Illustration of Pip visiting a graveyard

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens
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How does Great Expectations highlight sociological problems in relation to an individual's ambitions?

A good question and one that is quite focused. Well done. You are correct in saying that the problem of social class and the division it creates is highlighted in the novel, particularly between Pip and Joe. However, I would like to suggest to you that there is another way of looking at this problem and that is to see it as a problem of nostalgia. The word "nostalgia" comes from the Greek: nostos (homecoming) + algia (pain). This pain arises from the pain of longing for home or for something lost. The feeling has been described as a combination of depression, sadness, emptiness, yearning, wistfulness and homesickness.

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What an interesting question! Thinking about it, the best way to tackle this question would be to consider how Pip is changed by his "great expectations," and in particular, how his relations with Joe are changed for the worst. A great chapter to analyse closely with regard to this would...

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What an interesting question! Thinking about it, the best way to tackle this question would be to consider how Pip is changed by his "great expectations," and in particular, how his relations with Joe are changed for the worst. A great chapter to analyse closely with regard to this would be Chapter 27, when Joe comes to visit Pip in London. This visit is full of humorous events, which at the same time are deeply tragic. Now that Pip has started living as a "gentleman," it is clear that the social distance between himself and Joe has increased exponentially. Even before Joe arrives, Pip reflects that if he could have kept Joe away by paying him, he would have.

Joe is clearly overwhelmed by the opulence in Pip's living conditions. As the meeting goes from worse to worse, the elder Pip, reflecting on his youthful follies, says:

I had neither the good sense nor the good feeling to know that this was all  my fault, and that if I had been easier with Joe, Joe would have been easier with me. I felt impatient of him and out of temper with him; in which condition he heaped coals of fire upon my head.

However, the message is completely clear. The wealth that has been responsible for allowing Pip to rise socially has separated him from those that love him best and his home. Joe's words in parting, which bestow upon him particular dignity and nobility, make the sociological implications of one man's rise to power clear:

"Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one man's a blacksmith, and one's a whitesmith, and one's a goldsmith, and one's a coppersmith. Diwisions among such must come, and must be met as they come."

Unfortunately, it seems, to rise socially creates divisions that are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to surmount. Social class, which is so closely intertwined with the possession of wealth, is shown to create different groups of individuals that have little, if anything to do with each other. This was, and is today, a profound sociological problem. However, it is great testament to Pip's maturity that he is able to bridge the gap between himself and Joe and Biddy by the end of the novel. However, interestingly, this is only achieved after the loss of his "great expectations." Money is not all it is promised to be.

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Disturbed by Victorian England's frivolous upperclass that had little concern for those less fortunate, and concerned for the welfare of the increasing number of poor in London, Charles Dickens perceived the society of his day as a social prison. 

The character who best illustrates this perception of Dickens is Magwitch, the convict, who grew up as a gamin in London:

Tramping, beggin, thieving, working sometimes when I could...a bit of a poacher, a bit of a laborer, a bit of a wagoner, ...a bit of most things that don't pay and lead to trouble, I got to be a man.

At Epsom races, Magwitch is exploited by the despicable Compeyson, who has Magwitch carry out the "traps" that Compeyson sets for others.  When they are caught and brought to trial, Compeyson stands in the dock as the picture of a gentleman, with his fine clothes and "white pocket handercher," but Magwitch appears as "a common sort of wretch."  And, even though Compeyson is much more culpable of the crimes since he initiated them, Compeyson's appearance of a gentleman along with his "counselor" bring him a lesser sentence than that doled to Magwitch.  Thus, there is a justice for the rich, and a justice for the poor in the Victorian setting of Great Expectations.

The past of Magwitch certainly haunts him his entire life.  When he goes to New South Wales and is fortunate enough to receive a fortune from his old employer, Magwitch can only enjoy it vicariously by sending money to Pip in the hopes of making him a gentleman.  For, he cannot uplift himself socially in any way.

In Pip's case, his great expectations of becoming a gentleman are foiled, for he is never introduced into London's "polite society."  Instead, he dines sometimes in the company of Mr. Jaggers, a rather unscrupulous lawyer who entertains men such as Bentley Drummle.  And, while Mr. Matthew Pocket is of the gentry, he lacks the financial assets necessary for entrance into the world of the upperclass.

Despite the attempts of characters to socially move upward,  Dickens's novel is haunted with images of jails and prisons as Mr. Pocket is imprisoned in a nonsensical marriage, Magwitch is an escaped convict, Miss Havisham resides in a self-imposed prison, and Pip has imprisoned himself in a belief that he has been supported by Miss Havisham so that he can marry Estella.


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