Great Expectations Analysis Essay
The period from 1851 to 1901 in England and Wales has been proven to have been a time of widespread social change, not only across generations, but also within single life spans. A study conducted by Jason Long reveals, “half of all sons end up in a different occupational class than their father, and the rate of upward mobility is 40 percent greater than the rate of downward mobility. … [and] 44 percent of males in their twenties changed occupational class over a thirty-year period” (2007). The Industrial Revolution is given the greatest credit for changes in the social structure of the Victorians. The rise of factories replaced the work done in the country houses, shifting the economic base from agriculture to industry and contributing to the growth of the cities. This growth enabled many enterprising individuals to find their fortunes, changing social classes frequently as their speculations proved accurate or not. As more and more of the ‘common people’ attained affluent status, other changes were brought forward, such as a refocus on education and working conditions. All of these issues are addressed in Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations.
Great Expectations opens with Pip’s psychological birth when, at the age of seven or so, he comes to his “first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things” (Dicksn, p. 3). The setting is the Kentish marsh country on a bleak December evening, consisting of an empty churchyard at dusk on a cold and grey winter day. Pip, the protagonist, is in the churchyard, and while visiting his parents’ tomb and thinking of his dead parents and siblings, he is brought back to consciousness by an escaped convict, Magwitch, who picks him up, turns him upside down, places him on a tombstone, fills him with fear and terror, and makes him promise to bring food and a file. These events taking place in the first chapter are then mirrored on a psychological level with the remainder of the book as Pip grows up. He is picked up by Magwitch as a means of fulfilling the convict’s dream to become the gentleman Magwitch himself can never be. This move towards gentility also results in Pip’s character being turned upside down, manifested in his rejection of his ‘gentle Christian’ (p. 381) brother-in-law Joe Gargery and in his fascination of the decaying Satis House. Metaphorically, Pip is also placed on a tombstone, due to the cold and cruel treatment he receives from Estella and after learning that his benefactor is a criminal and not the genteel Miss Havisham. He is filled with fear and terror as he matures, but eventually comes to terms with himself by acknowledging his past mistakes. Finally, towards the end of the narrative, Pip’s mistakes and their devastating repercussions are brought to an end in his reconciliation with Joe and his acceptance of Magwitch.
Through Pip, Dickens critiques the state of education in Victorian England. As a young child, Pip attends the common form of education available to the working class, what was known as a Dame School. Mr Wopsle’s great aunt illustrates the lack of education available to the working class and the efforts of little old women to try to support themselves by filling this gap. Like the education she offers, however, this old dame is ‘ridiculous’, ‘of limited means’, ‘and unlimited infirmity’ (Dickens, p. 35). Moreover, Pip later admits he learned ‘next to nothing’ (Dickens, p. 59). A new option was needed and Dickens suggests the end of such enterprises in his description of the demise of Mr Wopsle’s great aunt who ‘successfully overcame that bad habit of living’ (Dickens, p. 105). Ironically, when Pip becomes the beneficiary of Magwitch’s money and starts on the path to becoming a gentleman, his higher education did not seem to do him much good either. Harold Bloom rather astutely observes in his critique: “Pip leaves behind the innocence of his life with Joe for the travails of an education which will make him increasingly ashamed of his common boots and coarse hands. It will teach him to become a liar; he will discover that words are like costumes, and can be put on and off at will, so that the self can play many roles” (Bloom, p. 10). Whether it was an education at the Dame School of the working class or the private education of the upper crust, Pip does not receive any education that makes it possible for him to pursue any kind of vocation following his graduation.
Socially, Dickens has placed the entire story of Great Expectations in the background of capitalism, when industrialization was taking all of England in its grip. As a result, during this time, people of previously unremarkable stations such as Magwitch and Pip himself were able to make a considerable amount of wealth in a relatively short space of time. This gave rise to a prevalent hope and an air of possibility amongst the multitude as Steven Carroll observes: “Great Expectations basically coincided with one of the great expansionary periods of modern capitalism. During such times, people like to think of themselves as free agents, capable, if they have the vision and enterprise, of rising above their place in society’s pecking order” (Carroll, 2006). Through Pip, Dickens reinforces the fact that in Victorian times a village boy like Pip could aspire to be a gentleman despite his humble beginnings in a capitalist environment where money reigned supreme, yet also how this change in social status does not necessarily equate with an improvement in overall moral character.
Through Pip’s development, Charles Dickens criticizes a great deal of what he felt was wrong in his society. Education is demonstrated to be nearly useless whether on the upper or lower class side of the scale and in serious need of immediate reformation on all counts. The most heart-wrenching consequence of Pip’s elevation in society is the distance that grows between Pip and his dearest well-wishers, Joe and Biddy. It is considered heart-wrenching because the distance grows not due to any jealousy or ill-will on their part, but due to a growing snobbishness in Pip, a snobbishness that is mostly the trademark of the rich, but also the absolute hallmark of the nouveau riche. While there are obviously a great many advancements occurring in society at this period in time, Dickens makes it clear that there are still many problems to be overcome.
Bloom, Harold. Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000
Carroll, Steven. “Great Expectations: Playing with expectations of class.” The Age Education. (2001). November 12, 2008
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. (1861). Intro. by John Bowen. London: Wordsworth, 2000.
Long, Jason. “Social Mobility Within and Across Generations in Britain since 1851.” Waterview, Maryland: Colby College. November 12, 2008