During the nineteenth century, British society was dominated and ruled by a tightly woven system of class distinctions. Social relations and acceptance were based upon position. Charles Dickens utilizes Great Expectations as a commentary on the system of class and each person's place within it. In the character of Pip, Dickens demonstrates the working class' obsession to overthrow their limitations and re-invent new lives. Dickens also uses Pip and various other characters to show that escape from one's origins is never possible, and attempting to do so only creates confusion and suffering. Ultimately Dickens shows that trying to overthrow one's social rank is never possible; only through acceptance of one's position is any semblance of gentility possible.
The novel opens with young Pip in front of the graves of his father, mother, and brothers. Having never known his parents he derives information from their tombstones; "[t]he shape of the letters on my father's, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man with curly black hair" and "[f]rom the character and turn of the inscription, 'Also Georgiana Wife of Above,' I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly" (23; ch. 1). He is left alone without a clear sense either of his parentage or position in life. This, he says, is his "first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things" (24; ch. 1). A small boy surrounded by vast land, wind, and sea; his world is a harsh and unfriendly one.
In his book Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels, J. Hillis Miller states:
Great Expectations, like most of Dickens' novels, does not begin wi...
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... feel the need to overthrow their limitations. The need to rise above their position proves to be a false one. Magwitch will always be the convict and Pip will always be the orphan boy. No matter how hard one pretends in society, there is no turning away.
Dickens' use shows that reaching too high above one's self only leads to a sense of loss and pain. One can never transform oneself into something else without leaving a visible trace behind. It is only when one comes to terms with one's position and cultural background that one can find peace.
Brown, James M. Dickens: Novelist in The Market-Place. Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1982.
Gold, Joseph. Charles Dickens: Radical Moralist. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1972.
Kirk, Neville. Labour and Society in Britain and the USA. London: Scholar P, 1994.
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