As a social crusader, Charles Dickens’s works often comment on the environment
to which he was exposed. In his novel, Great Expectations, there are many aspects of
Victorian society which he criticizes. Dickens’s various criticisms on social issues are
often portrayed through the use of a character.
For example, several of Dickens’s characters portray the unjust criminal justice
system when bias is involved. First, Abel Magwitch has been treated unfairly by the justice
system because of his appearance. Magwitch describes himself as, “a common sort of a
wretch” (p.376) when he was on trial with Compeyson. Magwitch also tells Pip and
Herbert Pocket about the unfair sentence he received when he says to them, “And when
we’re sentenced, ain’t it him as gets seven year, and me fourteen, and ain’t it him the judge
is sorry for”(p.376-7). Because of people’s ill will towards Magwitch’s appearance, he is
outcast from Victorian society to go to New South Wales, Australia. Also, Mr. Jaggers
represents the corruption in this system when he displays unethical behavior. Mr. Jaggers
takes on clients whom he knows are guilty just for the sake of making money. An example
of this would be his servant, Molly. He employs her after proving her “innocence” to a
jury even though he personally knew she committed murder. Mr. Jaggers also uses fear to
“make” people do what he wishes. If he desires for his clients to leave him alone, all he has
to do is threaten to drop their case and they do what he wants them to. Lastly, Compeyson
is favored by the justice system due to his gentlemanly appearance and speech. At the trail
with Magwitch, Compeyson wishes to have a separate defense and have no
communication with Magwitch. The reason for this is Compeyson does not wish the
wretched man to tarnish his pristine image. Even though Compeyson was convicted and
went to prison, he is released still a crook. This is because that the penal system does not
reform its inmates, it just processes and then releases them. Bias and justice do not go
together; if you have one you can not have the other.
Characters also criticize the rigid social class system of Dickens’s society. For
instance, Mrs. Joe martyrs herself to elevate her social status. By pretending, in front of
company, that she devotes herself to Pip being, “brought up by hand” (p.16) she seeks to
improve her social status. Mrs. Joe also vicariously moves up the social ladder through Pip
when he starts to visit Miss Havisham. Additionally, Mr. Pumblechook uses Pip and his
good fortune to improve his community standing. After he learns that Pip has come into
great expectations he pretends that he has been Pip’s long-time friend. He says to Pip, “he
had been my favorite fancy and my chosen friend” (p.171). He takes credit for being the
one who got Pip to see Miss Havisham because he thinks she is Pip’s benefactor. He also
tells people that he was the cause of Pip’s fortune so that he can better his image.
Ultimately, Pip mistreats those close to him in his quest for Victorian Gentleman status. In
the beginning of the novel, he dreams of becoming a gentleman just so he will be
acceptable to Estella. On his way “up” however, Biddy is hurt by the callous remarks he
makes towards her. Even after he achieves his higher social status he is ashamed to
associate with Joe and Biddy because they are of lower status. The rigid social class
system improperly places value on community standing versus good morals.
Probably the most potent criticism of Victorian society surrounds those characters
who violate Emmanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Primarily, Miss Havisham uses
people to compensate for how she is used by her lover. She beseeches her adopted
daughter, Estella, to mistreat and seek revenge on all men. In her discussion to Miss
Havisham, Estella says to her, “there was such a thing as daylight, but that it was made to
be her enemy and destroyer, and she must always turn against it, for it had blighted you
and would else blight her” (p.331). She also exploits Pip by tormenting him with Estella.
In a like manner, Magwitch manipulates Pip to fulfill his needs and desires. Since
Magwitch has never been able to achieve high social status, he vicariously utilizes Pip to
become a gentleman. In the beginning of the novel, Magwitch also uses Pip for food and a
file. He says to Pip, “You bring me, to-morrow morning early, that file and them wittles.
You bring the lot