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Great Expectations – Theme of Class

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Great Expectations is a bildungsroman written in 1861 by Charles Dickens. In the novel, we follow Pip throughout the early stages of his life, as he realises his own low social status in society. Pip has a working class background and is an aspiring blacksmith, but things change and he strives for a better lifestyle. The reader sees that these are unrealistic aims as he is growing up in an averagely poor family. His ultimate aim is to become a ‘gentleman’ and a respected person in society.

Class separation is a common theme running throughout all of Dickens’ novels, where all the different classes are examined and criticized. He overemphasizes the differentiation between classes using his own experiences living during those times. Dickens, himself, always had to work hard throughout his life and witnessed the divisions between classes. In Dickens’ novels, he depicts the poor as extremely destitute and barely surviving. On the other hand, the rich live a lavish and luxurious lifestyle, looking down on the working class, in his books. He tends to exaggerate them as evil and uncaring, but he is portraying life in the Victorian era. This portrayal shows the divide between hard working poor and the comfortable rich.

Pip is a stereotypical example of the so-called ‘common’ and is a working class boy. Often we see him lesser than that, for example, when we are introduced to him for the first time, our sympathy instantly appears for him. The way we see him is pathetically sad. Whilst looking over his parents graves, in unbearably cold weather and rain, the reader feels pity for him. Dickens’ has used a variety of writing techniques, such as the weather and use of description, so that we are sorry for his circumstances. This is an example of pathetic fallacy because the weather is reflected on the mood of the main character, Pip.

Pip describes his world as a ‘universal struggle,’ and we see how Pip looks at life and how his suffering has affected this. Dickens uses the metaphor to describe him as a ‘bundle of shivers’ and this shows that he is defenceless and vulnerable. The metaphor is assertive and makes the reader understand his conditions. It becomes clear that Pip will have to break the mould of manual labour and has a lengthy journey to go before achieving his aim of becoming a ‘gentleman.’

The first chapter is where Dickens shows off his writing skills. The narrative hook of an orphaned boy living in a dire way is enough to draw any reader’s attention. This is a typical bildungsroman opening as we see an innocent child and we’ll follow him from his childhood to maturity. He is a na�ve and frail boy, referring to his mother as ‘wife of the above’ because of the message engraved on her tombstone. This also shows how uneducated he is and his lack of knowledge adds to the reader’s sympathy. Dickens uses a large sentence, with 121 words in it, to vividly describe the setting. This long sentence is effective as Dickens lists the threatening points of the location in a way that the reader would have to read it in one go. After showing Pip to be at the centre of all this, the cut used by Dickens to introduce the convict has a creepy effect.

Pip meets the Magwitch, a convict who threatens to kill him. The convict is described as ‘cut, stung, torn, limping and shivering;’ and Pip is showing Pip to fear this sort of man shows his frailty. This renders him even weaker and makes us form an ‘alliance’ with him, because of the growing sympathy that the reader is acquiring for him. Despite this, Pip calls him ‘Sir,’ and Dickens is showing that the working class did have manners and morals. Dickens describes him in such a way so that we, as readers, can empathise with him and ‘feel what he feels’ as he grows up.

Pip is also shown as useless when he is held by the convict. Magwitch holds him and the repetition of the words “he tilted me” shows the violence being endured by Pip. Pip is unable to do anything and he is tilted over repeatedly. The repetition of “tilted” adds a forceful connotation to the scene. The way the word is forced out of the mouth adds a seriousness and aggression.

Pip lacks any orthodox education and is tutored by Biddy, a girl only slightly better educated than himself. We can tell this when he writes a poorly constructed letter to his brother-in-law, Joe. He writes “..aN wEn i M preNgtd 2 u JO woT larX” which translates as ‘when I’m apprenticed to you Joe, what fun we’ll have.’ This shows us two things. Firstly, that Pip can barely read and write which shows that he has had insufficient schooling. Secondly, we can infer that Pip is content to be Joe’s apprentice and that he doesn’t mind following in Joe’s footsteps, when he’s older.

Similarly to Pip, Joe also finds literacy arduous. When reading Pip’s letter, Joe can barely identify two letters: ‘J’ and ‘O’. We also see this when Joe tells Pip that he ‘accidentally held his prayer book upside down.’ From these examples, we can deduce that Pips family is uneducated.

Even Pip agrees, at this point, that providing for the family is more vital then education, when he coheres to Joe’s philosophy that ‘somebody must keep the pot boiling.’ Pip will have to be the sole breadwinner for his family and must provide for them. This role has been forced upon him as he was growing up. We can tell this from the first few chapters, where we can infer that Pip subconsciously knows of his low background and has no intention of doing anything to rectify it. We can tell that he is only young and not fully aware of his roots, but is happy with the way things are and his current situation.

However, this all changes one day when Pip is invited to Miss Havisham’s house, uptown. Pip’s sister, with the rest of the town, thinks that Miss Havisham lives a lavish and opulent lifestyle. With a possibility of this paying off for her, she forces Pip to go there. Dickens is showing how far the poor would go to get money. In this case Mrs. Gargery is practically selling her brother as Dickens shows the neediness of poor people at this time. This whole scenario merges with the theme of class as Satis House is judged to be a stately home, because of the innate life lived by the poor. Class separation becomes palpable and we additionally discover that Pip will have to change a lot to understand reality and Miss Havisham could be the answer to that.

When Pip arrives at this house, it’s not at all as he had anticipated. Satis House, owned by Miss Havisham, is not the plush, extravagant home they had expected. Instead, it is uncared for and carried a certain sense of corrosion and death. Pip declares that ‘the cold wind seemed to blow colder there (Satis House), than outside the gate.’ This quote symbolises a spirit in the house and in turn giving an image of death or a general eerie feeling.

The face of the building gives a clear indication that the house is not well kept and also displays imagery of decay. “Some of the windows had been walled up..or..rustily barred.” This shows us that there was a barrier between the outside world and Miss Havisham’s home. No light is being allowed in and we see the theme of darkness, gloominess and ruin further exposed. The ‘great iron bars’ on the gate depict the way that Miss Havisham lives. This could possibly symbolise the metaphorical ‘prison’ that she has been entrapped in, ever since that day when she was left at the alter.

Themes of darkness and death also run through the interior of Satis House. He says ‘the passages were all dark,’ putting an aged and stagnant feeling inside the premises. “No glimpse of daylight was to be seen in it.” This quote is a reflection on Miss Havisham, herself, and her house. At this point, we don’t know why she is confining herself to this unilluminated state, but we get the impression that Miss Havisham is not the person we presumed she would be.

Later on, we see more signs of decay when Pip is presented to the dining-room. Pip is flummoxed by the deteriorating condition of this room. The centre-piece was ‘heavily over-hung with cobwebs’ and had ‘black fungus’ covering it, from top to bottom. We really begin to wonder why Dickens has represented her in this manner. Pip had never seen all this before and is not used to being around expensive furniture and items. “..and uses quite unknown to me.” He was inexperienced to all the things he had seen in Miss Havisham’s house. Dickens shows that the poor knew nothing about they rich and they never owned the same possessions or did the same things.

When we see the owner of the house, we see that she, similarly to the house, is very strange. She also exudes the impression of death. “The bride within the bridal dress had withered away.” This quote shows that Pip has noted that his hostess is dwindling away. He refers to her as a ‘waxwork skeleton’ to further imply that she is on the edge of death.

The way Miss Havisham converses with Pip also depicts the class division between both of them. She is the one posing all the questions whilst a flustered Pip replies with monosyllabic answers. “You are not afraid of a woman who has never seen the Sun?”, “No” Pip replies, which he later admits is a lie, we can see he is frightened of Miss Havisham and is scared to tell her the truth. She also commands Pip to follow her orders, as if he were some sort of toy for her ‘sick fancies.’ “Play, play, play,” she commands to him. Pip follows her orders in fear; in fear of Miss Havisham and her status and his sister, the total opposite to Miss Havisham.

Throughout this whole passage, Dickens is underlining the common misconception, made by Victorian people that rich people lived a handsome lifestyle. The audience, as well as many people of the Victorian society, would’ve expected Miss Havisham to live bountifully and live in an immaculate condition. This is not the case and we see that despite having no money, Mrs Joe Gargery is the one who cares about appearances and how people see her. Dickens is showing that there is a class separation, but its not always what people expect it to be. Here, the example of Miss Havisham being the opposite of what we had deemed her to be shows that people shouldn’t be judged just by the amount of money they have.

During Pip’s visit to Satis House, we meet another character, Estella. She is a relative of Miss Havisham and she plays a vital part in developing the theme of class at Miss Havisham’s estate. She is frank with Pip and insults him without any consideration of his feelings. Estella has been instructed, by Miss Havisham, to ‘break his heart.’ Ever since Miss Havisham was jilted on her wedding day, she has found a deep contempt for the opposite gender and now wants no men to be happy.

Estella, too, is even more obnoxious towards the poor and especially Pip and Uncle Pumblechook. We can see this by the way she addresses the two of them. Despite Mr. Pumblechook being her elder, she still speaks back to him impolitely. “Ah..but you see, she don’t.” The way she talks to him shows that the upper classes never respected the classes below them. We see that Estella gets her enjoyment from ridiculing those who aren’t as fortunate as her. We can see, from Dickens, that the aristocracy had all the power at the time. The way she speaks to Pip also shows how much she dislikes the lower classes. “Don’t be ridiculous, boy.” Despite being of a similar age, Estella is treating Pip like dirt and Dickens is again discussing the fact that the upper classes controlled England at the time. Here Pip begins to feel insignificant in comparison to her.

Estella expresses her view of him, which makes him realise his true colours. “He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!” said Estella with disdain. And what coarse hands he has. And what thick boots!” This paragraph is a fundamental part of this chapter. We see Estella naming all the things about him which put him in the category of ‘working class.’ Estella says it with hate and Pip, awestruck by her, can only believe her.

Estella is very direct with Pip and calls him a ‘common labouring-boy.’ This has a negative effect on Pip and we know see that Pip begins to realise his ancestry. Pip has never thought about his background before and Estella has made him realise this. “I had never though of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair.” Pip had never considered them, but Estella’s despise for them was ‘contagious’ and Pip began to ‘feel sick’ of them.

The way Estella treats him emphasises the class separation between them. “She gave me bread and meat, without looking at me, as if I were a dog in disgrace.” We see that Estella treats Pip really badly and that she has no care or concern for him. Also, the way she feeds Pip shows that she doesn’t consider him to be the same class as herself.

During all this time Pip is absorbing everything that Estella is saying and doing, because of his passion for her. This causes him to react to Estella’s comments and we see that they have really affected him. When in the courtyard, Pip becomes furious and displays a violent side of him, which we haven’t seen before. “As I cried, I kicked the wall, and took a hard twist at my hair.” Pip is angry at himself and all because of Estella and how she made him realise what he really was. Pip would’ve never thought about his class before, but these condensed insults that he has received have made him think deeply about his own class. Pip slowly begins to understand his own class and is becoming more socially aware. He is coming to terms with the fact that he is a common boy and that his status in society means nothing. “..my hands were coarse, and my boots were thick.” Pip is now admitting these traits of himself and we see Pip is becoming more acquainted with his class, even though he is not happy with it.

When he goes home, he tells his sister that there were ‘immense dogs’ eating from a silver basket. We see that Pip was actually the ‘dog’ eating off the floor. Pip has lied to his only remaining family and he is actually talking about what happened to him, throughout his visit. When he talks to Joe, we can tell that Pip has never lied before, because Joe is surprised when Pip admits that he betrayed Joe’s trust. “Awful…what possessed you?” In Joe’s tradition, it’s appalling to lie and that shows that the less well off did have some values.

Pip is angry at Joe, because he has realised his class at Satis House. “I wish you hadn’t taught me to call Knaves at cards, Jacks.” Pip just wants to blame some-one and Joe is an ideal ‘feeble’ person to place all this blame on. Pip is becoming too aware of his class. All this pressure on him at once, has caused him to collapse, emotionally.

Pip wants to become a ‘gentleman’ only for Estella. “I want to be a gentleman on her account,” he says. Pip has been blown back by her and wants to change for her, even though she was scornful towards him. In the same paragraph he says “she called me ‘boy’ so often..that it was far from complementary,” and “she was beautiful and self-possessed, like a Queen.” This shows two things. Firstly, that she was ignorant and supremely snobbish to a boy who was of a comparable age. Secondly, he is demonstrating his inclination for her and craving to be like her and good enough for her. This links in to the bildungroman descent of this novel, and we see Pip progress from childhood to adulthood to fulfil his aim and become a ‘gentleman.’

At the beginning of chapter 14, we see Pip being direct with the reader and admitting that he now comprehends his specific social rank. “It is a most miserable thing to be ashamed of home.” The older Pip is speaking here and it is proven that Pip still remembers his humiliation of home. This shows is that he didn’t like his home anymore and is reluctant to declare that is what he lived in. Estella, with the offensive and plain-spoken comments, has set Pip’s mind straight. After seeing his background, from another higher classed person’s viewpoint, Pip is uncomfortable with it.

At the beginning of the novel, we saw that Pip was happy to become Joe’s trainee, as he had written so in his letter. “..I should never like Joe’s trade. I had once liked it, but once was not now.” Now, he has changed his own opinion of his possible future career. After leaning about the partition between upper and lower classes, Pip refuses to become like Joe. Instead he wants to be a well-to-do ‘gentleman,’ suitable enough for Estella. He says “She’s more beautiful than anybody ever was. I admire her dreadfully” The word admires is the fundamental part of this sentence. He admits that he admires her and now has a longing to be with her, and be more like her.

We see that Pip is torn between these two social worlds of higher and inferior classes. Two characters in the novel help to demonstrate this. Joe and Biddy can show us this, using comparisons of before and after he met Miss Havisham and Estella. Joe is a very common man and we see that Pip respects this aspect in him. He describes Joe as a ‘sort of Hercules in strength,’ exhibiting that Pip is not embarrassed by Joe, instead proud of him. But after Pip’s meeting at Satis House, we see that Pip looks down on Joe and often refers to him as a ‘dear fellow.’

This sort of snootiness is not what we would have presumed that Pip would ever say. He also wants Joe to improve himself, whereas formerly, he was satisfied with the way Joe was. “I wanted to make Joe less ignorant and common, that he might be worthier of my society.” He wants Joe to change in the fear that Estella might condemn him lower class and criticise both, Joe and Pip. Pip refers to Estella’s class as ‘my class.’ This is a drastic change and now Pip is not admitting that he is from lower classes and instead he asserts his ‘new found high status.’ We know that Pip is simply attempting to be higher class and that he is not actually.

Looking at Biddy, we also see that Pip has changed his opinion about his previous good friend Biddy. Biddy always had a deep respect for Pip, and the feeling was mutual of Pip’s behalf. “More by the help of Biddy…I struggled through the alphabet.” Biddy imparts her knowledge on Pip and thus he is grateful for it. Biddy is superior to Pip, because of the fact that she is instructing him. Later on in the novel, we see Pip beginning to dislike Biddy; “I should have been good enough for you; shouldn’t I, Biddy?” Here, he is not only insulting her by placing emphasise on ‘you,’ but is also seeking poise, to certify that he would at least be accepted into her lowly ranks.

Pip has grown this uncaring side to him which he has never previously revealed. His flirting with Biddy is harsh, as he has no romantic interest in her. This characteristic, he has gained from Estella, as this is exactly what she did to him when she first met him. For example, when he is asked to kiss Estella, he says that it was given to him ‘like a common boy, as a piece of money would be.’

From reacting differently to Joe and Biddy and being hurtful towards Biddy, we see that Pip has changed a lot and is now stuck in between two ‘dimensions,’ which will never meet. Pip is shifting his hurt to Biddy and this is a new characteristic to the reader. His change in attitude, behaviour and awareness of class becomes so, after Pip visits Satis House where the theme of class is examined.

The writing techniques used by Dickens help us to recognise Pip’s transformation. The structure of the novel and how the characters are presented play an important part in the story. The story is narrated by two different people, the young Pip and the elder Pip. They are both very different and these distinctions are made clear when they speak. We see the young Pip narrate when he is talking about the changes after visiting Satis House. “Now, it was all coarse and common,” when young Pip describes how he feels, it makes it more realistic and accurate as he is narrating at the time it happened. The narration provides his perception of the situation and helps the reader to understand how he felt about this. When the adult Pip narrates, it presents an insight to Pip’s life and how things turned out. From this we see how Pip has matured and developed from his on perspective. “I would feel more ashamed of home than ever, in my own ungracious breast.” Elder Pip insinuates that he was quite abrupt as a child and is now regretting it. This type of hindsight could only be offered to us by the adult Pip.

Dickens places a large importance of dialogue in his work. He puts his own views in through how his characters speak, act and look. Pip can be a prime example of this. Dickens wishes to portray Pip as an innocent child with lots of manners, so he uses Pip’s speech to do this. When the convict is holding him upside-down, he still specifies him as ‘sir.’ This shows incredible manners and here is trying to show that all working class children conducted themselves well. Dickens makes it clear to us that Pip, and the rest of the people that lived like him, found the world a battle. He makes Pip say that the world was a ‘universal struggle.’ This gives us the impression, without directly telling us, that life was challenging for people of low classes.

He also reveals the rich to be uninformed and patronising as concerns of the life of the lower classes. He depicts Estella like this and uses her dialogue to do this. “Why don’t you cry, you little wretch?” she says to Pip. This is a typical example of Dickens displaying the working class. They are shown as arrogant and this is how Dickens makes his own views heard, by using the characters as ‘puppets,’ to do so.

In the novel, he displays the characters almost as caricatures. He finds a distinguishable attribute to a character and then highlights to make it clear to the audience what the character is really like. For example, Joe is made to seem really weak and harmless, by the way he speaks. Pip calls him a ‘fellow sufferer’ at the hands of Mrs Gargery. This also makes him seem weak. To make Mrs Gargery seem evil and hateful, she is shown to be ugly and a dictator. This has been identified as her predominant feature and the readers feel sorry for Pip. With a feeble father figure and an evil lady as her mother, we see that Pip is in a tough position from the beginning and

During the whole novel, Dickens is putting through a message to all readers. He uses his experiences of the Victorian times to create this message. Dickens, himself, had certain sympathy for the lower classes and he knew how they were being treated. For instance, when the reader thinks of Miss Havisham living in a mansion uptown, we would expect her to be like royalty. Instead Miss Havisham is very grimy and not at all how we would’ve imagined she would be. Dickens is showing that classes are not how people expect them to be. If there was a moralistic message being conveyed in this novel, it would be that class differences may seem important, but that everyone is actually the same. Our personality is actually shaped by the way we are brought up and we must handle our weaknesses and use our strengths to our advantage.

In conclusion, all of Pip’s visits to Satis House envisage the subject of class. Whether it was Estella being direct to Pip, Pip realising his own social class, the need for money that drives Mrs Gargery to send Pip to Satis House or Miss Havisham’s ruthlessness towards Pip, class remains a major factor throughout the novel. It’s this class that makes young Philip Pirrip realise that he can better himself and have Great Expectations.

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