Renowned as a social reformer in his day, Charles Dickens was an advocate for the poor, downtrodden, and orphaned. In the last of his most worthy novels, Great Expectations, Dickens, indeed, writes a strong narrative against the injustices of his England.
- The plight of orphans and abused children
Having personally experienced misfortune himself when his father was sent to debtors' prison, as a boy Dickens was forced to work in a blacking house and lived more or less as an orphan. His main character, Pip, is a virtual orphan as is Biddy, Estella, and Abel Magwitch. Both Pip and Biddy are subjected to neglect and physical abuse. In Biddy's case, for instance, Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt keeps her as a servant really, having her handle all her little general shop transactions. In addition, Biddy does most of the instruction in the great-aunt's school. While much is lavished upon Estella, Miss Havisham certainly does not exemplify what a mother should be.
- The dehumanizing effects of society
With the Industrial Revolution, there began a rising middle class, merchants, bankers, and others who acquired money. These people aspired to what Dickens perceived as a frivolous aristocracy who felt superior simply because of their social class and wealthy and who showed no concern for those beneath them. Certainly, Miss Havisham and her relatives exemplify this attitude as does Mr. Jaggers, who refuses to aid anyone who cannot pay his fees.
Because of the growth of industry and business in London, people migrated from rural areas, seeking work. Often they lived in the most sordid of conditions; moreover, when they could not find work, they felt forced into crime. The character Magwitch exemplifies such a person; he was born into poverty--"a gamin" of the streets--and lived and ate as he could. When he comes to visit Pip in Stage III, he relates his poignant history of not knowing where he came from or when he was born. "A ragged little creetur" who was "said to live in jails," he was accused of stealing, but knew no other way to find food. When he was older, Compeyson, purportedly a gentleman, hired Magwitch as his man and exploited him by having him swindle, pass bad checks, and such for him. Of Compeyson, Magwitch tells Pip,
"He'd no more heart than a iron file, he was as cold as death, and he had the head of the Devil."
- The corruption of the judicial system
Dickens declared society itself a "prison," for it was nearly impossible for the poor to rise above their station, and, like Magwitch, they were always suspect and condemned more harshly for a crime than someone of a higher class. When, for instance, Magwitch and Compeyson go on trial for Compeyson's swindling crimes, Magwitch, who in truth is the minor criminal, is given a harsher and longer sentence.
And when the verdict come... Compeyson...was recommended to mercy on account of good character and bad company, and giving up all the information he could agen me, and...me as got never a word but Guilty?
Dickens further illustrates the corrupt criminal justice system with Mr. Jaggers, whose constant washing of hands indicates his attempts to wash away his unethical dealings and tinges of guilt.
Dickens satirizes envy of the wealthy through ridiculous characters such as Pumblechook, who hypocritically flatters Pip only after he is a gentleman, and Mrs. Pocket who ignores her children, instead spending her time reading a book on social titles.