What role does social class play in Great Expectations? What lessons does Pip learn from his experience as a wealthy gentleman? How is the theme of social class central to the novel?
The divisions created by social class in Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, is an integral theme throughout the book. The actions and philosophies that one lives by throughout the book are driven specifically by social status. Pip, as well as other characters, demonstrates social class and how it changes relationships and roles. The role of social class also changes one’s identity and association to others.
Social class is the driving force in Great Expectations.This occurs specifically because of Pip’s decision to change his social class through training and education for a woman of a different social status. His decision to become wealthy and to become a ‘gentleman,’ as opposed to being a blacksmith, is the foundation in his change of class and identity. The identity that Pip chooses then divides him from others that are in his class, including his family and friends, and develops into continuous internal conflict of Pip’s identity as well as external conflicts of those that interact with him (Newey, 2003).
While the driving force of Pip and other characters is defined by the identity of social class, it also develops the lesson of the main character. Pip learns that being a wealthy gentleman, despite his motivation, does not bring happiness. He also realizes that, no matter what class one is in, it does not make one better or worse in character. He states, “here you has afore you, side by side, two persons as your eyes can separate wide; one the younger, well brought up… one the elder, ill brought up… which is the worst one?” (Dickens, 2008, 325). Quotes such as these show that Pip learns how the character of a person does not equate to social class that they believe one is in and only creates division through the identity that one associates with.
The realizations of Pip are supported by other characters who make similar statements and take actions based on social class. This creates a central theme of social class, where each character points out their roll in the class as well as how it changes the outcome in one’s life and their expected actions (Cheadle, 2001). It also shows divisions between each individual, where friends and family become divide. For instance, after Pip becomes a proper gentleman, he speaks to Joe, who now seems ‘ordinary’ to him. Joe states,
“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. Divisions among such must come, and must be met as they come” (Dickens, 2008, 420).
This is an example of how social class creates the natural division of characters that remains central to the novel.
The overall role in the novel is followed by Dickens continuously pointing out different types of social classes to complicate the theme. For instance, in the first chapter, two entrepreneurs, a military member, a criminal, parish clerk and artisans are shown with specific actions as well as contrasting characteristics. This is used to show the conflict and anatomy of social class and how it develops the boundaries that one identifies with throughout the book (Hagan, 2009).
As seen from Great Expectations, identity and social class are one of the central themes that create conflict and division among characters. It remains a central role in identifying who the characters are then creating further relationships based on the identity of class. When seeing this in Pip, one is able to note how he changes specifically because of his identity in social class. However, he also realizes that it is a superficial role, simply to create division and which cannot bring happiness. Through Pip’s realizations and changes, there is the ability to highlight the concept of social class and how it leads to actions, characterization and reactions among those in the book.
Cheadle, B. (2001). “The Late Novels: Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend.” Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens. UK: Cambridge University.
Dickens, Charles. (2008). Great Expectations UK: Cambridge University.
Hagan, John. (2009). “The Poor Labyrinth: The Theme of Social Injustice in Dicken’s Great Expectations.” Ninteenth Century Fiction (9), (3).
Newey, Vinvent. (2003). The Scriptures of Charles Dickens. UK: University of Leicester.
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