What is the role played by money in Great Expectations?Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, money provides opportunities for some while its absence prevents others from fulfilling their potentials.  Certainly, with the "toadies" who hover about Satis House, money and the attainment of a high social class is perceived as the greatest of aspirations as one's worth seems to rise along with one's economic situation.  Through these characters, such as Sarah and Camilla Pocket and Uncle Pumblechook, Dickens satirizes the rising middle class that aspires to be like what Dickens considered a frivolous upperclass.  In Chapter XI, for instance, Camilla and Sarah Pocket are at Miss Havisham's on her birthday, hoping that she will die soon so they can inherit something.  In the meantime, they gossip about Tom, who, when his wife died, did not buy "the deepest of trimmings" for the children's mourning clothes; instead, he had them appear as less than they should.  Sarah says that Tom has no "sense of the proprieties."  Likewise, Pumblechook wishes to attach himself to the good fortunes of Pip, declaring himself Pip's "mentor."  Because Pip has money, Pumblechook feels and is perceived as having elevated himself.

Likewise, Pip deluded by the idea that wealth makes a person better. Having been notified of his "great expectations," he dreams of being worthy of Estella when he no longer wears "coarse boots" or calls knaves in cards jacks.  Money, Pip believes, will make him a gentleman, somehow superior to Joe and Biddy and Trabbs's boy.  And, that Pip believes that money somehow elevates a person's worthiness is quite evident in his dismay when he learns that Magwitch is his benefactor, not Miss Havisham, even though the aristocratic woman is obviously eccentric and deranged.

So, while money is the means of social prestige for the aspiring merchants and rising middle class, and brings the dream of being a gentleman to Pip, its absence in Victorian society creates a social prison, incarcerating the poor in the lowest level of life. For, as a child Magwitch was a gamin of the streets, stealing to eat and seeking shelter wherever he could find it.  He became a flunky for Compeyson who exploited him terribly, making him perform the criminal activities which Compeyson's devious mind generated.  When they were brought to trial, Magwitch was judged far more harshly because he was ragged and ignorant while Compeyson appeared the gentleman.  It is a redemption for poor Magwitch to have earned enough money to become the benefactor of Pip since through Pip Magwitch vicariously rises above the gutter where he has had to live.  Clearly, within the setting of Dickens's Great Expectations, for many, wealth is a vehicle to higher social status, while a lack of money dooms one to dire poverty and misery.  It is the lesson that Pip learns about the true values that are so memorable.  Not money, but love, is what makes a person the wealthiest, Pip finally realizes, as does Miss Havisham who mourns the loss of Estella's heart and begs Pip to forgive her the cruelty to which she subjected him.

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