Literature is very often a reflection of society and its practices. As someone said, it is definitely an intertwine of creativity fuelled by the practicality of society. English Literature stands testimony to this fact, since numerous works in its fold, have been reflections of society, by and large. One among these pieces of literature, is ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens. Dickens, is definitely known for his knack of story-telling. But besides this, the novel emerges as a strong portrayal of the Victorian era it was written in.
The Victorian Society was the seat of societal change it was deeply characterised by a patriarchal society. But besides this, what emerged as a strong feature of this society was the emerge fo a third class the Middle Class. This intensified the class struggle, since the Higher Class or the Aristocracy found competition from the emerging Middle Class. The Victorians experiences a shift in terms of social, political and economic settings in the country, with the emerging mercantile middle class that led towards a capitalist economy, more or less. This definitely brought about clear-cut demarcations in the society, in terms of ‘class’. Class-based societal habits and activities became a common feature and this brought about etched role of each class, in the societal divisions.
A number of novels, like Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, She Stoops To Conquer by George Bernard Shaw and the like have portrayed and have been representative of this Victorian class-based society. Great Expectations, is another classic piece of this kind. Entwined with class, comes the issue of ethics and morality. These issues are very vociferously portrayed in Great Expectations.
Dickens portrays the three classes the virtuous Working Class, the rising Middle Class and the unmindful and pompous Aristocracy, through the three phases of the novel, laying down great symmetry. Characters belonging to the varied classes stand for the ethics and morals, ideas and notions of each class.
For instance, Joe, Pip’s brother-in-law is representative of the struggling and hard-working class, who are virtuous and self-reliant. No false airs or sweetened manners, Joe is portrayed as genuinely personified. A blacksmith by profession, Joe is the perfect picture of perseverance and honesty. Coming to the middle class, Mrs. Pocket is a character sued by Dickens to mock at the shallowness and the artificiality of the aristocracy and the blind impersonation of this artificiality by the Middle Class.
Mrs. Pocket tries to imitate the habits and ways of the aristocracy, in spite of being tied down to the Middle Class. Dickens throws light on the sheer futile ambition of the middle class, in the form of Mrs. Pocket’s father “…he had directed Mrs. Pocket to be brought up from the cradle as one who in the nature of things must carry a title, and who was to be guarded from the acquisition of plebeian domestic knowledge. So successful a watch and ward had been established over the young lady by this judicious parent, that she had grown up highly ornamental, but perfectly helpless and useless. (184; ch.23)”
Mrs. Pockets is a picture of “elaborate idleness”, as she suspends her domestic chores and tries to put forth a picture of aristocracy, in the absence of it! “Mrs. Pocket was sitting on a garden chair under a tree, reading, with her legs upon another garden chair; and Mrs. Pocket’s two nursemaids, were looking about them while the children played” (182; ch. 22). Her husband, Mr. Pocket is a picture of ‘shabby-genteel’. Evidently, Dickens strives to paint the true qualities of the middle class, as reflected from societal realities.
Mrs. Havisham and her adopted daughter, Estella are a picture of the higher class, albeit with bitterness and arrogance. They are characters that stand for this class, in their formal behaviour and artificial lifestyle, that turn a blind-eye to real-life situations and problems.
Another important concept that is evident as the novel progresses, is the decline in morality or ethical aspirations and behaviour, with rise in class. Dickens portrays his belief that money is an ‘important commodity’, but not the be-all-and-end-all of existence in the class-based society. For instance, Pip is portrayed as a simpleton in the first phase of the novel. The second phase shows him propelling towards ‘expected’ lineage to aristocracy. The third phase is the culmination, showing Pip as a part and parcel of the higher class. He realises the sheer artificiality of the show put-up, that he slowly grows to succumb to, in the earlier phase. He comes to deal with the striking reality of change that takes place. He repents and regrets over the loss of values and morals that he had so carelessly shed away, during the earlier stages of his life.
Thus, Great Expectations is a great treatise on the class-based Victorian society, with all its artificial dispositions, that over-shadow the lurking realities of the era. The characters, situations, and the phase-wise classification of the novel is representative of ‘Class’. Each character stands for a particular class, complete with typical actions and ideas. The situations run with class-based undertones throughout the novel and the three phases are again symmetric with the three classes portrayed predominantly in e ach of the phases. Therefore, to conclude, ‘Great Expectations’ is a novel that is greatly inclined towards the portrayal of a class-based Victorian society.
‘Great Expectations’, Charles Dickens, 1861, Chapman and Hall.