What Criticisms of 19th Century Life Is Dickens Making in the Novel Great Expectations?

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What criticism of 19th Century Life is Dickens making in the novel Great Expectations?

Charles Dickens wrote the novel Great Expectations in 1861.He originally wrote it as weekly instalments for a magazine called ‘All the year round.’ In the novel he criticised many things about 19th century life, for example, the importance of being a gentleman and social status, crime and punishment, childhood and last but not least the role of women.

Charles Dickens was born on 7th February, 1812, and spent the first nine years of his life living in the coastal regions of Kent. Dickens’s father, John, was a kind and likable man, but he was hopeless with money and piled up tremendous debts throughout his life. When Dickens was nine, his family moved to London and when he was twelve, his father was arrested and taken to prison for unpaid debts. Dickens’s mother moved his seven brothers and sisters into prison with their father, but she arranged for the young Dickens to live alone outside the prison and work with other children pasting labels on bottles in a blacking warehouse. Dickens found the three months he spent apart from his family highly traumatic. Not only was the job itself miserable, but he considered himself too good for it, earning the contempt of the other children. After his father was released from prison, Dickens returned to school. He eventually became a law clerk, then a court reporter, and finally a novelist.

Many of the events from Dickens’s early life are mirrored in Great Expectations, which, apart from David Copperfield, is his most autobiographical novel. Pip, the novel’s hero lives in the marsh country, works at a job he hates, considers himself too good for his surroundings, and experiences material success in London at a very early age, exactly as Dickens himself did. In addition, one of the novel’s most appealing characters, Wemmick, is a law clerk, and the law, justice, and the courts are all important components of the story.

In Victorian society, a gentleman was a person of upper or middle class. Usually, one was born into being a part of the gentry as it was almost impossible to move up the social hierarchy. Being a part of this elite sector of the class system is what Dickens explores and in doing so exploits the ambiguity of the term ‘gentleman’ and the complications as to what makes a man become gentleman.

One of the major criticisms of 19th century life in the novel is the need to distinguish between social prestige and moral worth. Dickens explores this theme by questioning ideas about the nature of a gentleman. Pip is central to this theme, as he represents the link between the social classes. He is the village boy who becomes a 'gentleman' with the help of a criminal.

However, the contrasting view given through Herbert Pocket and his father shows us that ‘no man who was not a true gentleman at heart, ever was, since the world began, a true gentleman in manner.’ Although Herbert has very little money, he is unquestionably a gentleman, both in the social sense, as he is well-born and has received an upper-class education, and in the moral sense, as he teaches Pip table manners, and, by example, that manners are meaningless unless they derive from sound moral principles.

This is also illustrated through Compeyson, Miss Haversham's lover, who possessed a superficial elegance that blinded people to his real nature. ‘He’s a gentleman, if you please, this villain’.Drummle is yet another example of an exaggerated 'type' of gentleman. Although he has inherited money, and great expectations, he has no moral standards and remains idle, proud, reserved and suspicious.

Dickens saw two sorts of gentlemen, Joe Gargery, who is a simple and hardworking blacksmith. He is also humble and kind. This was illustrated when he claimed that his father who was also a blacksmith ‘What sume’er the failings on his part, remember reader he were that good in his heart.’ However, Drummle defined through his...
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