What are the advantages and disadvantages of progress, individual or collective? How is this demonstrated in the character Pip of Great Expectations?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Through his characterization of Pip, Charles Dickens illustrates his own terror of poverty in an industrial/materialistic society that in its progress trapped the poor in wretched circumstances which embroiled them in the legal system, making them victims of social injustice and part of the dark underbelly of this industrialization. This system created a materialism that denied the true values of love and friendship.

Indubitably, Charles Dickens was a major voice in decrying the social ills of England's industrialization in many of his works. In Great Expectations, his major focus is upon the negative effects of Pip's material prosperity and materialism in general--his "great expectations"--namely, that for Pip the goal of material prosperity is gained at the expense of human and spiritual values. Certainly, this focus is demonstrated through Pip's character development and certain themes:

  • Social Consciousness

As a youth, when Pip goes to Satis House to play with Estella, he first becomes conscious that he is "a common laboring boy," who is considered "coarse" and far beneath the beautiful ward of the wealthy Miss Havisham. And in the hyperbole of characterization of Miss Havisham, Dickens illustrates the ridiculousness of those fawning relatives and the middle class Pumblechook who envy her because of her social class and money.

When Mr. Jaggers appears, announcing that Pip has "great expectations," Pip is elated, believing if he becomes a gentleman, he can win the heart of Estella and live happily his entire adult life. He begins to feel that social class and money are important values.

  • Materialism

Money becomes for Pip the most important factor to his becoming a gentleman and what he perceives as a better person, at least one who is perceived as better than others. As a personification of this false value Bentley Drummle, whom even the materialistic Mr. Jaggers points out as a brute, is tolerated only because he is a member of the upper class, and Pip finds this brutish fellow a rival for the love of Estella.

That money matters to Mr. Wemmick and Mr. Jaggers is evinced by Wemmick's mouthing of "portable property" so often, and his collection within Newgate Prison of the valuables from those condemned to hang. Certainly, Jaggers's abrupt rejection of anyone as a client who has not paid the necessary fees points to the importance of money. Thus, Pip perceives on his first day in London that men and women are exploited because of their lack of money at the expense of spiritual values. 

Further, those without money, Pip learns from Magwitch's history of his life, must steal or starve, so they end up embroiled in the legal system which provides one type of justice for the rich and another for the poor. This gap has grown wider with the "progress" of the Industrial Revolution that traps such "gamins" as the child Magwitch, an orphan who grew up in the wretched condition of the London slums, Pip learns. In fact, Pip himself even becomes embroiled in this legal system of London after Magwitch dies.  Since Magwitch has been an convict sent to New Zealand and forbidden to return to England, even if freed, his appearance in London breaks the law and his property can be seized by the government.

  • Material Prosperity vs. the Expense of Spiritual Values

This theme is satirized by Dickens with the wife of Matthew Pocket, Pip's tutor. Obsessive in her search for a title of nobility in her family that will raise the Pockets in social status, the ridiculous Mrs. Pocket reads a book of titles, oblivious to the dangers into which her children become situated as the baby crawls under her skirts and nearly devours a nutcracker. The maid must continually rescue one child or another while Mr. Pocket stands helplessly pulling his hair at the top of his head. Ironically, however, Pip watches this mayhem, but does not grasp its significance. 

For, Pip abandons his one true friend, Joe, after Joe's embarrassing visit in London after Pip arrives because of his attire and behavior. After this incident, Pip eschews any encounters with Joe when he travels to visit Estella at Satis House, which is not far from the forge. It is not until Pip is injured rescuing Miss Havisham from a fire and Joe comes to nurse him that Pip becomes aware of his selfish, materialistic values. He returns to the Forge as the prodigal son, begging forgiveness of the loving, unselfish Joe, who simply replies with his inimitable phrase, "Ever the best of friends, eh, Pip?"

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Great Expectations

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