Highlight the sociological problems in Great Expectations with respect to one's position in society affecting an individual's ambitions.

1 Answer | Add Yours

mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

The very title of Charles Dickens' novel strikes at the dilemma of moving from one's place in society in the Victorian Age:  Great Expectations. Certainly, a trope of Dickens is that society is a prison.  For, to rise from one's social status in nineteenth century London is a virtual impossiblity, as Dickens demonstrates in Pip's efforts to become a gentleman.

Threading through Dickens's novel are various characters of different social levels who either aspire futilely to rise in their social class or they are "imprisoned" in their position in London society, whether it be upperclass or lower. For instance, Miss Havishamis as much a prisoner in her dungeon-like Satis House as poor Magwitch has been in the streets of London.  Each is exploited by others in attempts to reach happiness and quality to life.  When Miss Havisham is abandoned at the altar by the subterfuges of Compeyson and Arthur, she realizes that she has been stigmatized and, thus, imprisoned in her life as ineligible in her aristocratic society.  Magwitch, a gamin of the streets who subsists on whatever he can steal, perceives an opportunity to attain some money with the nefarious Compeyson.  However, he, too, is exploited both by Compeyson and by society when in his impoverished and dingy appearance he is summarily judged as being more criminal than the true criminal Compeyson, who passes himself as a gentleman.  Magwitch, then, is given a more severe prison sentence.

Attempts to alter one's social standing are not only portrayed in Great Expectations as insurmountable, but foolish.  The attempts of the sycophantic Pumblechook and the ludicrous Sarah Pocket are petty and inanely supercilious. Pumblechook suspiciously spies upon the other merchants who is turn eye him with envy.  His fawning to Pip after Mr. Jaggers's visit and his bragging for the newspaper that Pip reads at the Blue Boar that he is the mentor of Pip cast a laughable doubt upon his character.  Mrs. Pocket's continuous reading of a book about titles while her children tumble under foot or nearly choke to death demonstrate the superficiality and selfishness of her character, especially when she becomes angry and disdainful toward her servant who continually rescues the children from harm.

As a further example of the futility of rising from one's socialogical position, Dickens takes Joe Gargery from the forge where is a respected man to Pip's apartment in London where he appears foolish and awkward in his suit of clothes and hat.  Telling Pip that he will not return to London to visit, Joe expresses his awarenss of the folly of trying to be other than what one is,

"Pip, dear old chap, ....Wivwisions among such must come, and must be met as they come....You and me is not two figures to be together in London; nor yet anywheres else but what is private, and beknown, and understood among friends....I'm wrong out of the forge, the kitchen, or off th'meshes....

Pip remarks that there is a "simple dignity" in Joe for this realization:

The fashion of his dress could no more come in its way when he spoke these words than it could come in its way in Heaven.  While one's ambitions to rise in class are foolish, Dickens tells the reader, the character of a man in any sociological level, can possess a dignity apparent even by Divinity.

We’ve answered 318,926 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question