Great Expectations is a coming of age story written and set in England during the period of the Industrial Revolution. With the endowment of a secret benefactor, the main character, a country orphan named Phillip “Pip” Pirrip, sets out to attain the necessary accoutrements of Victorian gentility; education, money, and social acceptance. The novel exposes the immorality and hypocrisy of the Victorian Era’s socio-economic class system. When viewed through the author’s depiction of prevalent social issues such as child welfare and development, criminal justice, and social mobility, Great Expectations’ is a poignant indictment of the corruptive influence of money on moral conscience and personal relationships in the rapidly urbanizing society of the Victorian Era. This paper seeks to explore the world of the Victorian Era through the analysis of how main characters in Great Expectations perform class, identity and ambition.
Great Expectations was first published in 1860 at a time in British history marked by rapid technological advances, new economic opportunity, and radical shifts in political ideologies. The social zeitgeist of the time was changing rapidly from an agrarian society with rigid status roles dictated by birth to an urbanized one in which even the least had hopes of moving to the city for a better life. Our protagonist falls into the latter category. The audience’s introduction to Pip in the country marshes outside of Kent at the grave of his parents establishes his meager lot in life. He lives with his overbearing sister and her kindly husband, the village blacksmith. “Raised by the hand” and forced to work odd jobs around town, Pip endures the harsh but typical life of a poor child during the 19th century. In the early chapters, Dickens describes Pip’s struggle to read and write as a student at the local evening school and alludes to the sad yet comical inadequacy of educational opportunity for the rural poor. Pip recalls;
Despite the satirical tone regarding the quality of the educational resource, Dickens uses this account to first introduce the audience to the recurring theme of education as a determinant of identity and self-worth during the Victorian era. At the time, even children were expected to work to contribute to the support of the family in the lower classes. Education was a luxury afforded to the upper echelon of society. In Pip’s world, lack of education was considered an impediment of birth to be overcome given any opportunity. This is why Pip’s sister Mrs. Joe and his Uncle Pumblechook do not hesitate to send Pip away from the only home and family the boy has ever known when the chance to study at Satis House arises.
In addition to education, Dickens introduces chance as a factor in how individuals made their fortune in the Victorian Era. A chance encounter with two escaped convicts and an act of generosity from Pip is enough to rewrite Pip’s future. Though the plot drags on until we reach the point where Pip finally gets his fortune from his benefactor, it takes us on a journey of class performance and expectations (Bowen n. p.). Bowen notes that “all of Dickens’ characters are performers who are unwilling simply to accept their given place in society but are determined to transform into something different, better or more spectacular” (n. p). Through this journey the marked class divide becomes apparent including the struggle by those who jump from one class to the other either due to a lost fortune or acquired fortune. When Pip finally gets his fortune he is called to adapt to a new world. The new world he inhabits is a Darwinist world he either has to adapt or sink back to his world of poverty and abjection. Without actively seeking it, Pip escapes poverty and is even trained for the new world of the rich. This barely helps him; it actually ends up confusing him. This reflects the unwelcoming nature of the Victorian society. Pip is encroaching into a world that is not of his class and he feels the distaste that comes from those of the upper class including Miss Havisham who sees in Pip a poor uneducated miserly young boy to use as a revenge target.
Dickens seems to be critical of the Victorian Era’s vanity that made those who were rich so blind to the point that they even failed to enjoy their wealth. One does not get a sense of honor and happiness in wealth. Most of the rich characters are miserable in one way or the other. Even when Pip receives his fortune, he also becomes miserable and unable to see the honor in such wealth. When he reaches Barnard Inn he does not hide his disappointment. He observes that, “my depression was not alleviated by the announcement of it” (Dickens 158). He further observes that Barnard was “a disembodied spirit, or a fiction, and his inn the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together in a rank corner as a club of Tom-cats” (Dickens 158). Dickens has no kind words for Victorian Era structures and social hierarchies. Pip’s description of the Barnard Inn is one of the many observations on how the structures mirrored the miserable lives that people lived even under the guise of class. Pip witnesses the horrible and miserable. With the new wealth and the introduction to London, Pip discovers that “so imperfect was this realization of the first of my great expectations, that I looked at dismay at Mr. Wemmick” (Dickens 158). From here his expectations of how high society functions is heavily dented. On top of this Mr. Wemmick gives him advice to buy property which Grass believes is “an epigraph for Great Expectations” (617).
What shows the power of class in Great Expectations is the reaction that Pip has when he learns that his benefactor after all was not Miss Havisham but the ex-convict he had helped in the mashes when he was a little sickly and miserable boy. The thought and the knowledge of Magwitch as his benefactor rattle Pip. He wanted his fortune to be tied to some history of nobility but instead it is tied to his actions when he was young and helped an ex-convict. Dickens shows that even though there were other means whereby people in the industrial age gained wealth, the idea of nobility and heritage was still strong. Pip could have said wealth is wealth but he discovers that his fortune is built on foundations of crime, deception and lies. He quickly tries to separate himself from it. In this effort of separation he also tries to regain the personality that he had when he was young and idealist yet caring. In Pip’s development as a character, especially his discovery that after all there was something in Magwitch that was worthwhile other than just the face of an ex-convict we see Dickens’ portrayal of the London of the industrial era as a place of all kinds of souls depraved and generous. On top of depraved soul there is snobbery represented by the “over-subtle” in which Pip tries to get Joe not to visit him (Sweeney 55).
Humiliation of those of lower class turns out to be a favorite pastime for those with money and influence as evidenced by Pip’s emotional torment at the hands of the lovely Estella. With Estella, we see Dickens’ subversion of societal expectations of how noble ladies behaved. Dickens’ Estella is a heartless and in control woman who even though used by Miss Havisham for her shameless heart breaking escapades, she still is a woman with agency. Estella seems to be a bit aware of the fact that he was not high born and she seeks to subvert everything though in the process she hurts Pip who in essence stuck to the ideal that his fortune might help him win her heart. There are a number of women in Great Expectations but Estella is a strong sometimes mean woman a diversion from the genial and lovely woman of the Victorian Era portrayed in other Victorian works of literature. Her marriage to Drummle’s seems like a conscious Dickensian effort to make Estella feel what Pip feels.
A discussion on humiliation and class wouldn’t be complete without the consideration of the epitome of high society who is Miss Havisham. Dickens seems to be mocking her aspiration at perfection. When Pip encounters the architect of his emotional torment, “she is dressed in rich materials-satins, and lace, and silks” (Dickens 87). Behind this rich dress façade lies a sadistic and cold heart which begs the question on whether Dickens wanted to prove that the women of the Victorian upper class were miserable as represented by Estella and Miss Havisham (Ciugureanu 353). Herbert observes that Miss Havisham was “spoilt as a child” (Dickens 203). Ciugureanu notes that Miss Havisham “maintains an alienated relation of self to its image” (353). Because of her upbringing she couldn’t understand why anyone would leave her prompting her to freeze time and train Estella into the business of breaking hearts which Estella ends up performing well on poor Philip Pirrip.
In conclusion, Great Expectations is a massive and elaborate commentary on the Victorian society. Through the eyes of Pip, Dickens introduces us to the clashes of class and culture and the fluidity of class during this period. It is a clash that was caused by the industrial revolution. New money represented by Pip’s fortune from Magwitch tried to encroach on old money seen in the likes of Miss Havisham. What transpire are love-hate relationships, cultural clashes and most of all destruction of individual identity. When Pip arrives in London he discovers the futility of his teachings and performance. It is a foreign and strange world that in the end changes him and his attitude towards those whom he believed were close. Pip’s fortune could only take him to where he was when he was young. To a generous, compassionate and caring young man whom this time no longer has idealist ideas about romantic relationship and noble life.
Bowen, John. “Great Expectations and Class.” British Library. Web 17 Jul. 2015.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Print.
Ciugureanu, Adina. “The Victim-Aggressor Duality in Great Expectations.” Journal of
Literature and History of Ideas 9.2 (2011): 347-361.
Grass, Sean. “Commodity and Identity in Great Expectations.” Victorian Literature and Culture.
40 (2012): 617-641.
Sweeney, Patricia. R. “Mr. House, Mr. Thackeray & Mr. Pirrip: The Question of Snobbery in
Great Expectation.” Dickensian 64.354 (1968): 55.