Study Guide

Great Expectations Society and Class

By Charles Dickens

Society and Class

Chapter 7

I had heard of Miss Havisham up town—everybody for miles round, had heard of Miss Havisham up town—as an immensely rich and grim lady who lived in a large and dismal house barricaded against robbers, and who led a life of seclusion. (7.80)

Pip's hometown is socially stratified. He lives in the "village," and Miss Havisham lives "up town." Apart from reminding us of a certain Billy Joel song, this delineation between the wealthy and working class in Kent is palpable and is reinforced by the gate that guards Miss Havisham's decaying riches. Also, notice that great privilege is closely linked to loneliness?

Chapter 8

I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too. (8.92)

Yeah, well, Shmoop wishes its parents had been millionaires, too, but we all have to work with what we've got, Pip. Plus, do you really want your mom to be Miss Havisham? (Kind of a toss-up between her and Mrs. Joe, if you ask us.)

So, leaving word with the shopman on what day I was wanted at Miss Havisham's again, I set off on the four-mile walk to our forge; pondering, as I went along, on all I had seen, and deeply revolving that I was a common labouring-boy; that my hands were coarse; that my boots were thick; that I had fallen into a despicable habit of calling knaves Jacks; that I was much more ignorant than I had considered myself last night, and generally that I was in a low-lived bad way. (8.105)

Notice that Pip never seems to think that his world might be better or nobler than theirs? He instantly thinks that the way of life at Satis House is better than his, even though it's full of decay, spiders, and weird ladies.

I took the opportunity of being alone in the court-yard, to look at my coarse hands and my common boots. (8.92)

It's like we're in the middle of a totally-against-regulations child psychology experiment. When Pip is alone, he examines the characteristics he's always possessed, but with the new frame and the new backdrop of Miss Havisham's world, these characteristics take on a whole new meaning. He becomes self-aware through his introduction to society.

Chapter 15
Miss Havisham

"Abroad," said Miss Havisham; "educating for a lady; far out of reach; prettier than ever; admired by all who see her. Do you feel that you have lost her?" (15.69)

The concept of high society in this novel is often likened to heights and to the sky. But Pip's climb up the social ladder is more like a bridge to nowhere than a stairway to heaven.


Whatever I acquired, I tried to impart to Joe. This statement sounds so well, that I can't in my conscience let it pass unexplained. I wanted to make Joe less ignorant and common, that he might be worthier of my society and less open to Estella's reproach. (15.2)

Pip is so caught up in the appearances of things that he feels like gentlemanly behavior can be caught, like a cold. Pip values the knowledge that Miss Havisham and Estella have over the common-man knowledge that Joe has, even though an idiot could see that Joe knows more about how the world works.

Chapter 17

"Biddy," said I, after binding her to secrecy, "I want to be a gentleman." (17.24)

Almost all of the people Pip knows have specific societal roles with specific societal functions: the tailor, the blacksmith, the clerk, the lawyer, the seedsman, the shipping agent, and all of these people seem content in their lives of earning profit and creating things. Not Pip. His goal is much more vague: a gentleman. What is a gentleman? What does a gentleman do? How will Pip know when he becomes a gentleman? And isn't that vagueness kind of the point? If you can't define it, it's easy for someone else to tell you that you're not one.

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. (17.74)

Pip is divided here between the familiar and the, well, sexy. Biddy is familiar, which makes her common in a literal sense: it's common for Pip to see her, because she basically lives with him. Estella is uncommon not because she's beautiful and well-education but because he doesn't spend a lot of time in close contact with her. Learning to value the common is part of Pip's growing up.

Chapter 18
Mr. Jaggers

"It is considered that you must be better educated, in accordance with your altered position, and that you will be alive to the importance and necessity of at once entering on that advantage." (18.63)

Apparently, certain kinds of education (most likely involving dead languages) are more valuable than others (like how to work a forge). Interestingly, we never get to see Pip "learning" in London, though apparently, he's at it all the time.

Chapter 22
Herbert Pocket

"Her father was a country gentleman down in your part of the world, and was a brewer. I don't know why it should be a crack thing to be a brewer; but it is indisputable that while you can't possibly be genteel and bake, you may be as genteel as never was and brew. You see it every day." (22.42)

Huh. So, you can use yeast to make beer and still be considered a gentleman, but you can't use yeast to make bread and be considered a gentleman? With rules like that, no wonder Pip constantly feels lost.

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