Dickens’s Great Expectations was written in the Victorian era. During these times there was a lot of poverty, but many poor people grew to be rich and upper class through hard work and determination. These people however, had to work really hard to get to this position, and they also had extremely difficult lives, especially the children. Most children had to work as hard and as long as their parents did. The common view of these children was that they were to be seen and not heard, therefore this lead them to have hard and gruelling childhoods, as they received no respect from their elders. Dickens experienced this same hardship as a young boy, and his childhood relates to the early days in Pip’s life.
Dickens immediately creates sympathy for Pip, (the main character), by putting him amongst the graves of his parents:
“,my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones.”
This creates sympathy for Pip as he was an orphan. Not only was he an orphan, but he did not have any recollection of the faces of his parents. He uses, (in a very naï¿½ve way), their tombstones to create a mental image of them for himself. Dickens may also use this to gain sympathy for himself, as his childhood relates to Pip’s. The way in which he wrote this section is eloquent and far too intellectual for a young child. This shows perhaps, looking back on this incident he adopted a narrative style that depicted that of an older man.
Another moment in Great Expectations when the young had to suffer is in Pip’s home. This is when he is under the scrutiny of Mrs Joe Garjory, his sister:
“”Churchyard!,” repeated his sister. “If it wasn’t for me you’d have been in the churchyard long ago, and stayed there. Who bought you up by hand?””
This shows the Victorians lack of respect towards their children. They were the lowest members of the family having little or no rights at all. These children were made to work long dangerous hours, illustrated greatly in another of Dickens’s novels, Oliver Twist. The Victorian reader would feel great sympathy for Pip being helpless at the mercy of Mrs Joe Garjory. He did not wish to live with her, but as she stated he could live without her. Pip is trapped in this uncomfortable situation, and cannot escape it. Ambiguously it is also humorous, even though this was a horrible thing to say, she was, incidentally being sarcastic as he obviously could not have survived without her. However, her sarcasm was to induce sadness not humour, in Pip.
Despite some frightening plot lines, and the twisted evil inside certain characters, Great Expectations shows a great deal of humour in Pip’s reaction to various situations and predicaments:
“”Where you mother?”
“There sir!” said I.
He started, made a short run, and stopped and looked over his shoulder.”
Even though this is a scary situation, as Pip’s life is at risk, Dickens still manages here to add humour, as Pip says that his parents are in the graveyard with him and the criminal, Able Magwich. This is true, depending on how you look at it, as they are really corpses buried just six feet below them. Also, the way that Able Magwich reacts to what Pip say is humorous, as he is fearful and tries to run from what he thinks are living persons. Even more ironic is that evil Able Magwich, easily able to kill Pip, has been made a fool of by Pip himself.
Another moment in the book that is funny is a situation where Pip is in danger. This describes Mrs Joe Garjory’s partner in pain, the Tickler:
“I twisted the only button on my waist-coat round and round, and look in great depression at the fire.
Tickler was a wax-ended piece of cane, worn smooth by collision with my ‘tickled’ frame.”
Firstly this dreadful stick or cane that was used to whip and punish Pip had such an ironic name: Tickler. This is humorous, as to be tickled is a pleasant thing, an action causing laughter, smiling and general fun. Yet this horrible cane did exactly the opposite. Even the sound of the cane evoked wickedness and caused terror in its victim. Dickens’ clever use of personification makes the Tickler sound like Mrs Joe Garjory’s stereotypical evil sidekick. Also, the way Pip describes it as being “worn smooth by collision”. Pip is quite funny in an abstract way, by saying that this evil stick has been used so often on him that he has begun to “defeat” the Tickler by taking away its edge. Furthermore, he says that his body is “tickled” by the constant beating from this stick. Such a serious offence as child beating is described just to show the kind of people that some Victorians were. It also highlights again their lack of respect for the younger generation. They would have justified these dreadful actions as a form of discipline rather than abuse.
A typical reader of the newspaper that Dickens would have released Great Expectations in would have been a wealthy city dweller. The people in the middle and upper classes were fascinated by stories about country folk or tales about people living with crime and poverty. A moment in the book that would have appealed to this Victorian readership was Dickens’ description of the marshland:
“…pick his way among the nettles, and among the brambles that bound the mounds.”
The appeal to the upper class Victorian reader would have been the description of the rural surroundings that probably were alien to them. It’s doubtful that there would have been much vegetation due to the Industrial Revolution at this time in history. During the revolution many factories were constructed. All factories and residential homes were heated by burning coal. The bi-product of burning this fossil fuel was smoke. Consequently this produced huge amounts of pollution, i.e. smog, in most urban cities in England. This made London or any other large city a bleak and unhealthy place to live. The majority of the urban population did not travel to the countryside for an annual holiday, as we do now. Thus, the only way they could escape the bleak urban life was to read about it in a novel, such as Great Expectations.
Dickens’s character Mr Joe Garjory, a simple country blacksmith would also appeal to the Victorian reader:
“Joe was a fair man, with curls of flaxen on each side of his smooth face, and with eyes of such a very undecided blue.”
This short description of Joe Garjory would be appealing as he sounds very simple and rural, a stereotypical country blacksmith. The reader would be used to seeing the extremes of the very rich and the very poor, as are the characters in the novel. The rich dwelled in huge elegant houses, had many servants and consumed the most extravagant food, thus looking generally content. Whereas, the poor had to work very long hours for little pay, ate barely enough to keep their malnourished bodies standing. They lived in small cramped homes usually alongside noisy polluting factories. These people would have been considered to be unhappy by the reader, but in rural England people were poor yet happy and content in their simple existence, as Joe is in the book. To the bourgeois middle class reader this would seem extremely alien.
As previously stated, crime fascinated the Victorians. In most books and stories criminals were often shown as inhumane monsters, with nothing but hatred and greed, (Jack the Ripper and the character Bill Sykes from Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist, are good examples). Able Magwitch appears this way in the early chapters of Great Expectations:
“You fail, or you go from my words in any particular, no matter how small it is, your heart and your liver shall be torn out, roast, and ate.”
This portrays Magwitch as an evil selfish man, and certainly a monster to fear! The way in which Dickens writes that Magwitch isn’t concerned how small his heart and liver are, therefore not much of a meal. He would still rather murder poor Pip, and gain the gratification of killing Pip and feasting on his heart and liver. The way in which Magwitch describes how he will make a feast, (“roast and ate”) of poor Pip’s heart and liver, adding another twist to his already devilish character. Magwitch is no longer a mindless monster, but rather an evil human being. If he were to be a mindless monster, it would be doubtful that he would bother cooking Pip’s heart and liver, he would probably just eat Pip’s flesh raw, more like an animal. Since he is cooking Pip’s organs this portrays Magwitch, a step above that of an animal. This depravity in Magwitch’s psyche would appeal even more to the Victorian reader as an evil and detestable character.
After Dickens’ has described in the novel this horrible figure of Magwitch, he then goes on to describe in contrast to Magwitch, another character:
“, in comparison with which young man I am an Angel”
An angel is considered to be one of the most pure and holy beings in our universe. They sit at God’s side, pure and irradiating God’s holiness. However Magwitch, the ‘child eating’, psychotic murderer is implying that in the company of this “young man”, he is as innocent as an angel. Furthermore, the stereotypical opposite to an angel is a devil. Therefore, it could be seen that the other man is perhaps the devil in human form and Magwitch in contrast, is Pip’s guardian angel, guiding and protecting him though his ‘valley of darkness’. Ironically, this could reflect an event further on in the novel. Magwitch helps Pip through the darkness of his poverty in the countryside, and delivers him into the lightness of the city’s riches. He also saves him for the clutches of Magwitch’s enemy.
During this period in English history, women tended to have little rights. In many ways they seemed to be ‘owned’ by their husbands, thus being considered as property of their husbands. However, in Great Expectations Dickens’ seems to defy this particular station for a woman, as illustrated in the character of Mrs Joe Garjory:
“She must have made Joe Garjory marry her by hand.”
This quote contradicts the down trodden woman, implying that Mrs Joe Garjory was in control of her husband’s actions. In reality the men would choose their wives, thus leaving little choice for the woman concerned. Also a woman would never have dared to lay a hand on her husband for fear of divorce. If a woman were to be divorced by her husband there would have been little chance of a second marriage. Finding herself in this position, society would have shunned her and left her to fend for herself. The only positions of employment offered to such women were: maids, servants, seamstresses, or factory workers. As a result of these low paid jobs, she thusly found herself facing a life of poverty. It was uncommon to find an unmarried woman who was independently wealthy, unless they were widowed. An example of a wealthy widow is the character of Mrs Haversham, a strong female in the novel.
However, though Mrs Joe Garjory was a strong domineering woman, she seems to slip into a stereotypical female role:
“always a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two loops, and having a square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full over pins and needles.”
This is Pip’s description of his sister. The description explains that she falls into the role of a housewife. She wears an apron as standard day wear and the coarseness of this apron reflects her starchy personality. Also the “impregnable bib” she has at the front of her apron signifies her role as a strong woman. The “pins and needles” could symbolise her subservient role in her household, showing that no matter how hard she tries to control her husband she is still regarded as his property, i.e. being expected to darn his socks using the symbolic pins and needles. Despite this, her character could still be attractive to the Victorian readership as she could either be despised as a villain, or liked and respected as a strong woman in the novel.
During the Victorian era Britain became a dominant empire in the world and owned most of India, Canada, Australia and many other small countries. Many people in Britain at this time were able to start up businesses and experience monetary success at the expense of others. Hard work was associated with a righteous soul, and consequently would aid their passage to heaven in the afterlife. Though Mrs Joe Garjory was as sharp as nails, and as tough as the hammer that hits them, she is a hard working cleaner:
“Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”
This highlights again, the fact that Victorians believed that hard work lead to godliness. Her incredible hardworking nature portrayed her as almost holy. This would gain her respect from the Victorian reader. Even though she is a bully towards her husband and brother, she works to her absolute best. This would have lead to a great deal of respect from the reader and maybe they may have felt sympathetic towards her during confrontations between herself and her family.
Dickens has used all these aspects to entice and intrigue the readers of his story. However, he was also a good political and controversial writer. Mr Disraeli, (British Prime Minister, at the end of the 19th Century), even read some of his work in the House of Commons. Dickens died in 1870. He left behind great morals and stories that the Victorians could learn a great deal from. One moral extracted from his work could be that you cannot spend your whole life regretting what has happened and what hasn’t, as in Miss Haversham’s case. She locked herself away in her house because someone had broken her heart. She remained a recluse until the day she died. At the end of the book, Estella,(mourning her mothers death), locks herself in the house also. Pip becomes her rescuer and thus history does not repeat itself!