The text Great Expectations by Charles Dickens reflects many of the values and attitudes of nineteenth century England. The terms ‘values’ and ‘attitude’ are somewhat linked, and are both an integral part of the context of this novel. There was a great divide between the classes at the time of Great Expectations, with each class having its own stereotypical views. This difference led to crime in the city, which served the need for better punishment, as the justice system was quite arbitrary. Attitudes towards the difference between city and country life were also changing with the coming of Industrialisation. Each of these values and attitudes are depicted in the novel through the use of various techniques, such as imagery, characterisation and irony.
During the Victorian Era great differences arose in relation to attitudes towards class. The lower classes were seen as raucous and “rude”, while the upper classes maintained the image of high moral qualities and social status. It is this difference in Great Expectations which allows Compeyson to get away with a lighter charge than Magwitch for the same crime, simply because he was in the upper class. Magwitch is first characterised through a slight caricature as “a fearful man… who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones”. Nevertheless, there was a growing criticism towards the upper class during the century especially with the rapid growth of the middle class, and society’s attitudes and views towards them changed.
This is shown in Great Expectations through the use of irony and characterisation of Compeyson and Drummle, who are initially seen to be in the upper classes of society. Ironically, both are drawn in parallel and are characterised as morally corrupt, as Drummle mistreated his wife and Compeyson was involved in crime. Dickens is suggesting here that some of the upper class in the Victorian Era were no better than many of the lower class civilians.
Money was also an important value and crucial aspect of class during the time of Great Expectations. We can see how much Magwitch valued class and wealth by his attempt to “buy” Pip into an upper class so that he (Pip) would have enough money to relax and enjoy a wealthy life. Indeed, the idea of a convict making someone rich is an example of situation irony constructed by Dickens into the plot. Through character development and the narratorial perspective of the novel, we then see how Pip believes that this will allow him to “escape” his lower class and marry Estella from an upper class, “perhaps now… she would think twice about me”. However this merely leads Pip to snobbery and a wasteful life, and we see how he eventually returns to his lower class. Pip had false expectations and allusions about class, and hence, Dickens has shown that money is not the only barrier between classes, as Pip was for the most part unsuccessful in making the transition.
As crime escalated in the nineteenth century the need for an improved legal system arose, however the justice system proved to be quite arbitrary. Those who fell into the arms of the law received little mercy – harsh retribution was the stock-in-trade of a perverse, tyrannical and unforgiving legal system. One of Pip’s first encounters in London, with the minister of justice is an example of symbolism, “exceedingly dirty and partially drunk”, indicative of the corruption of the legal system and the many injustices to come in Great Expectations.. An example of this injustice of the justice system in the novel can be through the character Jaggers who fixes up evidence to win cases.
This is reflective of society at the time, where people with more money could “buy” justice by hiring pricy lawyers such as Jaggers to manipulate the case for them. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that Jaggers washes his hands after every trial, which signifies his guilt of causing injustice. This can be viewed as a literary allusion to Lady Macbeth, where in the play ‘Macbeth’ she tries to wash her hands clean of the blood that she spilt during murder, feeling a guilty conscience.
Further corruption of the justice system can be seen through the influence of class. In Great Expectations, this is evident when Magwitch gets a harsher punishment than Compeyson for the same crime. In spite of this, a natural justice is served in the end as ironically, everyone who had committed a crime was duly dealt with, although they may have avoided it earlier. Orlick was captured and imprisoned after attempting to murder Pip, while Compeyson was drowned. This use of dramatic irony by Dickens emphasises the importance of justice as a value at the time of the novel.
Another important attitude at the time of Great Expectations was the growing difference between the city and country as a result of the onset of industrialisation. As the cities grew they were seen as exciting and dynamic, so many of the city dwellers looked down at the country. However Dickens caricatures city life as polluting, and full of corruption. This is achieved again mainly through focusing on Pip’s character development as he moves from the country to the city in the hope of becoming a gentleman. Towards the beginning Pip is depicted as innocent and untainted by city corruption, however as he grows up he becomes selfish and snobbish. The difference is clear – the city. When Pip first arrives in London, the difference between city and country life is duly emphasised by Dickens through descriptive imagery and caricatures, “filth and fat and blood and foam seemed to stick to me”. The images of criminals being executed and the sickening smells of the rotting meat in the markets that are described by Pip reflect the attitudes held towards the city by many of the people of the time, “this was horrible, and gave me a sickening idea of London”.
Dickens has reflected many of the values and attitudes of the time in Great Expectations, with various stylistic techniques such as irony and characterisation assisting in emphasising their importance both in the story, and in society.