Illustration of Pip visiting a graveyard

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 515

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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 166

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,...

(This entire section contains 166 words.)

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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 social status and material possessions. He forgets who his true friends are. But when he finally learns the true origins of his wealth, he undergoes a profound and salutary reformation: sloughing off false values and returning to his old friends.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 295

  • Early 1800s: Workhouses were set up so that the poor and those who owed money had an alternative to debtors' prison from which there was no escape without paying the debt; this was almost impossible if the debtor were unable to work.

    Today: The poor are being urged off of social welfare programs and into "workfare," low-paying jobs that teach skills but do not pay a living wage.

  • Early 1800s: Child labor was used and abused by industry with long hours and unsafe conditions in the workplace, especially the mines. If children got sick, there was no medical care for them except from charities, such as London's Hospital for Sick Children begun in 1852 and supported by Charles Dickens.

    Today: Child labor laws are strictly enforced, and medical care for the poor is widely available since social reform laws were enacted in the United States in the mid-1960s.

  • Early 1800s: Since most of England heated homes and industry with coal and peat, air pollution was visible and lung problems were widespread. Pip notices the grime and soot on everything in his first impression of the city and wonders how people could choose to live in such a dirty place.

    Today: Air pollution, although not always visible in PCBs and ozone-depleting chemicals, is now one of our greatest global concerns. Continual research explores new methods of cleaner heat, from solar power to natural gas.

  • Early 1800s: Dickens supported and campaigned for public backing for the so-called "Ragged Schools" where poor children could receive some education. Despite their horrible conditions these schools were arguably better than complete neglect.

    Today: A modern belief in public education for all children owes much to such early reformers as Dickens since that education has shown to improve society for all citizens.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading