Discuss the theme of social injustice in Charles Dickens's novel Great Expectations regarding the first 18 chapters ONLY ..

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Without doubt, Charles Dickens made use of the pen to depict social injustices in his society. Here are some of the issues addressed with the theme of social injustice:

  • Child abuse

Just as in Oliver Twist Dickens writes about the orphans and the desolation of not having the love of a mother. Both Pip and Biddy have lost their parents. Although they do have a relative to care for them, both Pip's sister and Biddy's grandmother are cruel. Mrs. Joe is unkind, accusing Pip of always being ungrateful, and at times she is abusive, striking blows on poor Pip with "Tickler." Biddy's grandmother raises her also "by hand," and she makes the little girl work in her "little general shop" and is neglectful,

Her hair always wanted brushing, her hands always wanted washing, and her shoes always wanted mending and pulling up at the heel.

Added to Pip's troubles, he has an Uncle Pumblechook who, along with Mrs. Joe, berates him, "Be grateful, boy, to them which brought you up by hand," and batters him with numbers and feeds him little the night before he goes to Satis House.

In Chapter 7, Joe explains to Pip why he never learned to read: his father was an alcoholic who beat him and his mother and rarely worked; consequently Joe had to work as youth in order to support his family.

There is also the greed of parents who wish to profit from their children. Mrs. Joe is excited that Pip is going to the house of the wealthy Miss Havisham, hoping for a monetary reward. Added to this is the attitude of Mr. Jaggers that boys from the neighborhood "are a bad lot," an intimation that children are not to be cherished, but punished and controlled instead.

  • The injustice of social class

During Pip's encounter with the convict in the graveyard, there is the early suggestion of the disparity in justice for the social classes as Pip's convict, after having been apprehended by the soldiers, remarks that the other convict is a "gentleman, if you please, this villain," intimating that he has received better treatment previously than he.

Pip's visit to Satis House is one of exploitation by the upper class as Miss Havisham wants to use Pip for Estella's training in misandry. Estella insults Pip by calling him "a common laboring boy" and laughing at his coarse hat and crude boots.

After he returns home, Pip is afraid to tell Mrs. Joe and Uncle Pumblechook the truth about the dusty house where all clocks are stopped and the bizarre Miss Havisham in a yellowed wedding dress because he knows that they would never believe such a story about an aristocrat. So, he fabricates a tall tale about sitting in a black velvet carriage and eating cake on golden plates. 

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Great Expectations

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