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Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens
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What does Pip learn about friendship in the novel Great Expectations, and how does Dickens show ways in which friendship can be affected by social class?

What Pip learns about friendship in the novel Great Expectations is that it is so much more important than wealth and social status. Through Pip's snobbery after he becomes a gentleman, Dickens shows that friendship can be distorted and undermined by social class. One only has to witness his snobbery towards Joe to see this.

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Initially, Pip is motivated by wealth and social status, and his perspective on friendship is accordingly warped. Desirous of the esteem of upper-class people such as Estella, Miss Havisham, and Mr. Pumblechook, Pip takes on the look and manners of a gentleman—and unfortunately, this includes a snobbish outlook on those in the lower classes, even those who morally surpass their so-called social betters in every way.

As the novel progresses, Pip learns true friendship transcends social class and is more reliant on love than anything else. A friend is someone supportive and loyal, traits that perfectly define Joe Gragery the blacksmith. Joe all but raised Pip after his parents died, providing the boy with the love that Pip's sister denied him. He is loyal, continuing to be there for Pip even when Pip treats him rudely due to his newfound snobbery. Biddy and Herbert are also positive models of friendship, displaying a kind, caring nature which Pip fails to appreciate until he's matured. Neither are rich or refined, but their positive qualities make them far better than the cold and cruel Miss Havisham or the contemptuous Pumblechook.

All of Pip's friends put up with his bad behavior, perhaps because they see what good there is in him despite his current ego-inflation. This might be another trait of Dickens's idea of a good friend: an individual who sees the best in someone even when they're at their worst.

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In Great Expectations, Pip ultimately learns that friendship should be based on mutual caring and the kindness that people display to one another. It takes him a long time to learn this lesson, as Dickens initially shows him to be extremely influenced in the friendships he forms by the social class of his “friend.” For instance, Pip looks down on many people who ironically belong to the same social class as him. He is embarrassed by his sister and brother-in-law Joe, yet Joe proves to be one of his most loyal friends. Pip is embarrassed at the relationship with Magwitch, but in another irony, it is Magwitch who tries to enrich Pip’s life financially. Pip looks up to Estella (her name means star, and people look up at the stars) partially because of her beauty and partially because he believes that she belongs to a social class to which he aspires.

In an era when social mobility was not as prevalent as it is today, the book is full of blurred social lines and artificial distinctions, which underscores Dickens’s message that true friendship is not based on social class. Examples of these blurred lines include Estella, who turns out to be the daughter of a thief and not a member of the upper classes to which Miss Havisham was born. Pip is the product of a working class family but pretends to be a gentleman in order to be accepted into a social class that is above the one of his birth. Ultimately, Pip learns to judge people and form friendships with them based on their actions, not their social class.

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In Great Expectations, Pip learns the hard way that friendship is so much more valuable, so much more important than the wealth and social status that he has craved for most of his life. The poor orphan growing up on the bleak Romney Marshes could be forgiven for thinking that all you need in life is to have lots of money and to be a gentleman, but as he eventually discovers—to his detriment—nothing could be further from the truth.

In the figure of Joe Gargery, Pip has a friend for whom most people would gladly give their right arm. His friendship with Joe is a source of great comfort and support and provides him with a firm moral grounding in life. But unfortunately, Pip's overwhelming desire to be a gentleman severely undermines this wonderful friendship. After Abel Magwitch gives him the means to lead the life of a young gentleman about town, Pip starts turning into a crashing snob, embarrassed about everything concerning his humble past, including his friendship with Joe.

Friendship is presented by Dickens as something enduring, something that transcends relatively unimportant things such as wealth and high social status. Unfortunately, though, Pip lives in a society in which these things are highly prized, and so it's very difficult, especially for someone like himself who's never been rich or privileged, to stay true to what really matters in life.

Thankfully, Pip's snobbery towards Joe and everything he represents proves to be an aberration. But for a time, it seemed that class consciousness was going to destroy the most important and enduring friendship that Pip has ever had, or ever will have.

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Pip learns not to base friendship on social class. Instead he learns to recognize that some of the best-hearted and most honest people in the world, the people who are his true friends, come from the lower classes.

Pip spends much of the novel driven by ambition, struggling to become a gentleman so that he can marry Estella. In the process, he snubs his true friend, the working class blacksmith and father figure, Joe. Pip is likewise horrified and, at first, embarrassed and unappreciative when he discovers that his secret benefactor, the person who set him up as a gentleman, is the rough convict Magwitch. As Pip journeys to maturity he comes to appreciate that the humble Joe and Magwitch, are, in fact, his true friends. He learns that it is not outward status that makes a friend, but the quality of a person's character. 

Through Pumblechook, Dickens shows how friendship can be affected by social class. Pumblechook treats the young Pip badly early on in the novel, for instance feeding him dry bread for breakfast while he, Pumblechook, dines well. Later, as Pip becomes successful and rises to become a gentleman, Pumblechook's manner changes to one of deference and kindness, and then, when Pip becomes poor again, to one of scorn. We see Pip affected as well by the English class system when he avoids Joe after his (Pip's) rise in social station, because he fears Joe wouldn't fit into his new, exalted world. 

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