Great Expectations Historical and Social Context
by Charles Dickens

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Nineteenth century England had flourishing cities and emerging industries. Machines made it possible for those with money to invest to earn great profits, especially with an abundance of poor people who were willing to work long hours at hard or repetitive jobs for little pay. By contrast, the rural system included landlords, farmers, and common laborers who owned no land. In this rural system that had existed for centuries, those without land had no hope of bettering their lives: once in poverty, always in poverty. These hopeless poor moved to the city on the dream of making their own fortunes; it was usual for working class families to send young children off to the factories for twelve-to fourteen-hour shifts or longer. Child labor laws would not be enacted until the 1860s.

Meanwhile, children and women were ideal workers because they did not form labor unions, and were easily intimidated, beaten, or fired if they protested against an employer's mistreatment. School attendance was a luxury reserved for the children of parents who could afford to pay private tutors in addition to the family's loss of income from a child's labor. The first publicly funded elementary schools were not established until the 1870s, when the demand for skilled laborers increased. The idea of high schools did not receive England's public support until the turn of the century, after Dickens' death. Meanwhile, the labor-saving machines that were to make a few people's fortunes earned many others little more than bad health or early graves.

The new money caused new needs. Prior to the nineteenth century, banking had been left to businesses and was fairly informal, by reputation. Since there had been little money to exchange, except by a well-known few, there had been little need for that service. The Bank of England had been established in 1694, but it dealt mainly with government projects. Industrialization changed that, and banking houses became more numerous as a middle class emerged. New businesses needed to borrow money, and the rapid production of goods for a growing economy promised new wealth for both borrowers and lenders. That is how Pip found employment for his friend, Herbert Pocket, who later hired Pip.

Obviously, not all who turned to the city for fortune found it. There were workhouses and debtors' prisons for those who failed to achieve their dreams of advancement. Those shut out from that promise lived in misery and often turned to crime. Since money was made in the city, the rise in criminal activity appeared there. As the number of jobless residents increased, so did the number of smugglers, pickpockets, thieves, and swindlers. Those with enough money to escape the soot and dangers of London, began to build up the towns, as we see in Wemmick's choice of address. Only the outlying country folk stayed much the same as they had for centuries, and we see Pip's travel is either by stagecoach or on foot. That was normal until the 1860s when the railroad finally connected the country to the city and the past to the new age of the machine.

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Dickens treats a variety of social issues in Great Expectations—prejudice, materialism, social status, and class— in a sensible manner that the teacher, librarian, and parent will undoubtedly applaud. The author's presentation of these issues offers young readers an understanding of social situations, guidance for their future roles in society, and a vision of the "good life."

Pip is the vehicle selected for transmitting social values. After a series of mistakes, he perfectly exemplifies the achievement of maturation and proper adjustment to society. At first, Pip is presented sympathetically as a poor orphan boy. But when transformed into an English gentleman, he adopts many unpleasant traits. He becomes a parasite on society, useless, snobbish, and indolent. He thinks of the "good life" primarily in terms of...

(The entire section is 976 words.)