What is Charles Dickens' message in Great Expectations?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Dickens conveys his message through the experiences of his main character Pip, who is young, intelligent, and impressionable. Pip learns several hard truths about life, all of which may be considered part of Dickens' message. Pip's "great expectations" are all disappointed. He learns that money cannot buy happiness and certainly cannot buy love. He learns that the fine ladies and gentlemen who seem to lead such enviable lives of leisure and refinement are really mostly pretenders who contribute nothing to society and who are incapable even of supporting themselves; they are parasites who prey on the humble people of the world, people like Magwitch, Joe Gargary, and Biddy. He learns that old friends are the best friends and that real love is a rare and precious thing. He learns that the kind of people he admired and aspired to associate with are often selfish, cruel, avaricious, hypocritical, and corrupt.

Leo Tolstoy developed a comparable opinion about the upper classes in his later years and decided that he could no longer write about their motives and problems as he had done in War and Peace and in Anna Karenina. In his later fiction, such as "How Much Land Does a Man Need" and "What Men Live By," he writes about peasants and laborers.

Dickens saves his most compelling scene in Great Expectations for his magnificent Chapter 39. Pip has become a gentleman of leisure and has acquired some education. Dickens characteristically begins with a description of the setting.

It was wretched weather; stormy and wet, stormy and wet, mud, mud, mud, deep in all the streets. Day after day, a vast heavy veil had been driving over London from the East, and it drove still, as if in the East there were an Eternity of cloud and wind.

Pip is shown wearing a dressing gown, sitting in a comfortable armchair in front of a warm fire, reading a book. Out of this terrible storm appears the escaped convict Pip had assisted when the wretched man was hiding in the marshes. Pip's world is turned upside town when he learns that Magwitch, and not Miss Havisham, has been responsible for making him a well-to-do gentleman of leisure. Magwitch represents the dark reality of the world. He is the one who made Pip a gentleman, and people like Magwitch are the ones whose toil and suffering are the underpinnings of all the world's fine ladies and gentlemen. It has to be that way, according to Dickens: For every person who has too much, there must be one or more who has too little. Poor Magwitch does not even realize how he and the people of his social class are abused and exploited. He admires gentlemen with their fine clothes, fine lodgings and fine manners, and he is pleased and proud that he personally has created one of these gentlemen himself.

"Yes, Pip, dear boy, I've made a gentleman of you! It's me wot has done it! I swore that time, sure as ever I earned a guinea, that guinea should go to you. I swore afterwards, sure as ever I spec'lated and got rich, you should get rich. I lived rough, that you should live smooth. I worked hard that you should be above work. What odds, dear boy? Do I tell it fur you to feel a obligation? Not a bit. I tell it, fur you to know as that there hunted dunghill dog wot you kep life in, got his head so high that he could make a gentleman--and, Pip, you're him!"

Pip had considered himself infinitely superior to people like Magwitch, and he is horrified to realize that Magwitch made him what he has become--a parasite, a fop, and a snob.

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Great Expectations

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