Victorian Literature: Social Class in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Categories: Charles Dickens

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens was published in 1860, and is widely regarded as examplary for the Victorian Era, as the novel seems to reflect upon the great social changes which occured during that time in Britain. The Victorian Era saw great transformations for the society, not only in terms of the emergence of the idea of the 'New Woman' and thus for the questioning of the patriarchy, but also regarding the realisation of the slow decline of the British Empire and, caused largely due to the Industrial Revolution, a new perception of work life and class awareness.

Because of the emerging 'capitalist mentality', the social landscape became radically transformed and unstable, as the new form of economy could enable individuals to accumulate great fortunes and therefore demonstrated a distinct break from the „hereditary aristocracy of the past“1 which implemented class consistency based on family lines. It is in this sphere of class and class mobility that this essay aims at reflecting on Great Expectations as a 'mirror' of its time.

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The topics of class and class mobility play a key role in the novel. The characters in Great Expectations depict the diversity of social classes,2 Ballin, Social Class in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. for example through the figure of Joe who represents the working class, Mr. Wemmick who symbolizes the middle-class and Miss Havisham, who presents an image of the upper, rich class. Furthermore, different ways in which people become wealthy are displayed and this builds a foundation for the plot development of the novel.

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On the one hand, Dickens seems to suggest that hard, 'honest' work does in most cases not lead to wealth, which can be seen through the character of Joe as well as by considering Magwitch, who gets rich through work in New South Wales but whose fortune goes to the crown after his trail. On the other hand, wealth is often distributed by 'luck of birth' as is the case for Miss Havisham, who inherented her fortune, or by mere coincidence, as with Pip who gets his money from Magwitch as a counterperformance for his help of freeing Magwitch from his chains and saving him from starvation. In my opinion, Dickens seems to express the 'randomness' of wealth and therefore questions the class system as a whole, and the class conventions customary in Victorian Britain. This is for example expressed in Estella's rude and arrogant attitude towards Pip3 Upham, Class Structure in Great Expectations: Dictate Your Own Fate, p. 8. and in the letter that Biggy writes to Pip, in which she adresses him as „Mr. Pip“4 Dickens, Great Expectations, . and refers to herself as „your ever obliged, and affectionate servant“5 Dickens, Great Expectations, p. 186 (chapter 27). which for the reader appears to be overly cold and formal, given their former intimacy.

Furthermore, class for Dickens does not necessarily equal nobility, hence the novel's heroes, that is to say the ones most sympathetic for the reader, are Joe and Biddy, who belong to the lower class; while most of its villains (f.e. Drummle and Compeyson) belong to the upper class. Joe's goodness is especially expressed towards the end of the novel, when Joe nurses Pip back to health and pays off Pip's debt, regardless how Pip treated him before. Clearly for Dickens, class is not an indicator for goodness.

By means of the main character Pip, who undergoes a big change and moves from his working class origins to the upper class after Magwitch transfers him money, and later moves back, the topic of class mobility is depicted in the book. Therefore through Pip, Dickens expresses that sudden wealth can be made but just as easily lost again. After Pip visits Satis House and falls in love with Estella, he becomes for the first time aware of his working class origins, and the desire for wealth and social advancement awakes in him. Furthermore, his perception of class difference is expressed by his feeling of shame for his family origins: „I thought how Joe and my sister were then sitting in the kitchen, and how Miss Havisham and Estella never sat in a kitchen, but were far above the level of such common things“.6 Dickens, Great Expectations, p. 60F . I agree with John Bowen that Great Expectations conveys a rather pessimistic view on class mobility7 Bowen, Great Expectations and class. and underlines the instability and false promises of the growth of economy in Victorian Britain. Once he is confronted with the awareness of his own lower class, Pip cannot be contend with his old life anymore, which becomes clear, among other moments, when he expresses his unsatisfaction with the prospect of becoming a blacksmith: „I was truly wretched, and had a strong conviction on me that I should never like Joe's trade. I had liked it once, but once was not now.“8 Dickens, Great Expectations, p. 90 (chapter 13).

This negative perception of class mobility and the striving for a higher social rank is strengthened by the fact that Pip's change of social status is accompanied by a change of character and attitude from being a caring child to a callous gentleman. Considering the question at the outset of this essay this seems to underline the danger of becoming arrogant and ungrateful after moving up to the upper classes. Pip's unfavorable development especially becomes clear in his behaviour towards Joe and Biddy, the two figures who represent his origins and care a lot about him. While during his childhood Joe was his friend, 'fellow sufferer' and „no more than [his] equal“9 Dickens, Great Expectations, p. 9 (chapter 2). , Pip develops an arrogant attitude towards him: „I wanted to make Joe less ignorant and common, that he might be worthier of my society and less open to Estella's reproach.“10 Dickens, Great Expectations, p. 93 (chapter 15).

When Joe visits Pip in London, Pip is even ashamed of him and uncomfortable with Joe's coming: „If I could have kept him [Joe] away by money, I certainly would have paid money.“11 Dickens, Great Expectations, p. 186 (chapter 27). Even though Pip feels guilty for his ungrateful and mean behaviour, the social convention of class makes him act like this.

Furthermore, through Pip Dickens seems to underline the struggle that can go along with class mobility and reveals the idea of sudden, 'easy' and unlimited class mobility that would lead to happiness as an utopian, false promise and fast economic success as an illusion. Even when he has money, Pip is not fulfilled or satisfied with his life – his wealth is just superficial and does not change who he is nor can buy him gentility. As an effect of this, Pip is often humilated and can never escape from the „pains, desires and performance of class identity“12 Bowen, Great Expectations and class. .

As a contrast, Biddy and Joe, the characters in the book who do not strive for class mobility and are content with what they have (Joe:„(…) I want to be right, as you shall never see me no more in these clothes. I'm wrong in these clothes. I'm wrong out of the forge, the kitchen, or off th'meshes. You won't find half so much fault in me if you think of me in my forge dress, with my hammer in my hand, or even my pipe“13 Dickens, Great Expectations, p. 192 (chapter 27). ), are the happy figures in Great Expectations.

In summary, Dickens suggests that a higher class identity is not essential for happiness, which is also what Pip is sensing in the end of the novel, even though he cannot act it out yet. Furthermore, the promise of the possibility of class mobility towards a higher class often turns out to be an illusion because the success is often superficial and leads to dissatisfaction. One's origins will always be a part of one's self and being at peace with this seems to be a means for happiness.

Updated: Feb 18, 2024
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Victorian Literature: Social Class in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. (2024, Feb 18). Retrieved from

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