Caricatures, Stereotypes, and Conventions:
Social Class and the “Gentleman”
The Hulks and Convicts
To better appreciate the richness and complexity of Great Expectations, the reader should consider the following:
While many of Dickens' characters seem exaggerated and outlandish, they allow the relatively flat main characters to seem normal by comparison. Static characters like Joe–unfailing in his goodness–and Miss Havisham–equally unfailing in her bitterness–emphasize Pip's change from contented lad, to social climber, to regretful adult.
Some popular literary conventions of his time that Dickens employs include:
When Pip is adopted by his benefactor and sent to London to become a gentleman, it is not at all clear what type of person he is to become.
Nineteenth century England was a time of rapid social change. Wealth had traditionally been measured by land ownership, but a trend toward a cashbased economy had begun. The Industrial Revolution created a middle class that was, in many ways, more economically powerful than the landowners.
As the economic power of the middle class grew, people demanded political power as well. With this increase in political influence came the demand for social acceptance The concept of the gentleman, therefore, evolved and became a confusing ideal for the Victorians by the middle of the nineteenth century,:
On the one hand, a gentleman was a gentleman by right of birth, but wealthy industrialists claimed the right to be called gentlemen by virtue of their economic and political power.
Clergy of the Church of England, military officers, and members of Parliament were regarded as gentlemen simply because of their occupations.
The Victorians also added a strong moral component to the ideal of the gentleman that even they themselves found difficult to define. Which behavior would be considered proper and which would not were problems that society wrestled with constantly.
While those who held certain jobs were eligible to be called gentlemen, others were not. Note how Pip and Herbert talk about Miss Havisham's father's having been a brewer–and also a gentleman.
Pip can be compared with Herbert Pocket, Matthew Pocket, Bentley Drummle, and finally with Joe Gargery to understand where Dickens's sympathies lay.
The Hulks were large ships without masts, which had been used in battle but had been removed from service and re-fitted to house male convicts awaiting transport to British colonies. The practice began in the 1770s and continued until 1856—four years before the writing of Great Expectations.
Transporting prisoners was a common way of dealing with England's worst criminals. Convicts were routinely taken to the British colonies in America until the Revolutionary War, and after that, to Australia and Tasmania. The sentence of transportation was occasionally for a specified period of time, seven years for example, but gradually, it became a life sentence. Many died during the four-to six-month journey, and many more were ill or dying when they arrived.
Eventually, however, transportation of convicts became expensive, and settlers who were in the colonies complained about having to accept the criminals. The British government then began to look at other ways of dealing with convicts, and a new period of penal reform and prison construction was begun.