Does Dickens address the plight of homeless children in Great Expectations?  

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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A social reformer, Charles Dickens was greatly concerned with the plight of the orphaned children of his time since he himself was virtually orphaned while his father was incarcerated in debtors' prison.  Although he does not so directly address the problems of parentless children in Great Expectations as he does in Oliver Twist, Dickens certainly criticizes the treatment of orphans by satirizing the physical abuse that Mrs. Joe deals Pip with "Tickler," as well as by depicting the exploitation of little Biddy who tends her store and teaches the pupils of her great aunt, but receives no recompense. Another exploiter, Uncle Pumblechook allows Pip little food on the eve of Pip's visit to Miss Havisham's; however, he is quick to take credit for being instrumental in Pip's good fortune.

Moreover, Pip's having been orphaned is emphasized in his search throughout the narrative for a father. Critics feel that Pip cannot fulfill his search because none of the male characters can complete the role of father as Joe Gargery represents the heart, but he is too weak to be the head of the household; Abel Magwitch represents the soul, but he is too filled with thoughts of vengeance to fulfill the role of father; and Jaggers represents the rational mind of his prospective father, but lacks any compassion and is often unethical.

Another manner in which Dickens addresses the plight of the orphaned is through the themes of alienation and isolation.  Even the doted-upon Estella is isolated from the society of normal adults and children.  Certainly, none of the orphans--Pip, Biddy, or Estella--develop in the wholesome environments that they could have as part of a loving family.  Instead, they live rather dark and dismal existences as children, existences suggestive of those even more neglected others who were without parents in Dickens's London.


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