Social Criticism in Literature: Great Expectations and The Great Gatsby

Categories: The Great Gatsby

Authors often utilize their literary works as vehicles to convey criticisms of society. These critiques are not overtly directed at specific individuals or events, but rather, they serve as a reflection of the authors' concerns regarding issues of social injustice and misguided values. Two exemplary works of literature that employ social criticism effectively are "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens and "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In both novels, these authors skillfully project their social criticisms to readers through the intricate use of characterization and setting.

Great Expectations: A Critique of Victorian England

Charles Dickens penned "Great Expectations" during the mid-Victorian era, and the novel is firmly rooted in the social milieu of that time. Dickens employed a serialized publication format in "All The Year Round," a weekly English periodical, to gradually expose his readers to his criticisms of Victorian English Society. Within the novel, Dickens ingeniously wove the fabric of setting to shape his characters, thereby illustrating how social problems emerged from individuals conforming to the political, social, and economic elements of society.

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Dickens' critique of Victorian England primarily focuses on three pressing social issues: the mistreatment of children, the injustice embedded in the social class structure, and the inhumanity perpetuated by the government and legal systems. In Dickens' time, children were viewed as virtually cost-free sources of labor to support the industrial revolution. The abuse of children in Britain is vividly depicted through characterization in "Great Expectations." The protagonist, Philip Pirrip, affectionately known as Pip, serves as a poignant example of this maltreatment.

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As an orphan, Pip becomes a burden not only to his sister and guardian, Mrs. Joe, who subjects him to regular beatings and harassment but also to her entire circle of acquaintances, as reflected during a Christmas dinner scene.

Pip's indentured servitude to Joe's blacksmith shop underscores the prevalent mistreatment of orphans and unwanted children during the era. Dickens highlights that, in this society, becoming a bound laborer was a preferable fate compared to being consigned to the brutal work conditions of labor mills. Lesser characters, such as Trabb's Boy and The Avenger, further exemplify Dickens' discontent with the dehumanizing treatment of children. Even Estella, although spared the toil of labor due to her guardian Miss Havisham's wealth, is raised as an object of unquestioning obedience, embodying Miss Havisham's vendetta against the outside world.

In Dickens' England, society adhered rigidly to a class structure that revolved around social satire and wealth. The majority of the population, often referred to as the "great multitude," toiled in factories and mills as industrial slaves from a very young age, enduring grueling twelve-hour workdays for meager wages. Safety regulations and fair pay were nonexistent, and the lack of state-sponsored education condemned lower-class children to a lifetime of appalling working conditions. Dickens scathingly criticizes this injustice in "Great Expectations" by juxtaposing wealth and morality. Typically, the poorest characters in the novel emerge as the most honest and ethical, while the wealthiest prove to be the most immoral and corrupt.

Pip's moral compass is exemplified by Joe, his humble brother-in-law and blacksmith, who faces ridicule for his modest means. Despite his low social stature, Joe stands as the only universally kind and compassionate character in the story. In contrast, Miss Havisham, the wealthiest character, embodies the relationship between wealth and immorality. Her excessive wealth parallels her cruelty, as she orchestrates actions solely to humiliate Pip and emphasize his perceived inferiority due to his modest upbringing.

John Wemmick, a law clerk to the powerful London lawyer Mr. Jaggers, demonstrates the juxtaposition of corrupt wealth and genuine humility. While at work, Wemmick conforms to his environment, displaying emotional detachment and a willingness to carry out morally questionable tasks. Yet outside of work, he exhibits kindness and compassion toward Pip and his elderly father, revealing the influence of his environment on his behavior.

Able Magwitch, a character in "Great Expectations," offers a striking example of moral steadfastness despite his journey from a penal colony in Australia as an expelled convict to accumulating considerable wealth. Magwitch's unwavering gratitude is evident when he freely bestows his wealth upon Pip, who, ironically, undergoes a moral decline upon receiving the money. Pip's redemption occurs only when he accepts that he will never acquire Magwitch's fortune and risks his life to help Magwitch escape the gallows, illustrating Dickens' profound belief in the possibility of moral salvation.

Additionally, Dickens employs setting to underscore his criticism of corruption and moral decay stemming from power and wealth. A stark contrast is evident when comparing Miss Havisham's residence, Satis House, and Pip's initial home with Joe at the forge. Satis House, despite its immense wealth, is portrayed as a decrepit and squalid environment, mirroring Miss Havisham's derangement and reflecting Dickens' theme that wealth correlates with lowered moral standards. Conversely, the forge represents social humility, where Joe, despite meager earnings, provides a comfortable and morally upright home. It is here that Pip cherishes his fondest memories, forging the only true familial connection he experiences throughout the novel.

Setting is intertwined with character to convey Dickens' critique of the dehumanizing social structures and legal system of Victorian England. Public state facilities in "Great Expectations" are depicted as inhumane and cruel. The prison ships anchored off the marshes, described by Pip as "cruel ghostly places," epitomize the harsh treatment of society's criminals. The county courthouse, where Pip's indentures are notarized, symbolizes the legal entrapment of the poor, effectively making them slaves. It is also where Magwitch is banished from England and later condemned to death. The same courthouse delivers a death sentence to over a dozen individuals simultaneously, exposing the dehumanizing nature of the legal system.

Charles Dickens, a staunch social reformer, personally experienced the harsh realities he critiqued in "Great Expectations." His childhood in the middle class, devoid of public education and healthcare, exposed him to the struggles of the impoverished. His father's imprisonment for debt, resulting in his death, further fueled his passion for social reform. Dickens' criticism was instrumental in catalyzing societal change.

The Great Gatsby: Critique of Jazz-Era America

F. Scott Fitzgerald, on the other hand, employed "The Great Gatsby" as a critique of the societal decline into greed and carelessness that characterized 1920's jazz-era America. While the American people enjoyed unprecedented wealth and prosperity, they grappled with inherent human flaws and the consequences of their choices. Fitzgerald chose to highlight these issues through the art of literature, allowing his readers to draw their own conclusions.

In "The Great Gatsby," two prominent themes of social criticism emerge: greed and declining moral values. While greed is abundantly evident in the narrative, Fitzgerald's focus lies more in society's unquestioning acceptance of it. The novel is narrated through the moral retrospection of Nick Carraway, who himself is critical of the greed, carelessness, and delusion exhibited by the story's central characters.

Daisy's marriage to Tom Buchanan, despite her love for Gatsby, reflects the corrosive influence of greed. She chose Tom over Gatsby due to Tom's greater wealth, a decision made evident by her acceptance of an extraordinarily expensive necklace as confirmation of Tom's marriage proposal. However, Daisy's own greed is exposed when Tom initiates an affair with Myrtle Wilson. Tom, too, falls victim to greed, albeit not for money but for another commodity he covets—women. His pursuit of Myrtle nearly costs him Daisy, as she becomes increasingly drawn to Gatsby.

Myrtle Wilson serves as a vivid example of Fitzgerald's condemnation of greed. She betrays her loving husband to engage in an affair with Tom, attracted by the extravagant lifestyle afforded by his wealth, only to meet a tragic end. Her death results from her desire to confront Tom about his unwillingness to see her any longer, culminating in a fatal accident.

Moral values in the jazz-era are subjected to Fitzgerald's criticism through both character development and setting. Family dynamics are portrayed early in the novel when Nick visits the Buchanans' home for dinner. Tom, instead of engaging with his wife, prioritizes serving alcohol. Daisy briefly introduces Nick to her daughter, who is promptly taken away by her nurse, highlighting the detachment and superficiality of their familial relationships. During dinner, Tom conducts a phone call with his mistress, and in private conversations with Jordan, gossip about Tom's affair takes precedence.

Fitzgerald also critiques moral values through the setting of Gatsby's extravagant parties, which Nick attends. These gatherings are marked by opulence, live entertainment, excessive alcohol, and food. The guests, far from being teenagers, are wealthy adults indulging in reckless behavior. This portrayal underscores Fitzgerald's negative assessment of the moral values prevalent in American society during the jazz era.


Charles Dickens and F. Scott Fitzgerald both approached societal critique with distinct styles and eras in mind. Dickens, a vocal social reformer, used "Great Expectations" to address the deficiencies of Victorian England, highlighting the mistreatment of children, the oppressive class structure, and the inhumanity of the political and legal systems. His personal experiences fueled his passion for change, and his criticism played a significant role in fostering social reform.

Fitzgerald, on the other hand, employed "The Great Gatsby" as a literary mirror reflecting the flaws of 1920's jazz-era America. He scrutinized the society's unwavering acceptance of greed and the decline in moral values. Rather than proposing specific solutions, he relied on literature to provoke thought and encourage readers to contemplate a better future.

In conclusion, both authors effectively used characterization and setting to convey their social criticisms, enriching the tapestry of literature with their insights into the complexities of human society.

Updated: Nov 15, 2023
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Social Criticism in Literature: Great Expectations and The Great Gatsby. (2016, Jul 06). Retrieved from

Social Criticism in Literature: Great Expectations and The Great Gatsby essay
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