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Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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How do sociological problems in Great Expectations affect an individual's ambitions?

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In Great Expectations, Dickens portrays society as a prison. The title of the novel indicates this theme. People are confined to their social levels and those who try to rise or fall in the social spectrum meet with disaster. Certainly, a trope of Dickens is that society is a prison.

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The very title of Charles Dickens' novel strikes at the dilemma of moving from one's place in society in the Victorian Age:  Great Expectations . Certainly, a trope of Dickens is that society is a prison.  For, to rise from one's social status in nineteenth century London is a virtual impossiblity, as Dickens...

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demonstrates in Pip's efforts to become a gentleman.

Threading through Dickens's novel are various characters of different social levels who either aspire futilely to rise in their social class or they are "imprisoned" in their position in London society, whether it be upperclass or lower. For instance, Miss Havishamis as much a prisoner in her dungeon-like Satis House as poor Magwitch has been in the streets of London.  Each is exploited by others in attempts to reach happiness and quality to life.  When Miss Havisham is abandoned at the altar by the subterfuges of Compeyson and Arthur, she realizes that she has been stigmatized and, thus, imprisoned in her life as ineligible in her aristocratic society.  Magwitch, a gamin of the streets who subsists on whatever he can steal, perceives an opportunity to attain some money with the nefarious Compeyson.  However, he, too, is exploited both by Compeyson and by society when in his impoverished and dingy appearance he is summarily judged as being more criminal than the true criminal Compeyson, who passes himself as a gentleman.  Magwitch, then, is given a more severe prison sentence.

Attempts to alter one's social standing are not only portrayed in Great Expectations as insurmountable, but foolish.  The attempts of the sycophantic Pumblechook and the ludicrous Sarah Pocket are petty and inanely supercilious. Pumblechook suspiciously spies upon the other merchants who is turn eye him with envy.  His fawning to Pip after Mr. Jaggers's visit and his bragging for the newspaper that Pip reads at the Blue Boar that he is the mentor of Pip cast a laughable doubt upon his character.  Mrs. Pocket's continuous reading of a book about titles while her children tumble under foot or nearly choke to death demonstrate the superficiality and selfishness of her character, especially when she becomes angry and disdainful toward her servant who continually rescues the children from harm.

As a further example of the futility of rising from one's socialogical position, Dickens takes Joe Gargery from the forge where is a respected man to Pip's apartment in London where he appears foolish and awkward in his suit of clothes and hat.  Telling Pip that he will not return to London to visit, Joe expresses his awarenss of the folly of trying to be other than what one is,

"Pip, dear old chap, ....Wivwisions among such must come, and must be met as they come....You and me is not two figures to be together in London; nor yet anywheres else but what is private, and beknown, and understood among friends....I'm wrong out of the forge, the kitchen, or off th'meshes....

Pip remarks that there is a "simple dignity" in Joe for this realization:

The fashion of his dress could no more come in its way when he spoke these words than it could come in its way in Heaven.  While one's ambitions to rise in class are foolish, Dickens tells the reader, the character of a man in any sociological level, can possess a dignity apparent even by Divinity.

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How does Great Expectations highlight sociological problems in relation to an individual's ambitions?

What an interesting question! Thinking about it, the best way to tackle this question would be to consider how Pip is changed by his "great expectations," and in particular, how his relations with Joe are changed for the worst. A great chapter to analyse closely with regard to this would be Chapter 27, when Joe comes to visit Pip in London. This visit is full of humorous events, which at the same time are deeply tragic. Now that Pip has started living as a "gentleman," it is clear that the social distance between himself and Joe has increased exponentially. Even before Joe arrives, Pip reflects that if he could have kept Joe away by paying him, he would have.

Joe is clearly overwhelmed by the opulence in Pip's living conditions. As the meeting goes from worse to worse, the elder Pip, reflecting on his youthful follies, says:

I had neither the good sense nor the good feeling to know that this was all  my fault, and that if I had been easier with Joe, Joe would have been easier with me. I felt impatient of him and out of temper with him; in which condition he heaped coals of fire upon my head.

However, the message is completely clear. The wealth that has been responsible for allowing Pip to rise socially has separated him from those that love him best and his home. Joe's words in parting, which bestow upon him particular dignity and nobility, make the sociological implications of one man's rise to power clear:

"Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one man's a blacksmith, and one's a whitesmith, and one's a goldsmith, and one's a coppersmith. Diwisions among such must come, and must be met as they come."

Unfortunately, it seems, to rise socially creates divisions that are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to surmount. Social class, which is so closely intertwined with the possession of wealth, is shown to create different groups of individuals that have little, if anything to do with each other. This was, and is today, a profound sociological problem. However, it is great testament to Pip's maturity that he is able to bridge the gap between himself and Joe and Biddy by the end of the novel. However, interestingly, this is only achieved after the loss of his "great expectations." Money is not all it is promised to be.

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How does Great Expectations highlight sociological problems in relation to an individual's ambitions?

Disturbed by Victorian England's frivolous upperclass that had little concern for those less fortunate, and concerned for the welfare of the increasing number of poor in London, Charles Dickens perceived the society of his day as a social prison. 

The character who best illustrates this perception of Dickens is Magwitch, the convict, who grew up as a gamin in London:

Tramping, beggin, thieving, working sometimes when I could...a bit of a poacher, a bit of a laborer, a bit of a wagoner, ...a bit of most things that don't pay and lead to trouble, I got to be a man.

At Epsom races, Magwitch is exploited by the despicable Compeyson, who has Magwitch carry out the "traps" that Compeyson sets for others.  When they are caught and brought to trial, Compeyson stands in the dock as the picture of a gentleman, with his fine clothes and "white pocket handercher," but Magwitch appears as "a common sort of wretch."  And, even though Compeyson is much more culpable of the crimes since he initiated them, Compeyson's appearance of a gentleman along with his "counselor" bring him a lesser sentence than that doled to Magwitch.  Thus, there is a justice for the rich, and a justice for the poor in the Victorian setting of Great Expectations.

The past of Magwitch certainly haunts him his entire life.  When he goes to New South Wales and is fortunate enough to receive a fortune from his old employer, Magwitch can only enjoy it vicariously by sending money to Pip in the hopes of making him a gentleman.  For, he cannot uplift himself socially in any way.

In Pip's case, his great expectations of becoming a gentleman are foiled, for he is never introduced into London's "polite society."  Instead, he dines sometimes in the company of Mr. Jaggers, a rather unscrupulous lawyer who entertains men such as Bentley Drummle.  And, while Mr. Matthew Pocket is of the gentry, he lacks the financial assets necessary for entrance into the world of the upperclass.

Despite the attempts of characters to socially move upward,  Dickens's novel is haunted with images of jails and prisons as Mr. Pocket is imprisoned in a nonsensical marriage, Magwitch is an escaped convict, Miss Havisham resides in a self-imposed prison, and Pip has imprisoned himself in a belief that he has been supported by Miss Havisham so that he can marry Estella.

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Discuss the sociological problems in Great Expectations.

From a sociological point of view, there is much in Dickens' work that talks about the presence of money in one's life. The fact that Miss Havisham was abandoned by her suitor caused sadness.  His cheating her out of money causes her to be bitter about things, transferring this to Estella.  The stealing of food for Magwitch in the opening section of the novel reflects the condition of needing to steal food, a lack of resources dominating one's state of being in the world.  The industrialized context had caused a significant change in sociological reality, something of which Pip is a part in the context of the novel.  Pip recognizes the need to improve himself and his standing so that he is more economically viable in this setting.  Pip understands that the industrialized setting in which he exists is one where success is defined by money and the possession of material wealth.  This sociological condition is not one that Pip seeks to actively change, but rather a set of conditions that he seeks to appropriate.  In the end, I think that this becomes the sociological reality that surrounds Pip and a fundamental paradigm that Dickens critiques in the novel.

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