Why are the three stages of the novel so important to the overall theme of social injustice in Great Expectations?
Charles Dickens's Great Expectations
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In his essay, "Great Expectations: A Reflection of Serial Publication and Dickens's Social Concerns," Arnold A. Markley writes,
By charting Pip's gradual change throughout the novel, Dickens manages to illustrate an important aspect of the socio-ecomonic context of his times.
Because of the economic results of the Industrial Revolution, there was a growing group of people who, having acquired money, were quickly able to buy things. These people were often envious of the aristocracy, aspiring to what Dickens considered a frivolous class. Such is the case of young Pip who visits Satis House and returns unsatisfied by his station in life, desiring to become a gentleman so he will not be inferior. His leaving for London allows Pip to become this gentleman; however, at the same time, it provides Pip new insights into the social injustice which is suggested to him in the first stage of the novel with the conflict between Pip's convict and the second convict, who is "a gentleman." For, once Pip becomes a gentleman, Joe acts as though he is inferior, addressing Pip as "sir," awkwardly eating and dropping his hat when he should yet feel that he is Pip's friend.
In the second stage, also, Pip learns the history of Miss Havisham and her self-imprisonment while in Chapter XXXII, he visits Newgate Prison and is greatly affected by the aura of death and hopelessness within the "frouzy, ugly, disorderly, depressing scene it was." The tragedy of the condemned Colonel is extremely poignant and certainly points to the terrible injustice of the English penal system as do the other episodes of other characters who beg Mr. Jaggers to help them.
The lesson that Pip learns in the third stage comes in his gradual recognition of the goodness and humanity of Magwitch, a childhood victim of society as a gamin of the streets. As he grew older, Magwitch was exploited by the nefarious Compeyson who employed Magwitch to carry out his dastardly deeds. When they were caught in their crimes, Compeyson was given a lesser sentence than Magwitch despite his being the mastermind of the crimes because he looked the part of a gentleman, clean-favored and articulate, while poor Magwitch, clad in his old clothes, was given a harsher sentence. Thus, after discovering what a noble spirit Magwitch actually has, Pip learns how the criminal justice system dehumanizes people as he recalls the coarse and animalistic convict on the marshes that Magwitch was when he first met him. About this subject, Markley writes,
Such a realization allows Pip, and the reader, to see the wrongness of a class structure that implies that wealth and a high station in life are equal to high moral virtue. After all, Magwitch is portrayed as having a gentle and noble spirit, while the more suave and gentlemanly Compeyson is a vicious and unfeeling criminal.
That social class is a superficial standard of value is developed in the three stages of Great Expectations; Mrs. Joe and Uncle Pumblechook are impressed with the eccentric Miss Havisham simple because she is of the upper class; in the second stage, Pip aspires to this class because he perceives it as superior even though the brutish Drummle is tolerated in high social circles;and, in the third stage, Pip realizes that the lower class characters Magwitch, Joe, and Biddy are the most virtuous and moral. Clearly, in each of these three stages of Great Expectations, a developing presentation of social injustice is made.
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