With particular reference to Great Expectations, discuss how Dickens uses the novel as a vehicle for social criticism.Charles Dickens's Great Expectations

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Dickens was a social critic of several aspects of his Victorian society:

The plight of abandoned, abused children

Great Expectations depicts little Pip and the orphan Biddy as often mistreated. Mrs. Joe physically and verbally abuses Pip, and Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt makes little Biddy works in her small general shop keeping accounts of all that is sold.  In other areas, too, Biddy acts as the servant.

Inadequate education

Dickens perceived educational institutions of his time as unconcerned with intellectual improvement or care, finding them instead mere institutions where profit was to be made in the housing of children.  At Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt's school, the woman is incompetent and the children learn virtually nothing.  It is Biddy who teaches Pip how to read and figure.

Alcohol abuse

Orlick represents the dangers of alcohol abuse as in Chapter 53,he attacks Pip who enters the old sluice-house.  There, Orlick accuses Pip of coming between him and a woman he fancied.  Also, in drunken ramblings, he tells Pip  of his connections to Compeyson and that he was on the stairway the night Magwitch arrived. Vowing revenge, Orlick calls Pip his enemy.  Fortunately, as Pip cries out when Orlick takes a swing of liquor and picks up a hammer, Herbert and some other men rescue him.

Social snobbery

Pip's first two visits to Satis House introduce him to the elitist attitudes of a frivolous upper class.  Passing through the gate outside  held by Estella, Pip hears, "Why, he's a common labouring boy!" as Estella mocks his coarse hands and boots and his vocabulary, such as calling knaves jacks when they play cards. With irony, Dickens points to the importance of mere appearance as Estella herself is not upperclass, but has merely been adopted by an aristocrat, and a decaying, eccentric one at that. 

Satire in his criticism of this aspect of Victorian society appears also, as Dickens portrays Uncle Pumblechook's sycophancy in his efforts to advance himself socially. Farcical is Sarah Pocket's supercilious treatment of her servant who must constantly save her children who tumble dangerously underfoot or with scissors as their vacuous, oblivious mother sits continuously reading from a book on social titles as though she were among the aristocrats mentioned.  Further, within the element of farce are the thespian ventures of Mr. Wopsle who fancies himself a Shakespearean actor.

Hypocrisy and selfishness

The "basest of swindlers," Pumblechook is the greatest hypocrite in the novel.  While using only cruel words to Pip until Pip's social rise, in Chapter 28 Pumblechook boasts to the local newspaper of Pip's social success, crediting himself as Pip's "mentor."

The Pockets, "toadies and flatters," appearing each year at Miss Havisham's birthday really just hope the eccentric will die so they can receive inheritances.

Abuses of the legal and penal system

The unscrupulous Mr. Jaggers bespeaks of a corrupt justice system in which clients who cannot pay are not served.  Often he operates outside the law, such as cautioning Pip not to say his benefactor's name or mention anything about his being in London.  Only Wemmick who visits Newgate Prison displays any concern. Magwitch, who as a gamin of the streets, forced to steal to eat,victimized by unjust system, receives a graver sentence than the evil Compeyson simply because Compeyson's appearance is that of a gentleman.

 

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