Dickens' 'Great Expectations' and Societal Critiques

Categories: Charles Dickens

Realism, a literary movement that surfaced in the mid-19th century, served as a reaction to the idealistic tendencies of romanticism that had dominated the preceding decades. It aimed to present an unembellished reflection of reality, offering a mirror to society. Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" stands as a quintessential example of this literary movement, employing various techniques to weave a narrative that both adheres to and deviates from the conventions of realism.

Chronological Structure of "Great Expectations"

The novel's basic structure unfolds chronologically, tracing the intricate life journey of the protagonist, Pip.

It begins with his innocent childhood, meanders through the shattered illusions of adolescence, and ultimately circles back to his origins. Dickens, a master storyteller, utilizes this chronological structure not only to engage the reader but also to depict Pip's moral and emotional development in a realistic setting.

For instance, Dickens' archaeological precision in describing London, portraying it as "a most dismal place" with a skylight patched like a broken head and distorted houses, hints at the foreboding of Pip's unrealistic expectations.

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This carefully crafted linear plot provides a nuanced lens through which fiction mirrors reality.

Omniscient Narrator and Retrospective Technique

Employing the perspective of an omniscient narrator, Dickens grants the matured Pip the ability to reflect on past events. This retrospective technique infuses the narrative with wisdom gained through hindsight, allowing the older Pip to pass judgment on his past actions. Instances such as Pip's comical desire to tweak Mr. Wopsle's nose are narrated with psychological depth and compassion, providing access to Pip's feelings, thoughts, and motivations.

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By blending external societal commentary with internal character development, Dickens draws the audience into the illusion of reality.

Celebration of the Ordinary

Realism, with its emphasis on the commonplace and everyday lives, is vividly evident in Dickens' celebration of ordinary characters within "Great Expectations." Biddy, described as "not beautiful" but "pleasant and wholesome," serves as a central figure to investigate social reality and express Dickens' views on society. The stark contrast between ordinary, morally grounded characters and the cold, deceptive upper class, portrayed through characters like Estella, aligns seamlessly with realist conventions of rejecting the ideal.

Moreover, Dickens intentionally highlights the virtues of characters from the lower classes, presenting them with a moral high ground. Joe, for instance, embodies goodness despite his unrefined qualities. Dickens challenges societal norms by portraying characters like Magwitch, a persecuted convict, as possessing deep inner worth compared to the upper-class louts depicted, such as Drummle. This deliberate emphasis on ethical values contributes to the rich tapestry of realism within the narrative.

Ethical Values and Moral Ground

Dickens paints a vivid picture of ethical values by portraying the lower class as morally upright and rejecting the false values of the upper class. Characters like Magwitch, a persecuted convict with deep inner worth, challenge the conventional portrayal of the upper-class lout represented by characters like Drummle. Joe, despite his unrefined qualities, emerges as the epitome of goodness, contrasting with the corrupt and materialistic aspirations pursued by Pip.

Furthermore, Dickens utilizes Joe's character to emphasize the idea that being a true 'gentleman' goes beyond social status or education. Joe's "quiet goodness," stemming from honesty, empathy, and kindness, compels Pip, as he reflects in retrospect, to reject the values of this society in favor of an inner morality. This nuanced exploration of ethical values adds another layer to the realist portrayal of societal attitudes and challenges prevailing norms.

Resolution and Moral Development

The novel resolves with a sense of closure as Pip's futile expectations come to light. His quest to become a gentleman ends in failure, with Estella coldly reminding him of her lack of a heart. The resolution lies in Pip's moral development and growth, symbolized by his reconciliation with Joe and Biddy. Dickens effectively communicates the overarching message that love, loyalty, and morality surpass social class and wealth.

Additionally, the resolution in "Great Expectations" reflects broader societal changes of the time, emphasizing the importance of individual growth and morality over societal expectations. Pip's maturation toward adulthood symbolizes a departure from the materialistic aspirations of the upper class and an embrace of genuine human connections. This resolution serves as a powerful commentary on the evolving values of the 19th-century society, adding depth to the realist exploration of the human experience.

Deviation from Realism

While "Great Expectations" predominantly adheres to realist conventions, Dickens occasionally deviates into social satire and gothic elements. Hyperbolic descriptions, such as Pumblechook's portrayal as a "large hard-breathing middle-aged slow man," inject satire into the narrative. Additionally, the gothic genre surfaces in the eerie depiction of Miss Havisham, adding an element of mystery and terror. Dickens' skillful deviation between genres highlights the flexible nature of realism as a literary convention.

These deviations from realism serve as literary devices to accentuate specific elements of the narrative. For instance, the hyperbolic portrayal of characters like Pumblechook adds a layer of humor and criticism, satirizing the pretentiousness prevalent in society. The gothic elements, especially in the introduction of Miss Havisham, contribute to the novel's atmospheric tone and evoke a sense of foreboding. Dickens' intentional shifts between genres showcase his mastery in employing diverse literary techniques to enhance the overall impact of the narrative.

Furthermore, the exploration of ethical values and moral development in "Great Expectations" reflects Dickens' broader critique of the societal structures of his time. As the Industrial Revolution brought about significant changes in England, Dickens used his works to shed light on the moral consequences of rapid industrialization and social stratification. The characters in "Great Expectations" serve as vessels through which Dickens conveys his commentary on the evolving socio-economic landscape.

For instance, Joe's character, despite being from the lower class, stands as a beacon of morality in stark contrast to the upper-class characters like Drummle. Dickens strategically positions Joe as a representation of authentic goodness, challenging the prevailing notion that societal status determines one's worth. This deliberate choice not only aligns with realist conventions but also serves as a social critique, urging readers to reevaluate their perception of morality and virtue.

Moreover, the novel's resolution, emphasizing the importance of love and genuine connections over material success, mirrors Dickens' response to the changing values of the Victorian era. The rejection of Pip's aspirations to conform to the upper class reflects Dickens' skepticism toward the pursuit of wealth and social status as the ultimate markers of success. By allowing Pip to find fulfillment in moral growth and human relationships, Dickens delivers a powerful message about the true essence of a meaningful and fulfilling life.

It is essential to recognize Dickens' intentional incorporation of deviations from realism as a narrative tool. The occasional forays into social satire and gothic elements add layers of complexity to the story, creating a multi-faceted reading experience. The hyperbolic portrayal of characters and the introduction of gothic elements serve not only to entertain but also to accentuate specific themes and societal critiques embedded in the narrative.

As readers navigate through the rich tapestry of "Great Expectations," they are not merely witnessing a linear depiction of events but engaging with a nuanced commentary on societal values, morality, and the human experience. Dickens' ability to seamlessly blend realist conventions with deviations into other genres contributes to the enduring appeal and relevance of "Great Expectations" in the realm of classic literature.


In conclusion, "Great Expectations" encapsulates the essence of realism in literature, providing an in-depth exploration of Dickens' constructed representation of reality. The novel seamlessly integrates chronological storytelling, an omniscient narrator, a celebration of the ordinary, ethical values, and a resolution that emphasizes moral development. While occasional deviations into satire and gothic elements add complexity, they contribute to the novel's rich tapestry. Dickens' meticulous construction of realism serves as a testament to the genre's ability to reflect the societal norms and values of its time.

This comprehensive analysis underscores the enduring relevance of "Great Expectations" as a literary work that transcends its time, offering readers a nuanced understanding of realism's impact on shaping both the narrative and the societal commentary embedded within its pages.

Updated: Jan 11, 2024
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Dickens' 'Great Expectations' and Societal Critiques. (2016, Aug 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/realism-in-great-expectations-by-charles-dickens-essay

Dickens' 'Great Expectations' and Societal Critiques essay
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