Is there any satire in Great Expectations?
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Indeed, there is much satire in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. The most prominent target of his derision is what he considered a frivolous aristocracy that was deluded in their importance and insensitivity to the other classes. Two characters who exemplify the undeserved admiration given to the aristocracy are Uncle Pumblechook and Belinda Pocket, the wife of Matthew Pocket.
- Uncle Pumblechook
Depicting the new merchant class that arose from the Industrial Revolution, Uncle Pumblechook is sycophantic toward the wealthy class. After Miss Havisham has asked the corn-chandler to find a boy to play with her adopted daughter Estella, Pumblchook assumes a false sense of his importance as he coaches Pip in his arithmetic and reproaches the boy after he is rejected at the gate of Satis House,
"Boy, let your behavior here be a credit unto them which brought you up by hand!"
But, because of his connection to Pip's having been invited to Satis House as a boy, after Pip comes into money and goes to London to be schooled and become a gentleman, Pumblechook falsely assumes the credit for Pip's social advancement. In Chapter XXVIII, when Pip leaves London to apologize to Joe for his affectations as a young gentleman and his embarrassment at Joe's behavior because he feared Herbert's impressions, he stops at the Boar's Nest where he reads a newspaper and learns of Pumblechook's pretentions of importance,
Our readers will learn...in reference to the recent romantic rise in fortune of a young artificer in iron of this neighbourhood...that the youth's earliest patron, companion, and friend, was a highly-respected individual not entirely unconnected with the corn and seed trade.... It is not wholly irrespective of our personal feelings that we record HIM as the Mentor of our young Telemachus, for it is good to know that our town produced the founder of the latter's fortunes.
- Belinda Pocket
In Chapter XXIII, the ridiculous character of Matthew Pocket's wife is developed; heretofore described by Pip in one of the early chapters as "a toadie" who hypocritically flatters Miss Havisham in the hope of obtaining some of her fortune upon her death. In her own home, instead of attending to her children, Mrs. Pocket occupies herself with the consumption of a book "all about titles." With satiric humor, Dickens describes the fabricated nobility of Mrs. Pocket's father, who is "a quite accidental deceased knight,"
...his father would have been made a Baronet but for someone's determined opposition, the Sovereign's, the Prime Minister's, the Chancellor's...I forget whose, if I ever knew....I believe he had been knighted himself for storming the English grammar at the point of a pen in a desperate address...for the laying of a stone for some building or another.
As she reads, her children tumble about her, a baby nearly jokes on a nutcracker, and the servant must save them from death continually. Yet, Mrs. Pocket never puts down the book; instead, she scolds the servant Jane for intervening. When a neighbor contacts her about a servant's mistreatment of another child, she is angered at the neighbor's interference and remarks to her husband, "Am I grandpapa's granddaughter to be nothing in the house?"
Satire is politically motivated fun-poking. Dickens enjoyed making fun of things he saw wrong with society, and some of his favorite targets were the class system and the legal system. He has fun with both of them in Great Expectations.
Class is a constant issue in the book. Pip is a lowly blacksmith’s nephew who is magically raised above his means due to a secret benefactor. When the gentleman phase does not go so well for Pip, we are not surprised. Dickens is sending a clear message. Being a gentleman is not about money or class. It is about being a good person.
“Biddy,” said I, after binding her to secrecy, “I want to be a gentleman.
“Oh, I wouldn't, if I was you!” she returned. “I don't think it would answer.” (ch 17)
Pip wants to be a gentleman so he can marry Estella, but for him being a gentleman seems to be running up debts with no idea how to pay them, lounging around clubs with boarish friends, and turning his back on his family.
We later learn that Magwitch felt wronged when he was thrown under the bus at his trial. Compeyson looked and acted the part of the gentleman. He spoke sweetly and politely. He seemed to be one of them. Magwitch, on the other hand, was poor and coarse. He chose to elevate Pip because he wanted to prove that anyone could be made into a gentleman.
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