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Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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How does Charles Dicken's Great Expectations challenge the views on gentlemen in society and how does this relate to William Shakespeare's Macbeth?      

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In Dickens' day, gentlemen inherited their wealth or expectations from another wealthy person in the upper classes of society. This wealth then freed these men for further education or leisure pursuits. Gentlemen were considered superior to others in the culture, particularly laboring men. Laboring men were crude; gentlemen were refined, at least in the popular mythology. 

Dickens upsets this idea in Great Expectations by having a convict, Magwitch, provide the money that enables Pip to live as a gentleman.Pip is horrified and ashamed when he discovers his money has come from Magwitch. Magwitch tells him, "I lived rough that you might live smooth; I worked hard that you should be above work." This exposes what is usually hidden: that upper class wealth comes from the hard labor of people who live in rough conditions.

Pip can no longer feel proud of being a gentlemen, knowing where his money comes from, but Dickens' story suggests the following question: where does any gentleman's money come from? Do gentlemen have any right to believe they are superior when they are living on the backs of the labor of other people? Are they really the "gentle men" in society? Dickens, a self made man who became rich through the work of writing best-selling books, had little patience with the superior airs of those with inherited wealth and does his best in this novel to expose the hollowness of their snobbery. In Great Expectations, the best men, Joe and Magwitch, are unpretentious laborers who work for a living. Dickens shows the true gentlemen to be persons of character like them, not the people with inherited wealth.

Great Expectations illustrates that it is better to be a simple unpretentious person who cares about others than an ambitious wannabe gentleman like Pip. Likewise, Macbeth shows the dangers of violating moral codes that bind people together in loyal and trusting relationships. Macbeth's ambitions cause him to do terrible things that violate what real kingship is. Both Pip and Macbeth mistake the outward shell of a desired status for the inward traits that make, in one case, the real gentleman, in the other case, the real king. 

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