Characters in the novel represent different classes and illustrate the wide gulf between the classes in Victorian England. The most damaging effect from an awareness of the separation between the lower and middle classes occurs when Em’ly runs off with Steerforth. Em’ly is quite aware of the difference between her class and David’s when he first meets her. When David notes that both of them are orphans, she calls his attention to one important difference: she tells him, “your father was a gentleman and your mother is a lady; and my father was a fisherman and my mother was a fisherman’s daughter.” By this statement, Em’ly means that her antecedents worked hard to maintain a minimal standard of living, while David’s parents had some measure of inherited wealth. Even at such a young age, Em’ly understands how money can radically affect one’s life. Later, when she hopes to become a lady by marrying Steerforth, she is forced to realize how entrenched economically based prejudices can be. Mrs. Steerforth blames her for the situation, insisting that any association with Em’ly would “ruin his prospects.”
David is also aware of class divisions and is distressed when he faces the possibility that he will never regain entry into the middle class. When he goes to work in the warehouse with his new associates there, he reveals “the secret agony of [his] soul, claiming, “[M]y hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man [were] crushed in my bosom,” and he is left broken-hearted. He does not associate with the other boys at the warehouse, thinking them beneath him. When David’s fortunes change, he enjoys his status as a gentleman and is desperate to keep people from knowing how poor he had once been.
David’s attitudes toward the lower class, however, are much different from the Steerforths’. Peggotty becomes his surrogate mother and the other members of her family his good friends. He even falls in love for a time with Little Em’ly, never considering that a match with her would be unacceptable. Yet he does maintain and reinforce class divisions when he never corrects Peggotty and her family when they refer to him as “Master Davy.” Dickens appears to have mixed feelings about class consciousness as he has David maintain some distance from the Peggottys, but he portrays this family with an honesty and goodness of nature that is lacking in many upper-class characters. His attitude illustrates the progressive yet cautious attitude that was emerging in the more liberal circles of Victorian England: an effort to narrow the gap between the classes, but not to close it entirely.
Criticism of Social Institutions
The novel attacks social institutions Dickens viewed as unjust and cruel. The first is the boarding school system that permitted sadistic men, like Creakle, to be in charge. No one checks his power or tries to stop his cruelty; as a result, the children under his care are tormented physically and emotionally. Dickens also highlights the abusive situation that can result in the home where the man holds all power over the household, and no law or agency can be exerted on behalf of a wife or child. No one rebukes Murdstone for his tyranny over David and his savage beating of him. Even after David’s mother dies,...
(The entire section is 847 words.)