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Great Expectations, a novel written by Charles Dickens during the Victorian era. This novel was set in early Victorian England at a time when great social changes were taking place. During the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution had transformed the social landscape, allowing industrialists and manufacturers to accumulate huge fortunes that would otherwise have been inaccessible. Aside from the political and economic change which occurred, a profound social change took place. The populace seeking to better their lives, sought after employment in newly-formed industries. During this era, the society was categorized into three classes: upper, middle, and lower class and this system was the called the social class system. In Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, the class system played an important role. These classes and the differences between them were clear in the interaction of the characters and in the plot of novel. Dickens had a negative view of this system, where the upper class is omnipotent, the middle class consists of those envious of the upper class, and the lower class who are unable to succeed due to their birth status. Charles Dickens was part of this era, he sprung from the lower middle class, and thoroughly acquainted with the life of the poor. Most of Dickens’s novels were shaped by the events that were taking place during that time. Throughout his novel, Dickens emphasizes the difference between appearance and reality through Pip’s expectations of something better, social status, and settings in the book.
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In the beginning of the novel, Pip sees Satis house, which puts him into a state of mind of desiring to be a wealthy gentleman. In this novel, Pip desires moral self-improvement and is very tough on himself when he feels that he acts immorally, by trying to act better in the future. This can be notices when Pip wants social self-improvement, after having fallen in love with Estella, who demands him to act according to high society. Estella treated Pip very harshly because of their differences in social class, her being upper class girl and him being a working class boy. “He calls the knaves, jacks, this boy! said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. ‘And what coarse hands he has! And what thick boots!” (Dickens 59) Estella is cold and insulting, criticizing Pip’s low social class and his unrefined manners when he plays a game of cards with Estella at Miss Havisham’s house. Secondly, when Pip leaves for London and is disappointed with his behaviour towards Biddy and Joe. His fantasies of becoming a gentleman are further stimulated by Mrs. Joe and Pumblechook. When Magwitch, the convict goes to visit Pip, Pip is ashamed of the convict and did not want 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. (Dickens 326)
Another example of how Dickens criticizes the class system during the Victorian is, in chapter 27 when Joe comes to see Pip, Pip treats Joe in a different way than before because Joe was from a lower social class. His feelings about Joe’s arrival were: “Not with pleasure… I had the sharpest sensitiveness as to his being seen by Drummle.” (Dickens 203) He was afraid that Drummle will look down on him because of Joe’s lower class. Not only does Pip treat Joe differently, Joe also treats Pip differently because of their difference in social class. He begins to call Pip “sir” which bothered him because “sir” was the title given to people of higher class. Joe leaves and explains his early leaving, “Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one man’s a blacksmith, and one’s a whitesmith, and one’s a goldsmith, and one’s a coppersmith. Divisions among such must come…” (Dickens 223) He creates this metaphor than he is a common blacksmith and Pip is a goldsmith. So, this is another example of how Dickens criticizes the social class system. Other characters that were also judged by their social class were Magwitch and Compeyson. They were both on trial for the same crime but Compeyson got off easier than Magwitch because of his higher social class. The ending of the trial was solely based upon social class system.
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Throughout the novel, Dickens explores the class system of Victorian England, ranging from the criminal Magwitch, to the poor peasants Joe and Biddy, to the middle class of Pumblechook, and finally to the rich Miss Havisham. These classes and the differences between them were clear in the interaction of the characters and in the plot of novel. Dickens had a negative view of this system, where the upper class is all-powerful; the middle class consists of those envious of the upper class, and the lower class who are unable to succeed due to their birth status. People were categorized into classes and this was essential throughout the story, since Pip realizes that wealth and class are less significant than love, loyalty, and inner worth. The most important fact to be remembered about the post-industrial revolution class system is that Dickens ignores the nobility and aristocracy in favour of the main theme of this novel: ambition. The social class system that existed during the Victorian era caused a division between people. This difference in social class had brought upon separation between characters in the novel like Pip, Estella, Magwitch, Miss Havisham and Joe.
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