the dilapidated stones of the house and the darkness and the dust that pervade it, symbolise the common decadence of the lives of its inhabitants and off the upper class as a whole.

Although he is a minor character in the novel, Bentley Drummle provides an important contrast with Pip and represents the arbitrary nature of class distinctions. Bentley Drummle, “a blotchy, sprawly, sulky fellow” represents the malicious and conceited nature of various upper class citizens, the idle rich that Dickens despises. The coarse and cruel Drummle, a member of the upper class, provides Pip with evidence that social improvement has no natural connection to intelligence or moral worth. Drummle is a lout who has inherited immense wealth, while in contrast Pip’s friend and brother-in-law Joe is a good man who works hard for the little he earns. Drummle’s negative example eventually helps Pip to see the inner worth of the characters, such as Joe, and eventually to abandon his immature fantasies about wealth and class.

When Estella says, “I am going to be married to him (Drummle). The preparations for my marriage are making, and I shall be married soon.”

Pip replies, “Your own act, Estella, to fling yourself away upon a brute?”

The death of Bentley Drummle in the novel, I believe is a symbol for the death of the desire for self-improvement that had possessed Pip’s mind. Pip’s avaricious and repulsive manner is lost gradually after the introduction of Drummle and it was only through his death that Pip’s restless mind is put at ease.

“…as my bitter tears fell fast on her hand…how could I see you Drummle’s wife?”

When Joe and Biddy begin to call Pip, “Mr. Pip” it shows that he has succeeded in becoming a member of the upper class. They immediately show a difference in their communication and Joe realises his place and infrequently associates with Pip. Although social class was no longer entirely dependent on the circumstances of one’s birth, the divisions between rich and poor remained wide. Pip’s sudden rise from country labourer to gentleman encourages him to move from one social extreme to another.

In this novel there are two adults who use their money to seize power over children for their own intentions: Magwitch, who wishes to “own” a gentleman, and Miss Havisham, who raises Estella to break men’s hearts in revenge for her own broken heart. Intriguingly, both actions are motivated by Compeyson: Magwitch resents Compeyson’s social rank and education, which motivates him to make Pip a gentleman.

“‘Lord strike me dead!’ I says each time- and I goes out in the open air to say it under the open heavens- ‘but wot, if I gets liberty and money, I’ll make that boy a gentleman!'”

Miss Havisham’s heart was broken when Compeyson left her at the altar, which motivates her aspiration to accomplish revenge through Estella. The relationship between Miss Havisham and Compeyson is described as a wellborn woman and a common man, not to be mistaken for a gentleman, “my father most sharply asseverates”, Herbert tells Pip.

Joe Gargery may not be a member of the upper class or even a member of the middle class populace but Dickens shows him to be the only “true gentleman at heart” in this novel. He is forgiving and unselfish in his heart and he represents a wider moral ideal of the true “gentlemanliness”, expressed by Herbert Pockets father,

“No man who was not a true gentleman at heart ever was, since the world began a true gentleman in manner.”

Joe Gargery is not well educated, but he always had his priorities right and in a sense is a very wise man. Pip becomes so involved with the fantasy of becoming a gentleman, that he forgets the true gentle nature of Joe and sees him for who he is socially and not personally. Joe is a poor blacksmith from the marsh country and it is only after Pip visits Satis House that he gradually becomes ashamed of his home, Joe and himself altogether. Yet Joe gave Pip a piece of advice, which in its own way was very clever,

“It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home… Now it was all coarse and common and I would not have had Miss Havisham and Estella see it on any account.”

Joe also tells Pip, “Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one man’s a blacksmith, and one’s a whitesmith, and one’s a goldsmith, and one’s a coppersmith. Diwisions among such must come, and must be met as they come.”

Pip’s treatment of Joe shocks the reader; it shows how when one man gains power and wealth they can change. Poverty for Dickens was the greatest evil. The neglect of the poor was the worst of many crimes he accused those in power of committing. The snobbery Pip adapts makes him look down on his home and the people he loved most like the rich would have done to the poor. One major episode when Pip makes this clear in the novel is the visit to Satis House with Joe.

“It was aggravating; but throughout the interview, Joe persisted in addressing Me instead of Miss Havisham…

Miss Havisham glanced at him as if she understood what he really was, better than what I had thought possible, seeing what he was there;”

Comparing his home with Miss Havisham’s, Pip could do nothing but fantasise about a life of the same sort for himself. He was willing to give up everything he loved to be a member of Estella’s social class. He became ashamed of his home life and anything that associated with his home life, especially becoming a blacksmith.

“It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home…Home had never been a very pleasant place for me because of my sister’s temper. But Joe had sanctified it, and I believed in it. I had believed in the best parlour as a most elegant saloon; I had believed in the front door, as a mysterious portal of the Temple of State whose solemn opening was attended with a sacrifice of roast fowls; I had believed in the forge as the glowing road to manhood and independence…Now, it was all coarse and common, and I would not have Miss Havisham or Estella see it on any account.”

The story of Compeyson and Magwitch also outlines the privilege of social class in the Victorian novel. Magwitch is a lowborn orphan, but Compeyson is an educated man. As Magwitch says in Chapter 42, “He set up fur a gentleman, this Compeyson… He was a smooth one to talk, and was a dab at the ways of gentlefolks.” Compeyson was able to negotiate a short sentence at his trial, while the rough-edged Magwitch received a heavier one, even though Compeyson was the mastermind behind the crime. Estella’s cruelty spurred Pip to desire higher social status, but Compeyson’s betrayal spurred Magwitch to desire something even more: Pip wished to become a gentleman, but Magwitch wished to “own” a gentleman.

Magwitch recounts the trial in court, “My lord and gentleman, here you has afore you, side by side, two persons as your eyes can separate wide; one, the younger, well brought up, who will be spoke to as such; one, the elder, ill brought up, who will be spoke to as such; one, the younger, seldom if ever seen in these here transactions, and only suspected; t’other, the elder, always seen in ’em and always wi’ his guilt brought home…”

Dickens allows Magwitch to explain to Pip the reasons for his downfall in court, even though Compeyson was the true criminal. Again it focuses on the discrimination evident in the various social classes at that time. Dickens was deliberately highlighting the injustice of law and order system of his time. In the Victorian age from 1776 to 1787 violent criminals such as Magwitch were crammed into floating hulks like those haunting the setting of Pip’s early days. England relieved itself of those who survived by shipping them to Australia- the penalty for returning was death.

“Compeyson’s business was the swindling, handwriting, forging, stolen banks notes and such like” reveals Magwitch, yet when it came to the verdict, “Compeyson was recommended to mercy and good character and bad company and wasn’t it me as got never a word but Guilty.”

In his novels Dickens reflects on harshness of employers, the disinterestedness of government, the biases of the penal and justice system (introduced by our criminals Magwitch Compeyson); the inhumanity of British social institutions. “What is a gentleman, what is true gentility?” are the questions Dickens poses to his readers in Great Expectations. He shows Pip from an innocent, unsophisticated orphan to a fake- member of the aristocracy and a sense of snobbery tainted by life in the prison house.

George Orwell, in 1946, viewed Dickens’s “rebelliousness” from a different perspective:

“In Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never been seen. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and, more than this, the very people he has attacked have welcomed him so completely that he has become a national institution himself.”

When he discovers the true identity of his benefactor to be the criminal Magwitch who endangers him by entering the country to visit him, Pip is fortunate, says Orwell, to have such good friends as Herbert Pocket, emphasising the novel’s theme that faithfulness is more important than social rank. Both Herbert and Wemmick are involved in the scheme to rescue Magwitch. Herbert helps Pip from the beginning of the plan and Wemmick even breaks the division connecting his world at the office and at Walworth to give Pip information about Compeyson that he learned at Jagger’s office.

Pip’s urge to solve the mystery of Estella’s roots fills him with an intense purpose while he waits for Wemmick’s signal. The story he uncovers connects even more completely the world of Miss Havisham and the world of Magwitch. Pip, who was originally horrified to learn that his fortune came from someone far beneath Estella, now learns that Estella is the daughter of his criminal secret benefactor. The surprise does not change the way he feels for her. This is appropriate in part reflecting Pip’s own changing feelings for Magwitch. He is still harder on himself than those around him; he can overlook in Estella something he could not overlook in himself.

“This acquitted younger woman and Provis had a little child: a little child of whom Provis was exceedingly fond… I know I am quite myself. And the man we have in hiding down the river is Estella’s father.”

As Pip reflects on Magwitch’s “constancy” to him through “a series of years” he saw him “a much better man than I had been to Joe” and as he assures Magwitch of his future support he says, “Please God I will be as true to you as you have been to me.”

Dickens outlines social class once again when Pip meets Herbert Pocket’s family. The situation of Mrs. Pocket being the daughter of “a certain quite accidental deceased knight” would suggest that she married beneath her. This judicious parent gave an advantage to the upper class life but she has grown up nothing other than “helpless and useless”.

“Still, Mrs. Pocket was in general the object of a queer sort of respectful pity, because she had not married a title; while Mr. Pocket was the object of a queer sort of forgiving reproach, because he had never got one.”

In conclusion I believe that it was Pip’s ambition and profound desire for self-improvement that destroyed his true nature. For example, when Pip left for London, he cries as he looks at the signpost, which is an obvious symbol for Pip’s future. For Dickens and his age, tears had a moral value; crying could stimulate feelings of love and the sense of connection. Pip says,

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of out tears, for they are rain upon the binding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried than before- more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle. If I had cried before I should have had Joe with me then.”

Great Expectations can be described as a tragedy to a certain extent in that the flaws within destroy a good boy/man but redeemed by his self-knowledge. William Makepeace Thackeray introduced a valid point when he stated,

“Pip’s rise is a downfall and his downfall a rise.”

It is the guilt and the recognition of his overpowering snobbery that allows Pip to gain his self-knowledge. He realises that he has hurt a lot of important people and willingly accepts that Joe is the only “true gentleman” he will ever know. He also comes to realise that home is where the heart is.

“I would not have gone back to Joe now, I would not have gone back to Biddy now, for any condition- simply, I suppose, because my sense of my own worthless conduct to them was greater than every consideration. No wisdom on earth could ever have given me the comfort that I should have derived from their simplicity and fidelity; but I could never, never, never undo what I had done.”

Great Expectations depicts a process of maturation and self-discovery through experience. Writing this novel, Dickens appears to be defeating the villains of society, studying for his own and our pleasure versions of some ultimate real-life victory of the weak over the strong, of the gentle over the genteel.

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