Charles Dickens was born in 1812. When he was twelve years old his father was imprisoned for debt and Dickens was sent to work. He received little formal education, but he taught himself shorthand and became a reporter of parliamentary debates for the “Morning Chronicle.” Throughout the Victorian Era, their resided a “social hierarchy” in the British society. At the top rested the aristocratic populace and at the bottom the lay the less fortunate; the poor lower classed background, that occupied the majority of the population at the time.
The bildungsroman, “Great Expectations” portrays the great escalation in the social hierarchy of a young lad named Pip as he progresses in his life, Starting as an orphan and apprentice blacksmith, his horizons are widened through contact with the upper classes. He strives to better himself and make that most difficult of journeys across the boundaries of class. The real reason that Dickens may have written this novel was not to portray the transformation and luck of one little boy, but to however show how the atrocious state that resided in the Victorian Era, with the high level of infant mortality and the appalling working and living conditions, Victorian England was not a very pleasant place to live. In this essay I will examine how the theme of class is developed through Pip’s visit to Satis House.
A viscous cycle of deprivation co-existed in the social order of Victorian England during the time of this novel. Sadly enough the protagonist Pip, is trapped in this cycle and has to endure a coarse lower classed life crediting his guardian Mr Joe Gargery the blacksmith. The ghastly education that was presented to the poor children of Victorian England is illustrated in “Great Expectations” with the help of the character Pip and his “school for the poor”. The Education that young Pip receives is offered by the ancient Mr Wopsles great aunt above her store. Through the course of the chapter we see that the level of education at the time of history was worryingly poor. Not only was there a deep exacerbation within the already exceedingly low education standards, the children were also accustomed to praising themselves, for being able to read the simplest of words, to further worsen matters, these simple words were not even spelt correctly by most! “Mi dear Jo I ope u r krwite well….”
This quote enforces the point which was made before that the standards of children’s education in lower class backgrounds are ridiculously low. Even the simplest words in the English dictionary are complex tasks for these children to do, furthermore even words such as “are” which in our time a mere 5 year old does not find little trouble writing, is a composite chore for the likes of the Victorian pre teens to do. This relates to the point that the children would follow the footsteps, of their parents/guardians regarding class, and has the same affect. This may not have been the case with Pip, if young Pips guardian, Mr Joe Gargery had, had an altered childhood, then the cycle may have been slightly different. The ironic aspect about Joe’s childhood was that, Joe’s father, a blacksmith also, would regularly hammer away at his own son (Joe) in a drunken rage, rather than the metal that was familiarized with the hammer or most blacksmiths. This prevented Joe to have a decent childhood as well as an education. we can see the extent to Joes illiteracy when Joe claims he accidently held out a prayer book upside down, which not only shows his unfamiliarity to words and letters, but that he is so illiterate he cannot even tell the right side up of a book!
In the opening scene of the novel, Pip is discovered sitting by his parents’ grave from which we learn that he is an orphan. From this perspective the reader can see just how far Pip will have to climb to achieve the status of a ‘gentleman’. In typical Bildungsroman style, our sympathies for the main character are aroused by the pathos of the scene. However, it is not all tears. There is also humour, for example, where Pip recalls his belief that his five brothers, “…had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.” The reader is lulled into a state of contemplative pity at the plight of the “…bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all.” This atmosphere is brutally shattered by the appearance of the escaped convict, a figure nevertheless more comic than truly terrifying, and one who will later help Pip achieve his dreams of social improvement. Thus, Dickens exploits the comedic as well as the tragic potential of the characters and settings in his writing to develop the theme of class. This is also evident in the visits to Satis House.
Pip only fully realises his lower classed lifestyle when he encounters the prominent Estella. Estella is the elegant, youthful, proud girl raised by Ms Havisham. Dickens juxtaposes the characters of Pip and Estella, by showing the two different worlds they coexist in and the different classes that occupy their worlds, Dickens also tries to symbolise their characters as the higher and lower class of society. Estella symbolises the superior class; this is shown through her beauty, wealth and the confidence that resolves inside her. The superior class is also epitomized through Estella’s name. The name Estella is of Latin origin, meaning “star”. This conveys the rare dazzling sight that Estella portrays through her name. Dickens may also have picked this name to deify the upper classed, and also to raise them to a celestial level to show the immense importance that was endowed upon the rich and aristocratic that presided in Victorian England. On the other hand, Pip however represents the lesser class, which is illustrated in his poor financial status, his scruffy appearance and unimportance in the world.
“Ah, but you see she don’t.” this quote enforces Estella’s commanding and strong headed nature, as she can make a grown man (Mr Pumblechook) stop. Not only commanding but Estella is also very confident with herself, “he calls the knaves, jacks, his boy!” “And what coarse hands he has! And what thick boots” she mocks Pip without even a second thought, this is because Estella is aware of her higher status, compared to Pips and knows that he can not tell her anything in his defence, furthermore Pip can not even mock her back as she is perfect in almost every way. This was typical in most aristocratic people at the time. Pips affection, knows no bounds for Estella, even through her constant mockery of Pip and the horrible manner in which she conducts around him, Pip still grows more affectionate towards Estella after every visit to Satis house.
Dickens has cleverly mimicked Pips desire for Estella reflecting his desire for the higher class status. This also links into the bildungsroman genre as Pip is wishes to grow in his social maturity, hence the higher status. I believe that Dickens also wished to mirror the higher status and lower status of Pip and Estella in another way also. Dickens wished to show the inferior class as children, “leaned my forehead on it and cried. As I cried, I kicked the wall.” Pip is acting as a child would and going in a crazed tantrum, which is also childlike, on the other hand however Estella is much more sophisticated just like an adult. The moment in which Pip realises his for the first time his poorly social background is when Estella mocks him. “I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very different pair” The attitude change towards his hands shows that Pip has realised and is now ashamed of his social status, in this quote the hands are used to symbolise Pips lower rank in humanity.
Miss Havisham is an old spinster who serves as a sort of analogue for her social class, detached, fearful and grotesque: “…an immensely rich and grim lady who lived in a large and dismal house barricaded against robbers, and who led a life of seclusion.” Her “up town” house has its windows bricked or barred up, she hasn’t washed for years and everything about her suggests death and decay. Satisfaction is one thing that most upper class people should have in common; the word “Satis” comes directly from this word and links directly into the novel, however the use of the word Satis is quite ironically inverted in this novel, this is because in the novel, Ms Havisham, occupier of Satis House is everything but satisfied! With the money to buy anything and everything one desires satisfaction is one aspect that should be a certainty, however with the aged Ms Havisham we see that money is not everything in life.
The passages describing Pip’s first encounter with Miss Havisham are among the most memorable of all Dickens’ portraits. She reminds Pip of a wax effigy or a skeleton, and the bridal dress she wears has faded to a sickly yellow. Vampire-like, she has never seen the sun. The clocks and watches in her room have stopped at twenty to nine. All of this we can read as a very damning comment on the upper class in general. Pips summoning to Satis House is due to an old woman’s last wishes before she meets her swift demise. Ms Havisham wishes to see a young child “play” before she dies.
Ms Havisham is a very commanding woman; she commands “go play” to Pip, Havisham is aware of her higher status and uses it to its full extent commanding the lower classed Pip because she knows that he may not say anything in defence or defy her. When Ms Havisham tells Pip to go and play cards with Estella he says he can play “nothing but beggar my neighbour.” The different card games symbolise the different classes, and because Pip only knows how to play one game, it may mean that he is only level one a scale of 1 to 10 in society, whereas Estella knows many more games meaning she has a much higher rating, hence the higher status, obviously though the number of card games linking to the class is all metaphoric. The card game also shows his inferior class, as the only card game he knows how to play is called “beggar my neighbour”. The name relates to Pips lower class as a beggar begs for money and food to survive, consequently resulting in a lower class individual.
Pip also explores the Dining Room of Satis house with the guidance of the old Ms Havisham. As Pip examines her Dining Room, he can see an old cake sitting in the corner of the room, rotting away as a corpse rots in its soil ridden grave. The visualisation of the cake symbolises death and decay, this is a reflection of the torn apart and putrefied heart of Ms Havisham after her unpleasant time being stood up at the alter of her wedding by her not loving fianc. Even with Ms Havisham’s higher class identity, she subverts the natural order of a high class aristocrat living in the time of Victorian England and adapts some aspects of a lower class citizen. Her skin, which should be a soft silky haven (which all rich peoples skins usually are, thanks to the highly expensive beauty care products), has turned yellow and saggy. This implies ageing of the body and un-cleanliness, which is very uncommon with a high class individual, and especially a woman, who in society is thought to be the cleaner of the two sexes. The death and decay which hovers above her home links her to the lower class also as there lived many deaths among the poor and lower classed citizens, also as I mentioned before their was a very high level of infant mortality at the time, which also links to the deathly atmosphere that wafts in the house of Satis.
Dickens contempt is not confined to the upper classes. He does not spare the lower classes either. Mrs Gargery is revealed in all her grasping obsequiousness. When Miss Havisham requests Pip’s presence, she immediately sees an opportunity for financial gain and at the same time can barely conceal her envy that Pip is invited and she is not. This is expressed in the way she handles Pip – she descends on him “like an eagle on a lamb” and scrubs him raw in preparation for his visit. But Dickens nevertheless finds more virtue in ordinary people than in their so-called social betters.
Through the novel Great Expectations, Dickens is passing along the message that the rich and upper class people are selfish and self absorbed. This can be perceived through the actions and reasons to why Ms Havisham raised the dashing Estella. Ms Havisham’s real motive for raising Estella and summoning Pip to her house is everything but saintly as it seemed like at first. Wanting to see a child play before she dies was just a ploy to draw in an unaware young boy to seek revenge on the men of the world for bringing torment and sadness in her life. She wanted to break Pips heart for just because of the dim actions of one man.
In contrast to Pips feelings inside Satis house, his feelings outside Satis House are no better. His shame and disappointment grow immensely as he thinks about his lower class lifestyle.
The relationship between Joe and Pip subvert the conventional relationship between a parent/guardian and their child. Even though Joe is Pips guardian he treats him more as a friend, he acts as he himself and Pip are the same age or the same class (even though they are both lower class Joe is an adult which makes him a bit higher class than Pip) they both get beat by the aggressive Mrs Joe and both help each other out. However this all changes when Pip becomes a young man, he receives a secret benefactor and with the money he receives he moves to London, which at the time, and still is a very high class area. With the change of scenery and the guidance of some, Pip becomes a respectable young gentleman, with a higher class status.
However with the arrival of Pips new higher status, Pip begins to adapt the vile and unwelcoming attitude that belongs to the majority of the higher class populace. Even Joe one of Pips closest friends, a man who is just like a father to him, now shames Pip due to his lower status. This returns back to the point that higher class people are self absorbed and look down on the lower class.
Biddy, the nice pleasant servant girl that worked in Mr Wopsles aunts store is also one of Pip’s close friends just like Joe. Even to Biddy he now feels detestation. He refers to her as clean and smart, however not beautiful but conversely that she is “common”. The word “common” is used to emphasise the fact that Biddy is like every other “lower class girl”, she is not special. On the other hand though, Pip says that Estella is the stunning young lady at Ms Havishams, who is more lavishing than anybody ever was and that he wishes to be a gentleman on her account, with the sole purpose of impressing her. Dickens deliberately juxtaposes Biddy and Estella to represent the two worlds Pip is torn between, biddy represents the working class world and Estella represents the higher class world.
The structure of the novel is closely related to the bildungsroman genre. The narration of the novel is done by first Pip as a child and lower class then later on in the novel by the much older Pip who is now evolved into a higher class gentleman. In the novel Dickens places great importance on the dialogue. He represents the problems of Victorian England through the characters rather than just telling us. An example of this is the high death rates the hovered over England at the time; Dickens represents this in the first chapter by showing the graves and referring to them as “tiny lozenges.” This shows that the graves had to be like tiny tablets to fit the bodies of all the people who have past away. Dickens also represents the high death by showing a gibbet in the fields. This shows that in Victorian England death was such a common thing that people would not mind a gibbet, a tool of death and destruction, out in the open fields.
I think the message Dickens was trying to pass on to the readers of this novel was that, much poverty existed in he world, and even though the rich and the poor lived so close together in the world, they lives were worlds apart. I think Dickens own life experiences informed this viewpoint. Just as Pip, Dickens lived both lower and higher class lifestyle. As a child he was poor and had to work for a living so he was able to experience how it was to live the life of struggle and poverty, however when he grew up he became a writer and had a higher class lifestyle being able to observe how close rich and poor lived, but with such different lives.
I think that Dickens had sympathy for the both the higher and lower class people. He had sympathy for the poor because they had to struggle to survive and had to work very hard for such things as money and food to feed the mouths of their families. Conversely I think he felt sympathy for the higher class also, he showed this through Ms Havisham and Satis House. We can see that he has sympathy for the rich as Dickens makes Satis House like a prison and Ms Havisham like a sad old hag that exists inside the walls of the prison, he is also showing the reader that even though she is rich and has money she is sad and imprisoned within her home and her sorrows, I think this is how many higher class people and families lives feel, so this is why he feels sympathy towards them.
The bildungsroman genre is a story in where a character grows up and has higher understanding of the world. Pip’s visit to Satis House fits perfectly into the bildungsroman genre, this is due to the fact that after Pips visit to Satis House he grows up, not necessarily in age but he grows up inside; he becomes more mature and also gets a higher understanding of his class and place in society. The Visit to Satis House also reveals that in this world, materialism is a very common trait that presides in the hearts of all individuals, hearts which can forget their closest friends and even family for a chance at an elevated class in life. Finally Dickens is also leaving his final message that you don’t need all the riches to become an ethical person leading a prosperous life. This is the thought that Dickens wishes is engraved in the minds of all who read the novel.