Great Expectations (1861) is a classic example of Victorian literature of the nineteenth century. Written by Charles Dickens, an outstanding British writer and social critic of that period, it is a thought-provoking novel that explores the themes of social class and standing, personal development, crime, and punishment. Being identified as a novel of education (Schmid, Matthias) by many scholars, the novel follows the life of Pip, an orphan of low social standing, from his childhood to maturity, and dwells on the problems of Victorian-era society and the life of people belonging to different social classes in it. The title of the novel in itself is quite telling, as it reflects the main character’s desire for self-development and the achievement of his expectations about life. After reading the book, I understand why Great Expectations is considered to be one of the most excellent examples of English literature. Dickens’s command of the English language, as well as the way he masterfully describes the reality of Victorian England with its ups and downs, is extremely efficient and difficult to compare.
The book reads like an autobiography. Pip, the main protagonist, recounts his life from youth to adulthood, describing the way he grows up and develops as an individual and what factors such as the class system and his views and ambitions contribute to the changes in his thinking and his life. Adult Pip, writing the story of his life after many years, gives evaluation to everything his younger self-does: “As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones” (Dickens, Charles). Such subtle commentary throughout the whole book gives the reader a chance to see the story from multiple perspectives and see a clearer picture of the ideas Dickens intended to convey in his novel. At the same time, Dickens, in his known manner, frequently addresses the reader in his novel directly: “Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day”(Dickens, Charles). From my point of view, this is an excellent manner of writing. The reader instantly feels connected to the story and can reflect on the way Dickens’ ideas and the conception of the world can be applied to the present time.
The novel, to a great extent, reflects Charles Dickens’ own life. As a child, due to his father’s imprisonment and general financial issues, he was forced to work in a firm which produced boot blacking (Paroissien, David). It was a work young Dickens resented and wanted to get away. He strived to receive a good education and satisfy his ambitions gaining success in a big city. The year he spent at Warren’s Blacking had a significant impact on him and, subsequently, the characters depicted in his books. Dickens drew attention to the hard lives of poor and neglected young people, who attempted to survive and reach success in the harsh society of the Victorian era (Paroissien, David). “In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, and there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.” (Dickens, Charles) Pip, the main character of Great Expectations, is a vivid representation of such poor young child. Coming from a simple background and growing up, as a child, under the care of his oppressive sister and her husband, a village blacksmith, he longs to leave the mediocre life of a commoner in the country behind him, and become a gentleman of high social status in the bigger society.
Social class is a central theme in the novels of Charles Dickens. He addresses a view of the society and the roles of individuals in it, characteristic of a Victorian-era England – the one which suggests that people’s identities are determined by their origins, particularly by the social class they are born into (Iversen, Anniken). In Great Expectations, he proves that it is not so. Throughout the whole novel, through different characters in different situations, the reader finds out that the Victorian beliefs of what society is supposed to be like are entirely unrealistic, and everything is actually upside down. The characters, who represent the high society, such as Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter Estella, do not display the features pertaining to people of nobility. Miss Havisham is described as a woman in a wedding dress and only one shoe on her foot, “withered” and with “sunken eyes” (Dickens, Charles). Pip, describing Miss Havisham, compares her to a wax-work and a skeleton, thus, creating a controversial image of a noblewoman. Her aristocratic status, however, is not hereditary, but, rather, caused by her wealth. In Dickens’ time of writing the novel, the Industrial Revolution made middle classes powerful and promoted massive reforms (Hayfaa, Ahmed). From the elitism of birth, the notion changed to that of elitism of individual worth, placing first the “deserving,” and not the “well-born” (Morris, Pam). The major topic of dominant discourse at this time was the concern with wealth and its prominent display (Morris, Pam). Thus, many characters, central in Dickens’ novels, not having been born to the aristocracy, gain it by business and trade. In Great Expectations, Pip himself is groomed to become a gentleman through the support of Magwitch, a convicted criminal, rough and uneducated.
Later on, he assist his friend financially in setting up his business. Estella is a young lady at first, brought up by Miss Havisham to as revealed with the story’s progression, turns out be of a humble background, even more so than Pip. Such characters oppose nobility in the novel as Magwitch, Biddy, Joe and Mrs. Joe. Biddy, who is a complete opposite to the elegant and aristocratic Estella, is a simple, kind girl. Joe, who Pip sees only as an uneducated blacksmith, similarly has a kind heart. Dickens masterfully uses such instances of deep irony to depict the real society of the nineteenth century and teach his readers that the class system is an illusion. As in his other novels, he encourages reforms by “reviving the conscience of the age” (Hayfaa, Ahmed). One can only conclude, from reading the novel, that social standing does not define the character and the identity of a person, but, rather, oppresses the individual and undermines his chances of self-development.
Great Expectations touches upon the opposition of expectations and reality. Ambitions of a person born into poverty and lack of education are met with the harsh reality of the social order. Despite trials and tribulations, mistakes and humiliation, Pip’s aspirations and yearning for greatness do not let him give up in his pursuit of the aristocracy. Upon learning to read, books become his way of escaping the dull reality of his country life. He views his ability to read as a sign of his “moral superiority” (Bloom, Harold). He chooses to forsake his origins, family, and friends, as believes that for him life can be a lot more exciting and respectable. He resents his relations with the people in the village. His sister, Joe, Biddy – in his young age, he treats these people coldly due to their simplicity and lack of literacy. He blames his unrefined brother-in-law for his own perceived inferiority: “I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too.” (Dickens, Charles) However, from the words of Pip who narrates the story, it is clear that later on, he feels guilt for his treatment of Joe, who evidently cared for Pip: “Afterward at quiet times when I sat looking at Joe and thinking about him, I had a new sensation of feeling conscious that I was looking up to Joe in my heart” (Dickens, Charles).
Lastly, the novel focuses on the idea of redemption through trials and suffering. By the principles of the novel of education, “only by reappraising his values can a hero enter upon his final stage of maturity” (Schmid, Matthias). In the novel, the characters eventually change their perception of the society they live in. Time and life teach everyone a lesson. Miss Havisham deeply regrets her way of bringing up Estella and playing with her and Pip’s feelings. In turn, Estella admits that suffering has been “stronger than all other teaching” (Dickens, Charles). Pip comes to regret many decisions and choices he made as an ambitious young boy, seeing as his high hopes and great expectations went largely unmet. He also must “atone for the evils of the society that has corrupted him,” by giving away his unearned wealth (Hagan, John).
In Great Expectations, Dickens brings to the forefront the issues caused by the class system: the social roles imposed upon the people and the consequences which the societal preconceptions can lead to. It also shows the evolution of a person’s beliefs and way of thinking. It is a story of a lifetime spent trying to mold one’s identity according to the rules dictated by society. I believe that this book is an excellent source of wisdom for people of different age, social standing or education. It dwells upon the truth of human relations and gives a thought-provoking perspective on the role of class distribution in a person’s life. “I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into better shape”(Dickens, Charles). This quote efficiently reflects one of the many lessons which, to my mind, should be drawn from this exceptional novel. Life presents a person with a set of trials, and the expectations we create for ourselves do not always coincide with the actual reality. Dickens shows the reader that everything that happens changes the person for the better or, the worse, and that eventually, one has to strive for greater self-understanding through continuous learning and thought.
Bloom, Harold. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens. Infobase Publishing, 2009.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Washington Square Press, 1981.
Hagan, John H. “The Poor Labyrinth: The Theme Of Social Injustice In Dickens’s “Great Expectations.”” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol 9, no. 3, 1954, pp. 169-178. University Of California Press, doi:10.2307/3044305.
Hayfaa, Ahmed. “Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations As A Bildungsroman Novel.” International Journal Of Research In Humanities And Social Studies, vol 4, no. 5, 2017, Sryahwa Publications, doi:10.22259/ijrhss.0405001.
Iversen, Anniken. “Change And Continuity: The Bildungsroman In English.” UNIVERSITY OF TROMSØ, 2009.
Morris, Pam. Dickens’s Class Consciousness. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 1991