In one respect, Great Expectations is a social satire that criticizes the social justice of the Victorian Age as well as the fawning admiration of the rising middle class for what he perceived as a frivolous aristocracy.
- In Stage I, the pompous Uncle Pumblechook exemplifies the sycophantic gestures and actions of the merchant towards the upperclass as he affects a superior attitude toward Pip, always chastising him to be grateful "to them which brought [him] up by hand."
- Then, when he and Mrs. Joe are told that Miss Havisham has asked for Pip to call at Satis House in order to play with her ward, the two act in a ridiculous manner. Mrs. Joe scrubs Pip unmercifully, and while he stays with Uncle Pumblechook in town the night before his visit, Pumblechook quizzes Pip in number functions while he parsimoniously gives the boys some meager bread and butter to eat.
- Later on, after Pip is visited by Mr. Jaggers and receives his great expectations, Pumblechook speaks respectfully to Pip, shaking his hand, and he wishes Pip, "the joy of money."
- When Pip returns from his visit at Satis House, he fabricates a tale of the afternoon's events, describing the carriage in which Miss Havisham sat and waved little flags and then swords as they "hurrahed." Nevertheless, his sister is impressed with his descriptions.
Two other different instances of satire, but they are again social criticism, that occur in Stage I:
- Pip as an orphan is mistreated. But, humorously, Dickens names the switch with which Mrs. Joe batters Pip "The Tickler." Frequently, too, Mrs. Joe is said to have brought Pip up "by hand," a phrase on which Dickens lays a satirical double entendre.
- Biddy, too, is exploited by her keeper; Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt runs a school, but it is the orphan child Biddy who teaches Pip his numbers and letters. And, poor, exploited Biddy is also made to do many other chores.
Satire is defined in the English dictionary as a noun that “uses the use of humor, exaggeration, ridicule, and irony to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.”
Great Expectations is considered to be Dickens’ best novel because of its use of satire, and the way he sheds light onto what he deemed the reality of the times. Satire is spread throughout the first part of the novel, including how he describes society.
Satire is especially prevalent within the families of the novel. During the Victorian time period, men were at the heads of families. They were not challenged by women. In Great Expectations women take on domineering roles, sometimes even emotionally scarring their men. For example, Mrs. Joe runs her home. Those around her fear her. This is more satire on society, rather than satire over the families of the time.
One example of family satire is how Dickens named the cane Mrs. Joe uses to beat Pip. It’s referred to as a “tickler” cane, despite it being a painful object of torture.
If you’re looking for examples of satire, look to the characters first and foremost. Uncle Pumblechook is a perfect example of Dickens’ use of satire. He is one of many characters that add satire, to lighten the mood, and also show Dickens’ negative feelings towards those that should use someone else to benefit themselves. This is done through showing how Pumblechook criticizes, makes fun of and generally does not like Pip, until it’s clear that for Pip there are, “great expectations.” Suddenly, Pumblechook notices his nephew-in-law and begins “helping him.”
Other great examples of characters of “higher breeding,” with satirical attitudes are Mrs. Havisham, and Estellas. Examples of satire are found easily in Estella’s quotes to Pip. This is a girl who should be of well manners, but she says things like, “You must know I have no heart- if that has anything to do with my memory.'" (Pg. 235)