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Examine how Dickens deals with the issue of social class in Great Expectations.

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Examine how Dickens deals with the issue of social class in Great Expectations. 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 ...read more.


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. ...read more.


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. Kelly Quigley 13G ...read more.

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