Great Expectations Dickens judges his characters not on social position or upbringing but on their treatment of one another
Character, class and social status in Great Expectations
The world in which Charles Dickens wrote was one in which class and social status was a determining factor in establishing the quality of an individual's life. Social status was an element of nineteenth century society, like the legal system, that Dickens continually exposed and criticized in his novels. Dickens allows our judgment of his characters to be determined by actions and relationship rather than by social standing or appearance. In essence, the understanding and assessment of the characters in this novel depends on separating appearance from reality. Social status is no guarantee of good character and this aspect is explored in the various relationships in Great Expectations. The final judgment of character lies rather in the evidence of their morality and compassion for others.
Class ands status were important structural elements of the nineteenth century social system and in all of his works Dickens reveals the disparity between the appearance of class and status and the reality of practical morality and behavior. It is often the case, but not always so, that those who are highly placed and esteemed in societal terms are often lacking or flawed in essential human characteristics, such as kindness and compassion.
The emphasis on social class and status is synonymous not only with nineteenth century England but has its roots deeply imbedded in British cultural history since 1066. The Norman Invasion of Britain created a sense of class that was to dominate English society. "When the Normans defeated the Saxons, they took their lands, their castles, and their country. From that day to this, this fact has governed the mind-set of "Society" in Great Britain. www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=24386221" (Newlin 31)
This led to a sharp division between those who owned the land, the aristocracy, and the working classes.
Since the Normans lived high and the Saxons lived low, it was naturally the case that the Normans did not "work" for their living. They did work hard, but they worked at playing: hunting deer and wild boar, hawking, jousting, dueling, and riding to hounds. The best of them also worked at governing some of the time. The Saxons tilled the soil, watched flocks and herds, waited on table, and washed floors. Therefore, by definition and pervasively, for centuries after the Norman conquest one who "worked" was descended from the defeated; one who did not work was presumptively descended from the victors. Living on land and the rents from it necessarily imported this latter presumption; hence, it was fundamental to have status in the world, that one be perceived as not having to engage in trade or commerce, let alone having to work with one's hands, or even one's brains as a day laborer, a bricklayer, a blacksmith, or a teacher. "Gentle" comes from the Old French gentil, and there it is, in a nutshell.
It is this sense of social snobbery and class distinction that is the underlying factor in the society that Dickens continually exposes in his novels, and particularly in Great Expectations. The affect of class distinctions, enforced by pecuniary differences, also relates to much of the author's personal history and to his father's failures that haunted him and influenced his novels. The associations of his personal life to Great Expectations are well-known: "We believe Dickens envisioned Pip as being just his age, as there are many details in the novel that are lifted word for word from his autobiographical writings, and the descriptions of the marshes, the gibbet, the hulks, the river, and Satis House seem to come from his childhood recollections. On this theory, Pip signed his indentures for the blacksmith's trade in 1826, at the age of fourteen, if the normal pattern was followed www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=24386222" (Newlin 32) And, as Carlisle states "Great Expectations is an obviously, but not often directly, autobiographical novel." (Carlisle 5)
However, probably the most relevant aspect of the autobiographical background of the novel is the central theme of status and class and the search to become a 'gentleman'. This can be seen in the figure of Dickens's father who "was immortalized in the character of Mr. Micawber in his most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield. Sociable, generous, and friendly, John was ambitious to rise in society and be a "gentleman," and in Chatham he had acquired such a status. Unfortunately though, he was also like Mr. Micawber in wanting to live beyond his means and keep up appearances, the cause of most financial disasters."
Pip's evolution into understanding
The idea of being seen as a gentleman is a predominant theme and symbol of status in the society of the time. This concept of distinguishing oneself as a gentleman and gaining the acceptance by society by means of one's elevated social standing was further also complicated by the rise of the industrialized British middle class and their assumption to power and status through earned wealth. This status could be achieved not only through character or breeding but also through wealth and could in effect be 'bought' in what has been termed "The idea of class as one of removable inequalities." (Carlisle 7)
Against this complex background Pip is led into relationships with a wide range of characters representing different class stereotypes and different interpretations of the term 'gentleman'. Throughout the work Dickens reveals the often sharp disparity between those who claim high status and position and those who actually deserve that status.
One of the central characters in the novel, who reveals the inability of social ideas of class and status to determine the quality of the individual, is Joe Gargery. The relationship between Joe and Pip, as well as the ensuing relationships that Pip has with Miss Havisham and Estella, provides an overview of the central thesis of this paper; namely that appearance of high social standing is not always a good criterion for the judgment of character.
Joe is a gentleman in essence, or at heart, but not in fact. He is the "true gentleman at heart." However, in the novel Dickens deliberately distinguishes between Joe, a "gentle Christian man" and the "true gentlemen in manner," such as Matthew and Herbert Pocket. www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=15308781" (Glancy 129) Essentially Joe is a good person and "like most wholly good people in literature and life, such as Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin (the Idiot), Joe is foolish and unsophisticated in comparison with the more worldly characters. He has a childlike clear-sightedness' like Hans Andersen's boy who sees that the emperor has no clothes: On seeing Pip's grand new London residence, Joe comments, "I wouldn't keep a pig in it myself -- not in the case that I wished him to fatten wholesome and to eat with a meller flavor on him" (218). (ibid) As a child, Pip sees Joe as his equal but during the course of the novel he "loses his sense of 'looking up to Joe'; only when he recovers it, does he become a "gentleman."
While Joe is in many ways a simpleton and only a blacksmith, his lowly status also serves to emphasize his qualities of kindness, generosity and steadfast morality. One of the first descriptions of Joe firmly establishes this positive perception of his nature. This foundation is important in the structure of the novel as it is a baseline from which we measure the actions and reactions of the other characters in the novel. Joe's character also acts as a measure of Pip's own moral and emotional growth towards becoming a true 'gentleman'.
Joe was a fair man, with curls of flaxen hair on each side of his smooth face, and with eyes of such a very undecided blue that they seemed to have somehow got mixed with their own whites. He was a mild, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easy-going, foolish, dear fellow -- a sort of Hercules in strength, and also in weakness. (Carlisle 28) The relationship between Joe and Pip is warm and natural without any pretension and provides the basis for Pip's later development.
In our already-mentioned freemasonry as fellow-sufferers, and in his good-natured companionship with me, it was our evening habit to compare the way we bit through our slices, by silently holding them up to each other's admiration now and then -- which stimulated www.questia.com/PM.qst?action=getPage&offset=1&docId=96985202us to new exertions. To-night, Joe several times invited me, by the display of his fast-diminishing slice, to enter upon our usual friendly competition; but he found me, each time, with my yellow mug of tea on one knee, and my untouched bread-and-butter on the other. (Carlisle 30)
It is important to note how the disarming innocence of this relationship is contrasted with the attitudes of the other characters that Pip is to meet.
The personal evolution and journey that Pip makes as he encounters the world of Miss Havisham, Estella and the city of London is central to the meaning of Great Expectations. The moral…