What are the main conflicts in Great Expectations?

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

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There are a number of conflicts that feature in this complex novel. One of the most important ones in my view, however, is the way in which the behaviour of gentlemen is contrasted with that of gentle men. Let me explain my point. Pip, from his very first visit to Satis House, thinks that becoming a gentleman, or a man of wealth and status in society, will be the answer to all of his worries and concerns. He becomes fixated on improving his position in life. However, what he fails to realise straight away is that having social status and money is not something that necessarily guarantees that you will behave in a good and proper way.

The novel contains plenty of examples of characters who defy Pip's understanding of what it is to be a gentleman. For example, if we examine the character of Compeyson, he is clearly an individual who is a gentleman but uses his position to profit himself and trick and cheat others. He is definitely not a gentle man, in spite of having all of the benefits of his position. In the same way, poor Joe is definitely not a gentleman, as his disastrous visit to London to see Pip and his inability to fit in shows. However, note with what grace and understanding he delivers his final speech before leaving Pip:

Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one man’s a blacksmith, and one’s a whitesmith, and one’s a goldsmith, and one’s a coppersmith. Diwisions among such must come, and must be met as they come.

The irony of this speech is that Pip, who is know a gentleman, has greeted his friend in a completely ungentleman-like manner. Joe, although he is clearly not a gentleman, responds with grace and forgiveness in a way that shows he is a true gentle man.

Dickens again and again illustrates through this conflict that having wealth and status does not necessarily make you a gentle man.

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