What are Dickens's views on class and how are they portrayed throughout Great Expectations?

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Dickens had very complex views on class.  Unlike Austen and some of the other Victorians, his stories do not focus solely on the upper classes.  Normally there will be a poor character, or a character who is poor but becomes rich.  Even in The Pickwick Papers, his first published longer work, the wealthy gentlemen are satirized.

Great Expectations is Dickens’s best exploration of class.  He takes a young boy who wants to be a gentleman, and describes how he becomes one and how he essentially stops being one.  I have always found it significant that Pip does not earn his way to being a gentleman.  Dickens had no problem with people who work hard and become rich, as long as they don’t forget to be human once they are successful.

First of all, there are people of all social classes who are good or despicable in the novel.  Joe and Biddy are the typical sweet Dickensian poor, while Mrs. Joe is on the evil side.  Among the wealthy, Miss Havisham is the perfect example of dreadful wealth.  Other characters, like the Pockets, are in between.

The story of Bentley and Estella is a good example of Dickens’s views on class.  Estella was raised rich, even though she came from poverty.  She is corrupted by Miss Havisham, who came from wealth.  She finds herself with the thoroughly dreadful Bentley Drummle.  Both of them are spoiled by being raised rich.

Magwitch is the self-made man.  He works hard, and sets aside everything he makes for Pip.  He also gets a fresh start.  So what we see here is the selfless gentleman, a person who uses his wealth to help others.  He is not representative of most of the society class.

“I am instructed to communicate to him,” said Mr. Jaggers, throwing his finger at me sideways, “that he will come into a handsome property. Further, that it is the desire of the present possessor of that property, that he be immediately removed from his present sphere of life and from this from this place, and be brought up as a gentleman—in a word, as a young fellow of great expectations.” (ch 18, etext p. 97)

The most complex example is Pip himself.  He starts out poor, then inherits enough money to become a gentleman.  In learning to become a gentleman he does no work, and spends money without thinking about it while playing around the rest of the time.  He becomes ashamed of his past and his family.  It is not until he realizes where the money came from, the true story of Estella, and loses everything that he becomes humble and comes to his senses.  He seems to spend the rest of his life in between.  He has some skills and does some work, but he is not a member of the upper class and he is not poor.

Pip’s rise to gentleman is mostly out of his hands.  He is manipulated by both Miss Havisham and Magwitch.  Pip does not want to be poor.  He tells Biddy.

“I am not at all happy as I am. I am disgusted with my calling and with my life. I have never taken to either since I was bound. Don't be absurd.” (ch 17, enotes etext p. 89)

He wants to be a gentleman to marry Estella, not in order to be rich for its own sake.

 

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