Social Classes in Great Expectations According to Marxism
Karl Marx was a famous philosopher and economist whose influence inspired the creation of the Marxist literary lens that focuses on class conflict and distinctions. He perceived human history to have consisted of a series of struggles between classes–between the oppressed and the oppressing. Whereas Freud saw ‘sexual desires’ to be the motivating factor behind the human endeavour, Marx thought that ‘historical materialism’ was the ultimate driving force. Both Charles Dickens and Karl Marx observed and documented the faults, pain, and suffering of industrializing Europe in the nineteenth century. They could see that capitalism without morality and conscience was a dead end for humanity. The world was constructed of the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie, who were judged by their wealth and status instead of values. Marx argues that literature does not just demonstrate class struggle, but are the products of them. In a work the society the author lives in often leaks through and could be interpreted as a commentary of that society.
Charles Dickens lived in the same time as Karl Marx which means the society had a similar influence on Dickens’ book as it had on Marx and inspired him to come up with his philosophy. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is so much more than a story about a little boy who falls in love with the life of the rich and powerful, it is about the flaws existing in the upper-class society. The protagonist, Pip is a young orphan boy, who is a part of the working class, longing for the day he will be one of the Bourgeoisie, and marry the girl he loves. Pip’s complex and dynamic relationships with Estella, Joe, and Magwitch, illustrate the subjugation of the working-class from the Bourgeoisie in a completely Marxist organization of society. (221)
Estella’s and Pip’s respective treatments towards each other reflect the views that different classes have of each other. Their views show the stereotypes of the rich and the stigma of being a part of the proletariat. Marx described the materialism that drove the Bourgeoisie, and what described Estella’s behaviour towards Pip in the novel. While Pip is stunned by Estella, her beauty and manners, she is cold, cruel, and insulting, criticizing Pip’s class and unrefined manners. She characterizes him as a commoner by saying ‘But he is a common labouring boy. And look at his boots! (Dickens 45)’ Pip views Estella as superior to him and loves that about her and has no reason to see any flaws in her as she is of a higher class, while Estella thinks very little of him because of his class, his lack of education and the fact that he has to work to make money that is nothing compared to a gentleman’s fortune.
Through his exposure to Estella and Miss Havisham, Estella’s mother, Pip discovers the realities of the insolence and class differences that Marx spoke of in a capitalist society and the manipulation of the working-class. Estella and Miss Havisham strictly abide by the unspoken rules of society, and social order has great significance in their lives, influencing every decision they make. These social ideals are the criteria against which everyone is measured. They decide on what to think of people solely based on their wealth, manners or education, things Pip does not possess. Estella criticizes the way he speaks when he calls one of the playing cards Jacks instead of Knaves calling him a “stupid, clumsy labouring boy” (Dickens 46).
Unfortunately, she is not the only one who lives by society’s rules and puts them before her own desires. Pip’s vision of the world and his future changes as he meets Estella, who inspires him to rise through the ranks and became a gentleman she could marry. He starts to look at his family as more of an embarrassment, or a disgrace to Estella. He started resenting the simple life and realized how much higher she was than common folk. The first time when he gets home from Miss Havisham’s house he thinks ‘I thought how Joe and my sister were then sitting in the kitchen and how Miss Havisham and Estella never sat in a kitchen but were far above the level of such common things (Dickens 55).’ (410)
Pip and Joe’s altering relationship shows the priorities and the attitudes of the working class towards money and their loved ones. Working-class is no exception in succumbing to societal pressure and doing everything to be accepted by the people. Pip loves Joe for the duration of the story, but his feelings for Joe change throughout Dickens’ interpretation of the social classes. Joe acts as a father figure for Pip at the beginning but transforms into a friend and equal when Pip discovers Joe cannot read. After entering the lives of Estella and Miss Havisham, Pip starts to feel small and embarrassed for his lack of wealth and education, something that is valued in the higher society. He showed the changes in his mindset when he thought ‘I thought of Estella and how common she would consider Joe, a mere blacksmith (Dickens 55).” His expectations from life change and he desires to be a part of the “better” people. When Pip becomes wealthy, his relationship with Joe becomes strained. Even though Pip used to be of a lower class, and knew how it felt to be treated poorly by the Bourgeoisie, he starts looking down on his old life and friends, especially Joe. He is embarrassed by his manners. When he said, “I told Joe I wished to walk away all alone (Dickens 123).” Pip didn’t want anybody to see that he had come from a “common” family. He did not want any association with his old life. Moving in with higher class people, Pip did not want to be seen with a blacksmith and he thought that there was a significant difference between him and Joe. He shows this when he is afraid his rich friend Drummle will look down on him because of Joe. Pip was disturbed by the way he was treated by Estella and Miss Havisham when he was lowly, but when he comes into his “expectations,” he treats Joe in the same fashion. Even after Ms. Joe’s death, Pip promises that he will visit Joe often, knowing that he will not return. “I should not come back (Dickens 223).”
Pip and Magwitch’s relationship is a mutual partnership based on personal gain and favours, which includes breaking the stigma of the classes and going against societal norms of the Bourgeoisie. Magwitch was a criminal who had nothing until he made a fortune that he used to make Pip rich, in return for his kindness. This made Pip a part of the Bourgeoisie and therefore gave him power in society. Pip’s relationship with Magwitch also allows the reader to see how morals and values contribute to success just as much as working hard. Magwitch acts as a foil for Joe and through his relationship with Pip, Magwitch leads a dismal life with nothing. He desires to be accepted in the society but deems it impossible with his history and status of an ex-convict. Even though he reached the economic status of the Bourgeoisie, he lacks the social standing of a good citizen to become a part of high society, which is why he makes Pip a gentleman and becomes a gentleman by proxy.
Marxist criticism looks at the ways society characterizes and defines people by their wealth, manners, and social status. It defines the order of the “importance” of people based on what one possesses. Magwitch, who used to have some power over Pip, loses everything, shifting the power and leaving him at the bottom of the social order. Magwitch says he “owns a gentleman (Dickens 252), and considers this to be a fortune in itself.” However, when he loses everything, he also loses his gentleman when Pip rejects his money, after finding out he was Pip’s benefactor. This is Dickens’ way of showing to the reader that he believes working hard is not enough to get people through life. Magwitch is an example of evil turned good and no matter how hard he tries to reconcile the life he had before through hard work, his life cannot be mended. He will always be a criminal and an outcast. Magwitch has given Pip everything he ever earned, and by saying “The wretched man, after loading me with his wretched gold and silver chains for years, had risked his life to come to me (Dickens 323).” Pip shows he still does not accept him and rejects his money because Magwitch is a dishonest human being.
This supports the Marxist way of critiquing the theory of capitalism. Even though he has worked so hard, he is still unaccepted in his society. The societal norms and ideals do not judge him based on his character and his actions, but rather on his status and reputation. When the society rejects him, he tells the judge who convicted him that God Magwitch tells the judge that he believes God has decreed his death as an act of forgiveness. Dickens uses Pip’s relationships with Estella, Joe, and Magwitch to show how the lower class is judged by social status or appearances, instead of morals and values. The lower class is looked down upon and taken advantage of by the upper class, and this is prevalent in the novel Great Expectations. These relationships display the characteristics of a Marxist society in the nineteenth century.
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