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Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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Discuss Dickens' role as a social critic in Great Expectations.

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In what has been acclaimed his best novel, Charles Dickens, who was a strong advocate of social reform, attacks several aspects of his Victorian society in Great Expectations:

  • The plight of orphaned and abused children.

Both Pip and little Biddy are orphans who are mistreated. Pip often suffers from the lashings of Tickler at the hands of his sister, Mrs. Joe, who resents having to raise him. Biddy, a ward of Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt, is little more than a servant, with her tangled hair and torn dresses. She works in the little general store of this aunt, keeping accounts of all merchandise sold. At other times, Biddy fills the role of servant, as well. In the great-aunt's story, it is Biddy who actually teaches Pip in the great-aunt's school. 

  • Abuses in the legal and penal systems

Soon after he comes to London, Pip learns that there is a justice for the rich and a different one for the poor. As he waits for Mr. Jaggers, he looks around at the people waiting outside the barrister's office. Mr. Jagger's asks these clients if they have paid Mr. Wemmick, and exhibits no sympathy for them.

"Oh, yes, sir! Every farthing."
"Very Well. Say another word--one single word--and Wemmick shall give you your money back.

Further, he simply dismisses them if they cannot pay his fee.

Perhaps, the most defining instance of the inequities of the Victorian system of justice exists in the history of Magwitch--who was a product of poverty and forced to steal to keep from starving--and in the story of the trial of Magwitch (the wretch of the streets) and Compeyson, a supposed "gentleman." Even though Magwitch has been guilty of lesser crimes, he has been given the severest of punishment, while the designer of the crimes, dressed in fine clothes, has been dealt a lesser sentence.

  • Social class privilege and snobbery

One of the best examples of the snobbery of the upper class comes from the attitude and the words of Estella when she is told to play with Pip: "...with this boy! ...he is a common-labouring boy!" (Of course, the irony is that Estella is the child of two lower class criminals).

The relatives of Miss Havisham are always disdainful of Pip, worried that he may be given money by Miss Havisham. 
Even Pip falls into the attitude that the rich are somehow superior: When he learns that Miss Havisham is not his benefactor--a woman who is so eccentric that, were she not rich, she would be ridiculed--and that Magwitch is, Pip is repulsed and appalled.

That social privilege and snobbery is exalted in Victorian society is lampooned by Dickens in Chapter XXIII in which the ridiculous Mrs. Pocket spends all her time trying to locate an aristocrat as an ancestor while her children tumble over her feet, nearly swallowing dangerous items, with the maid rescuing them from accidents.

Also, within the element of farce are the thespian ventures of Mr. Wopsle who fancies himself a Shakespearean actor after he moves to London and aspires to elevate himself.

  • The adulation of a rising middle class for a frivolous aristocracy

Uncle Pumblechook best exemplifies a fawning middle class that aspires to be associated with the rich, who are unconcerned with the conditions of poverty and poor health and crime in their country. 

When Pip receives his wealth, suddenly Uncle Pumblechook likes Pip and tries to take credit for Pip's rise in social class as he has an article printed the local paper.

  • Alcohol abuse

Orlick, who is representative of the dangers of drunkenness in Chapter LIII, attacks Pip with a hammer at the old sluice-house. In drunken ramblings, Orlick tells Pip that he knows Compeyson and that he was on the stairway on the night Magwitch appeared at Pip's. Pip cries out just as the drunken Orlick, taking a swig of liquor, picks up a hammer to attack with, but Herbert and others intervene to save Pip. 

 

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With particular reference to Great Expectations, discuss how Dickens uses the novel as a vehicle for social criticism.

Dickens was a social critic of several aspects of his Victorian society:

The plight of abandoned, abused children

Great Expectations depicts little Pip and the orphan Biddy as often mistreated. Mrs. Joe physically and verbally abuses Pip, and Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt makes little Biddy works in her small general shop keeping accounts of all that is sold.  In other areas, too, Biddy acts as the servant.

Inadequate education

Dickens perceived educational institutions of his time as unconcerned with intellectual improvement or care, finding them instead mere institutions where profit was to be made in the housing of children.  At Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt's school, the woman is incompetent and the children learn virtually nothing.  It is Biddy who teaches Pip how to read and figure.

Alcohol abuse

Orlick represents the dangers of alcohol abuse as in Chapter 53,he attacks Pip who enters the old sluice-house.  There, Orlick accuses Pip of coming between him and a woman he fancied.  Also, in drunken ramblings, he tells Pip  of his connections to Compeyson and that he was on the stairway the night Magwitch arrived. Vowing revenge, Orlick calls Pip his enemy.  Fortunately, as Pip cries out when Orlick takes a swing of liquor and picks up a hammer, Herbert and some other men rescue him.

Social snobbery

Pip's first two visits to Satis House introduce him to the elitist attitudes of a frivolous upper class.  Passing through the gate outside  held by Estella, Pip hears, "Why, he's a common labouring boy!" as Estella mocks his coarse hands and boots and his vocabulary, such as calling knaves jacks when they play cards. With irony, Dickens points to the importance of mere appearance as Estella herself is not upperclass, but has merely been adopted by an aristocrat, and a decaying, eccentric one at that. 

Satire in his criticism of this aspect of Victorian society appears also, as Dickens portrays Uncle Pumblechook's sycophancy in his efforts to advance himself socially. Farcical is Sarah Pocket's supercilious treatment of her servant who must constantly save her children who tumble dangerously underfoot or with scissors as their vacuous, oblivious mother sits continuously reading from a book on social titles as though she were among the aristocrats mentioned.  Further, within the element of farce are the thespian ventures of Mr. Wopsle who fancies himself a Shakespearean actor.

Hypocrisy and selfishness

The "basest of swindlers," Pumblechook is the greatest hypocrite in the novel.  While using only cruel words to Pip until Pip's social rise, in Chapter 28 Pumblechook boasts to the local newspaper of Pip's social success, crediting himself as Pip's "mentor."

The Pockets, "toadies and flatters," appearing each year at Miss Havisham's birthday really just hope the eccentric will die so they can receive inheritances.

Abuses of the legal and penal system

The unscrupulous Mr. Jaggers bespeaks of a corrupt justice system in which clients who cannot pay are not served.  Often he operates outside the law, such as cautioning Pip not to say his benefactor's name or mention anything about his being in London.  Only Wemmick who visits Newgate Prison displays any concern. Magwitch, who as a gamin of the streets, forced to steal to eat,victimized by unjust system, receives a graver sentence than the evil Compeyson simply because Compeyson's appearance is that of a gentleman.

 

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