Set near the end of the Industrial Revolution Dramatic technological improvement in manufacturing and commerce New opportunities for people of ‘lower’ classes to gain wealth Pip’s ascent through the class system, would not have been possible within the rigid hierarchy of the past
Social Class The novel ranges from the lowest classes up to the wealthy: Convicts and orphans [Pip / Magwitch] Poor working class [Joe / Biddy] Poor middle class [The Pockets / Mr Wemmick] Wealthy middle class [Miss Havisham / Mr Jaggers] Upper class [Bentley Drummle] Virtually no time is focused on the traditional aristocracy however.
Social Class The world of Great Expectations is continuously questioning from where nobility and gentility are derived: It used to be the aristocracy – but the industrial revolution suppressed this somewhat Is it something that can be taught? [Pip tries to educate himself] Is it something that can be bought? [Pip spens prodigiously on luxury goods]
Social Class Dickens also upends the old equation between nobility and class: Most of the novel’s heroes [Joe, Biddy and Provis] are in the lower class Most of the villains [Compeyson and Drummle] are upper class Ultimately Pip comes to learn that the source of true gentility is spiritual nobility rather than either great knowledge or wealth.
A “pip” is a small seed – something that starts off tiny and then grows and develops into something new. Pip’s name then, is no accident, as Great Expectations is a bildungsroman, a story of the growth and development of its main character. Dickens presents the ambition to improve oneself as a force capable of generating both positive and negative results.
Ambition and Self- improvement Pip’s early ambitions Elevating his social class Being worthy of Estella In the process he turns himself into someone who feels like a sham Unkind to those who were kindest to him [Joe and Provis] Ruins himself financially
Ambition and Self- improvement Pip’s own ambitions are echoed by the self- improvement efforts of secondary characters: Joe learns to write Miss Havisham learns to empathise
In Great Expectations, Dickens explores pride as both a positive and a negative trait. The crucial distinction between these different varieties of pride is whether they rely on other people’s opinions or whether they spring from a character’s internal conscience and personal sense of accomplishment.
Integrity and Reputation Reputation Estella Bentley Drummle Mrs Joe Uncle Pumblechook Integrity Joe Biddy Mr Wemmick Herbert Pocket
Parents The text looks skeptically at the traditional family unit. There are very few models of healthy parent-child relations Orphans – Pip, Provis, Biddy Broken / dysfunctional families – Herbert, Miss Havisham, Estella, Clara, Joe Inverted Relationships – Wemmick and the Aged
Parents Instead of traditional mothers and fathers, Dickens chooses to feature adoptive parents / mentors / guardians: Joe – Pip Provis – Pip Mr Jaggers – Pip Miss Havisham - Estella
Justice The novel casts the British legal system in a dubious light: Escaped convicts in part I Grotesque courts and prisons in part II and III Mr Jaggers built his reputation on successfully acquitting a murderer [Molly] Wemmick’s separate moral codes – one for the law firm, one for home Some of the most heinous crimes slip right through the legal system
Justice The law treats Orlick and Compeyson much more lightly than they deserve Orlick clubbing Mrs Joe is deeply horrific, leaving Mrs Joe handicapped for life Compeyson assists in ruining many lives, but seems to get away with in comparison to Magwitch Ultimately the only true and enduring scale of justice is the human conscience, brought on by Pip’s compassion.
Generosity Dickens explores many different understandings of generosity: Pip’s initial generosity [whilst based in fear] to Provis results in him devoting his life savings towards Pip’s future Mrs Joe and Uncle Pumblechook understand generosity as a status marker – being considered generous rather than actually acting generously
Generosity Later Pip believes that the best kind of generosity is anonymous He claims that his life’s only good deed was his secret donation to Herbert’s career Most of the novel’s most generous acts are not recognised for a long time, implying that the truly generous give without expecting immediate recongnition: Provis’ funds Joe’s care for Pip Pip’s efforts to secure Herbert’s future Pip’s care for Magwitch in Part III
Preoccupations and Concerns Thus it can be said that, through the construction of his narrative and the characters therein, Dickens is concerned with these aspects of English life at the time.