Great Expectations Portrays Injustices Of British Class
System Essay, Research Paper
Dickens’ provides the reader with scathing insight into the social standard of this time/era. How successful is Dickens in portraying the injustices of social class?
” In England the social fences, if left alone, grow like wild hedges.”
The class system in England began with the introduction of feudalism which followed the Norman Conquest of 1066 and has been the social guideline for hundreds of years. The class system consists of an upper, middle and lower class. These classes and the differences between them, are evident in the plot and interaction of the characters in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Dickens paints a biting portrait of the English class system where the undeserving upper class is omnipotent, the middle class consists of those envious of the upper class, and the hard workers of the lower class who are unable to succeed due to their birth status. These injustices are personified through the outlandish characters of Miss Havisham, Mrs. Pocket and Magwitch, who satirize the upper, middle and lower classes. These characters embody many of the traits, which Dickens found to be indicative of the various classes. Through colorful narrations and descriptions, these characters come to life and guide us through the many social guises of ninteenth century England.
Miss Havisham’s lazy and indulgent nature is seen through Pip’s many vivid descriptions of her as he became progressively more embroiled in Miss Havisham’s games. Miss Havisham personified the idle rich as she sat in her mansion, brooding over the past, while still wearing her disintegrating wedding dress. Miss Havisham was obsessed with her failed marriage and created another doomed relationship by manufacturing Estella to break Pip’s heart. Miss Havisham acted so childishly partly because she was brought up by a wealthy father who “denied her nothing” and because she never had to work in order to be financially secure. She entertained herself by playing sadistic games with children, Pip and Estella. As she explained to Pip, “I sometimes have sick fancies.” Miss Havisham was a rich eccentric who sat in her dark, dusty home, “in her once-white dress, all yellow and withered everything around in a state to crumble under a touch.” The absurdity of Miss Havisham’s life is used as the framework that Dickens utilizes to satirize the upper class. Her upper class, lavish lifestyle and ridiculous idiosyncrasies illustrate that despite all of the wealth and social education of the upper class, they are fools who are power hungry and unable to cope with adverse life situations.
While the upper class that Dickens portrays is of garish, childish and lazy individuals, the middle class at that time wished to emanate the qualities of the upper class. Those in the middle class were always envious of the power and wealth of the aristocrats and tried to be accepted into this elite class by flattering those in it. The Pocket family is an example of those who flatter the upper class. Dickens the Pockets are seen mockingly as they make their yearly visits to Miss Havisham, falsely flattering her with compliments of how well she looks. When the Pockets visit Miss Havisham, they feign affection so that they may be included in her will. The small middle class comprised of intellectuals and professionals, of whom Mr. Pocket was one as he had “been educated at Harrow and at Cambridge, where he had distinguished himself . and taken up the calling of a grinder.” The Pockets were a moderately well off family, but they would never be part of the aristocracy solely because they do not have a title to their name. Through the hilarious descriptions of the Pockets, Dickens trivializes titles. ” Still, Mrs. Pocket was in general the object of a queer sort of respectful pity because she had not married a title; while Mr. Pocket was the object a queer sort of forgiving approach because he had never got one.”
Mrs. Joe and Pumblechook were not as close to the upper class as the Pockets, nonetheless, their behaviour was indicative of their adulation of the upper class. For example, Mrs. Joe does not question the wishes of Miss Havisham when Miss Havisham calls Pip to come visit her; “she wants this boy to go play there. And of course he’s going. And he had better play there.” Mrs. Joe sends Pip into a strange place where he is treated terribly, but she sends him without questioning since Miss Havisham is in the upper class. Similarly, Pumblechook pretends to be Pip’s benefactor, but only in order to be assosciated with a man who is of higher social standing. It is only when Pip comes across a fortune that Pumblechook respect him as Pip is seen as a link to the upper class. Pumblechook’s transparent gestures are even evident to Pip as he believes that everyone has seen Pumblechook’s prominent, but false advertisement. ” I entertain a conviction, based upon large experience, that if in the days of my prosperity I had gone to the North Pole, I should have met somebody there, wandering Eskimo or civilized man, who would have told me that Pumblechook was my earliest patron and the founder of my fortunes.” These obvious actions are representative of Pumblechook’s sycophantic behavior towards those in the upper class. Dickens uses Mrs. Joe and Pumblechook to be examples of those in the middle class who were constantly attempting to be associated with the upper classes, although it was virtually unattainable.
The lower class only held an awed contempt for the upper class as they knew that this status was out of their reach. The mass of England’s population comprised on the lower class, to whom the upper and middle classes were indifferent. Magwitch, the escaped convict who is Pip’s mysterious benefactor, exemplifies many of the qualities Dickens sees as being characteristics of the lower class. Dickens believed that the lower classes comprised of decent, hardworking people who, due to their lack of education and oppurtunity settled into the only life that was known and expected of them. Magwitch was never given a chance in life, even as an child, his first memory of “a-thieving turnips” is the commencement of a life of crime. Magwitch’s eventual success in life only comes where he is given the oppurtunity to succeed while living in a penal colony. It is ironic that Magwitch, an outcast of English society was in fact the benefactor of Pip, who was courted by society. When Magwitch goes to visit Pip, Pip is ashamed of the convict as he does not wish to be associated with a member of the lower class. Pip referred to Magwitch as his “dreaded visitor” and was embarrassed of his uncouth manners and appearance. Magwitch’s success is Dickens’s commentary on the socio-economical limitations of those in the lower class. Magwitch, a representative of the lower class, was a great success, but only when he was living outside of England and not suppressed by the stigmas associated with his lower social status. Through Magwitch’s success, Dickens conveys that it was not the supposed inherent inferiority that inhibited his success, rather the unjust class system.
The class system was unfair and restrictive to most of the people of England during Dickens’s time. The few members of the upper class were morally bankrupt despite their great material wealth. The middle classes adored the aristocrats of the upper class and sacrificed much self-dignity in order to be accepted by the upper class. The masses of lower class were branded from birth as being of lesser value than those of the upper and middle classes. The strained relationships, resentment and indignation between the classes is evident through the interactions of the characters in Great Expectations. These characters represent each social class in England and the defining characteristics of the classes. Despite the ill feelings between classes, at the conclusion of the book we learn that success can be achieved on different levels, regardless of social stature and class. Dickens’s valiant message is one of hope for a future of greater social equality.