In both Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, the theme of social class issues and hierarchy (order of things) are addressed. How does each novel address the...
In both Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, the theme of social class issues and hierarchy (order of things) are addressed. How does each novel address the "natural pecking order"? Is it realistic?
Pride and Prejudice
At the heart of how Austen addresses theme of social class issues and hierarchy in Pride and Prejudice is the relationship between Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Bennett. While their relationship seems peripheral and is described only briefly, through it, Austen develops the direction of the "pecking order" (a phrase that describes power dominance and is borrowed from naturalist studies of the animal world) through an intricate web of other relationships.
Mr. Bennet is a landed gentleman in the second layer of the two upper layers of hierarchy, in the same category as the landed gentlemen Darcy, Bingley, Sir Lucas, and even Lady Catherine de Borough, whose title comes from her father, an earl, as her husband was Sir Lewis de Borough. Mr. Bennet met Miss Gardner who became his Mrs. Bennett, nee Gardner. She was the daughter of a tradesman in a lower layer of hierarchy, below Mr. Bennett. Her brother is Mr. Gardner of Cheapside, who is also a tradesman, a successful one, in a lower layer. When Mr. Bennett married Miss Gardner, he both married beneath his level and elevated Miss Gardner above her level, their marriage bestowing on her the rights, wealth, privilege, power and prestige of the two upper hierarchical layers (which helps explain why she is so obsessed about her five daughters marrying well: she doesn't want them to fall into the lower layer she was lifted out of). Although Mr. and Mrs. Bennett have the prestige--the pecking order placement--and wealth of the upper layers, their foolishness wastes their wealth away, though this does not change their hierarchical pecking order; they remain in the upper hierarchy, which is why Elizabeth can stand up to Lady Catherine and assert her right to marry Darcy if she wished as she is a gentleman's daughter and he is a gentleman's son, making them equals.
The elevation of Miss Gardner to Mrs. Bennett sets the stage for the themes of pride and prejudice as Mrs. Bennett's lower level manners "chase away" (as Mr. Bennett described it) Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley (under Darcy's influence) and the Miss Bingleys who find the Bennett girls beneath their notice because of the low behavior of their mother.
The marriage of Mr. Bennett to Miss Gardner disturbed the social order and hierarchy and disarranged the social pecking order, having consequences for their daughters and their daughter's suitors. Even Lydia would not have been exposed to scandal with Wickham had their mother imposed upper social order mores, strictures and oversight upon her children, which she couldn't do because she did not value those herself, but which are the things that saved Georgiana from the same mistake with Wickham. Thus, since all the developing relationships hinge upon Mrs. Bennett's lower hierarchical behavior, in the marriage between Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Bennett lies the crux of the theme of social class issues and hierarchy and the demonstration of pecking order.
At the heart of Great Expectations--a much gloomier novel with a distinct social activism element--is the cross-over of the relationships between Pip and Miss Havisham with that between Pip and Joe. This cross-over of relationships represents the core of what develops in all directions in Pip's life.
Pip is taunted with upper class wealth and privilege--actually, with the ghost of upper class wealth and privilege--by Miss Havisham as she dangles Estella before him. Contrastingly, Pip is instructed by a daily display of kindness and patience and forgiveness through Joe's unchanging behavior in the face of adversity. When Magwitch enters Pip's life in the gloomy moor, because of Pip's terror-inspired act of kindness, he is given a counterpoint to the ghost-elegance and persistent humility shown him respectively by Miss Havisham and by Joe. Through this foundation (Havisham and Joe) and this counterpoint (Magwitch), Dickens explores the virtues and follies of the upper class while juxtaposing it to the follies and steadfast virtue of the lower class (reminiscent of Wordsworth's elevation of common pastoral country people). Dickens is not noted for the simple direct realism Austen is noted for. Yet Dickens is noted for dramatic representation of realistic social and cultural actualities. So, even though there is more caricature in Dickens' work, his reputation is built on a realistic expression of life in his times that is meant to ignite social action for reform.
When we speak of pecking order, we're speaking of social hierarchy that has been established that places more value on certain people or classes (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Ed.). As we are limited in space, below are a few ideas to help get you started.
Jane Austen not only uses Pride and Prejudice to portray and question the prejudices that exist between social classes due to this "natural pecking order," but she also uses the book to show how this "natural pecking order" was beginning to be disrupted. More specifically, she portrays the wrongfulness of the noble class looking down in prejudice upon the working class. One example can be seen in how she portrays Lady Catherine de Bourgh's treatment of Elizabeth. Towards the end of the novel, when Lady Catherine hears rumors her nephew Mr. Darcy has proposed to Elizabeth, she immediately rushes to Longbourn to order Elizabeth not to accept, claiming that Elizabeth and Darcy are not equals. Elizabeth's retort is a clear reflection of Austen's opinion about prejudices among the noble class: "In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal" (Vol. I, Ch. XIV). In Lady Catherine's eyes, since Darcy has noble relations while Elizabeth only has working-class relations, they are not equal, regardless of the fact that Darcy himself has no title. However, as Elizabeth points out, they are both members of the landed gentry and are therefore equal in social status. Hence, Austen uses such scenes as this to point out the irony of prejudicial opinions like Lady Catherine's and to slander such opinions. She further shows that though a social hierarchy has been created with the noble class at the top who think that their opinions are the only opinions that matter, such a pecking order is worth questioning and starting to deteriorate.
Austen even portrays the deterioration of the pecking order by showing that during this time period, there were those in the working class who were becoming as wealthy as the noble class. Mr. Bingley is one example. Austen points out early in the book that, though Bingleys' sisters look down their noses at lower classes, their family's wealth was actually earned through trade, making the Bingleys working class themselves (Vol. I, Ch. 4). Hence, Austen also uses her book to show that the working class was now rising in wealth and social status and disrupting the "natural pecking order."