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Charles Dickens was a 19th century writer who is renowned for his fantastically written novels and his knack for story-telling. Originally a journalist, he wrote for the Victorian magazine ‘All the year round’ which captivated its readers who would purchase it every week just for the next addition to one of Dickens novels. An enthusiastic social campaigner, Charles Dickens liked to explore and challenge the ways of Victorian society and culture in his novels, rarely basing his stories in past times – in this way he was like a ‘soap’ writer of his time.
His writing appealed to anyone and everyone who had the ability to read, especially those who were ‘working class’ as his characters were like them, and could be related to. His novels also allowed audiences of this type to indulge and fantasise in his stories, Dickens took his readers to a place where they could escape, and experience the adventures that his characters did, and this is perhaps why he was so popular. One particular novel that he started in 1860 was called ‘Great expectations’ – a tale about a boy named Pip; in this novel Dickens explores the social barriers of Victorian society.
In the Victorian era life was hard, a large percentage of the population were working class people who were considered bottom of the social hierarchy. These people had to work for a living, and as they usually were poorly educated which meant any form of work they endured was laborious and caused both physical and mental strain on them. There was little pay and unfortunately this way of life was a continuous cycle, few rarely breaking free of the social barriers that condemned them to a life of continuous strenuous physical endurance.
Those who were born into a family like this often took on the role of their parents, boys would inherit their fathers job and girls would be ‘married off’ to other families, their life mainly consisting of housework, reproducing and attending to their husband’s needs. This was all because of the lack of money. Without a large amount of money coming in from somewhere, educating children was simply unaffordable, and therefore they had no hope of getting a job that would have a much larger pay and wouldn’t consist of any hard labour.
It is made clear to us that Pip is a child born into a working class family as Dickens explains that most of Pips siblings died in early childhood: ‘five little brothers of mine – who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle’. This would not have happened if Pips family had the money to cater for their health. In ‘universal struggle’ Dickens refers to life – indicating that life at that time was hard, and reinforcing the points I made earlier.
The novel starts with Dickens having Pip tell us that his mother and father are dead, and that he couldn’t remember either of them and never knew what they looked like in the form of the words – ‘I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them’. Pip also tells us ‘their days were long before the days of photographs’, referring to the historical context and telling the readers that it is set in Victorian times, or rather, when it was written, in the present.
The fact that Pips parents and most of his siblings are dead creates an image that Pip is a very lonely little boy, and makes us feel sorry for him. After explaining that most of Pips family are dead, Dickens aquatints us with the current setting marshland, 20 miles from the sea. Dickens says ‘a raw afternoon towards evening’ which indicates that it is growing darker, and with no-one about this puts Pip in a very vulnerable position. Dickens then goes on to describe the setting in a way that would be frightening, especially to a child, if you were alone in such a place.
He uses phrases like ‘bleak place overgrown with nettles’, ‘dark flat wilderness’ and ‘distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing’ and one would usually associate features like these with fear. Dickens also tells us of Pips realisation that he is alone, ‘at such a time I found out for certain that Phillip Pirrip and also Georgina wife of the above were dead and buried’ and that his parents aren’t with him, they were six feet under. He was alone and unprotected.
Dickens says all of this in a very long sentence, which would build up tension and the impression that Pip was in a very frightening place. The most effective part of doing this is the way Dickens ends the sentence ‘and that the small bundle of shivers going afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip’ – he’d built up this terrifying image of a setting and then in the middle of it all was a frightened little boy who was completely alone and vulnerable – a brilliant use of juxtaposition.