Illustration of Pip visiting a graveyard

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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Student Question

How does Great Expectations portray money and societal belonging from a New Historicism perspective?

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New Historicism attempts to understand what a text tells us about currents of thought at the time it was written. From this approach, Great Expectations can be seen as a commentary on the rise of new types of wealthy English people and their attempt to emulate the manners and education of gentlemen and gentlewomen.

When Pip mysteriously comes into his fortune, he is working as a blacksmith's apprentice in Kent. After receiving his money, he travels to London and attempts to turn himself into a gentleman by dedicating himself to studying the classics, learning how to eat properly, and largely abandoning himself to idleness and sports such as rowing. However, while he becomes more learned, he never really feels like a gentleman, and when his money runs out, he returns to Kent and to feeling more comfortable alongside Joe, the kind but unlearned man who raised him. Using the approach of New Historicism, the reader can understand that Dickens is critiquing the ability of the new industrial classes from outside London to transform themselves into gentlemen. The reader can infer that the new classes were seen as ungentlemanly and that people at the time thought that money only gave the newly rich a veneer but did not truly turn them into people who belonged in the nobility.

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