Social class in Great Expectations

John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett in the famous Class Sketch, depicting the upper, middle and working class
Class differences - the upper, middle and working class

As Britain became an increasingly industrial nation in the 19th century, there was a general movement of the population from the countryside to the towns. As well as the poor and the rich, a developing middle class became increasingly noticeable. However, it was very difficult to change your social class unless, like Pip, you had money. Those with no money at all might fall into a life of crime and join the so-called 'underclass'.

Pip begins the novel as a poor blacksmith's apprentice (working class). Thanks to Magwitch's help, he is developed into a young, well-to-do gentleman (upper class). Eventually he settles as a reasonably successful businessman (middle class). Dickens in his lifetime also changed social class and his journey is reflected in Pip's.

How is the theme of social class shown in the novel?

In Great Expectations, Dickens examines each of the three main social classes:

  • working class
  • middle class
  • upper class

How does Dickens show this?EvidenceAnalysis
Working classThe honest working class is represented by characters like Joe and Biddy. They are hardworking, kind, patient and forgiving. There is a decency about them that some of the wealthier characters lack.And now, because my mind was not confused enough before, I complicated its confusion fifty thousand-fold, by having states and seasons when I was clear that Biddy was immeasurably better than Estella, and that the plain honest working life to which I was born, had nothing in it to be ashamed of, but offered me sufficient means of self-respect and happiness.Even when Pip is a boy he realises that he should be proud of his social class but meeting Estella means he is unable to do so. The use of the hyperbole (exaggeration) 'fifty thousand-fold' lets the reader know just how confused Pip is about The issue of whether Biddy was 'better' than Estella.
Middle classMiddle class workers such as Herbert Pocket and Wemmick are well-regarded. Those who think they are more important than they actually are, such as Mr Pumblechook, are made fun of.Herbert Pocket had a frank and easy way with him that was very taking. I had never seen anyone then, and I have never seen anyone since, who more strongly expressed to me, in every look and tone, a natural incapacity to do anything secret and mean.Herbert's character is open and uncomplicated. He gets on with everyone and everyone gets on with him. In many ways he is similar to Pip. He is how Pip would be if wealth had not got in the way.
Upper classDickens makes it clear that money equals power. However, those who have inherited money (eg Miss Havisham) seem to be less satisfactory as people – this includes Pip himself.Heavy in figure, movement, and comprehension—in the sluggish complexion of his face, and in the large awkward tongue that seemed to loll about in his mouth as he himself lolled about in a room—he was idle, proud, niggardly, reserved, and suspicious. He came of rich people down in Somersetshire.Bentley Drummle is a rich young gentleman. The description of him given by Dickens is far from flattering, using words like 'sluggish', 'awkward' and 'loll'. It is also made clear that Drummle lacks intelligence and what money he does have is gotten through inheritance rather than hard work.

Analysing the evidence

"Biddy," said I, after binding her to secrecy, "I want to be a gentleman."Pip

What does Pip discover about being a 'gentleman' during the course of Great Expectations?

  • Pip first of all thinks that having money, nice clothes and good manners are all that is required, all of which are very superficial things.
  • His main reason for wishing to be a gentleman is to impress and win Estella.
  • He eventually realises that inner goodness, hard work and treating others fairly are far more important than wealth.

Pip finally comes to see that there is more to being a gentleman than outward appearances.

Move on to Video