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How is the tension between individual and society treated in Great Expectations?On the...

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flothenerd | Student, Undergraduate | eNoter

Posted March 30, 2011 at 5:56 PM via web

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How is the tension between individual and society treated in Great Expectations?

On the one hand, Dickens implies that rich people are not necessarily good people (and vice versa) - which means that  character is not determined by class. But on the other hand,  Pip finally goes back to his beginnings, and Joe states that there are natural differences in society (blacksmiths, goldsmiths etc.) Does Dickens therefore argue implicitly for an affirmation of the social order with all its inequalities, or does he call for a change?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted March 31, 2011 at 3:09 AM (Answer #1)

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Having had a father who was put into debtors' prison and having been forced to work as a child, Charles Dickens grew to become an advocate for the poor and oppressed in his Victorian society. Many of his narratives, therefore, reflect Dickens's disdain for what he considered a frivolous upper class that was unconcerned with the plight of the poor.  But, Mr. Brownlow of Oliver Twist is a kind and caring gentleman, and Miss Havisham in Great Expectations redeems herself by asking Pip to forgive her for her cruelty, so perhaps the reader must look beyond social class for the worth of people.  This, then, seems to be part of the message of Dickens:  appearances are deceiving.  One's social class does not elevate one as a person; the true worth of people is in their hearts. 

However, this good individual is in conflict with the perception of many superficial people such as Belinda Pocket, the "toady," and Uncle Pumblechook, that "basest of swindlers" who aspire to the upper class because they feel that social rank is the ultimate measure of the value of a person.  These people represent many of the rising middle class that profited from the Industrial Revolution's change in economic conditions in England.  With the lower classes now making money, there were opportunities for merchants to provide them with material goods that they might need.  As the merchants, such as Pumblechook, acquired money, they aspired to distance themselves from the working class and reach the level of the aristocrats, whom they admired for both their wealth and their social prestige.  These opportunities for social mobility in the Industrial Age caused new tensions in the Victorian society.

Great Expectations reflects these social changes with such characters as those mentioned above as well as with Mr. Walpole and Mr. Wemmick, who chooses to live in a burgeoning suburb outside the dirty and sordid city of London.  Much more stable than the industrial London, the untainted forge, with its bucolic marshes and fields, and the quaint country home with its fire are fondly recalled by Pip, and he returns where appearance and reality do not differ.  Likewise, the rural people such as Joe Gargery and Biddy are simple, but good, loving friends, people who have sound moral and ethical values unlike the unscrupulous Mr. Jaggers and the vindictive Miss Havisham.

While pointing to the flaws in the social strata of Victorian England, Charles Dickens calls less for a change in social class than he does in the education of his characters that wealth and social position are worthless unless someone is a good person.  It is what constitutes the soul of a person that matters, not his or her social position in society. Pip matures when he realizes that becoming a gentleman, living in London, having money and social contacts, are meaningless is there is something ignorant in one's heart. It is this growing ignorance in the heart that Dickens hopes to change, not the social classes. 

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