Money and Social Class in Great Expectations

November 28, 2001

Charles Dickens develops his novel, Great Expectations, with a strong emphasis on money and social class. To have an abundance of money during the mid‑Victorian era implies that you are situated in the upper class society. Gentleman1, during this era, incur injustices on the lower classes of society. Their motivations are to obtain wealth and power regardless of any consequential ramifications that may occur. Analysis of injustice throughout the novel supports the belief that Great Expectations is a novel about social class. Wemmick and Pip both fluctuate between the upper and lower classes. Through the social mobility of these two characters, injustices of mid‑Victorian society as depicted in Great Expectations are expressed. The injustices exhibited on Pip and Wemmick are either, consequential to a certain incident, or the result of society’s expectations toward a persons’ status. Divisions between upper and lower classes, and the aspirations of greater wealth, combine to motivate each character in Great Expectations. It is through this motivation to succeed that Charles Dickens illustrates injustice, and ultimately establishes a true mid‑Victorian class structure.

A number of critics mention social class as a prominent focus in Great Expectations. These critics conclude that money and the precise divisions of a mid‑Victorian society account for widespread class antagonism and injustice. George Newlin’s article, "What was a ‘Gentlemen’ in the Early Nineteenth Century?" discusses precise class divisions between many of the novel’s characters. His article provides an accurate explanation of society’s composure during the mid‑Victorian era. Newlin’s detailed description of social class, and the expectations within each class, establish a general foundation for understanding the role of a gentlemen. John Hagan’s essay, "The Poor Labyrinth," argues that injustices amongst the lower classes arise through circumstance. His contends that, as a result of a person’s motivation to succeed, others may be victimized. Hagan insists that a person’s actions reciprocate another’s injustice. Contrary to John Hagan, T.A. Jackson’s essay states that society’s injustices are as a result of social class. Rather than circumstance, Jackson believes that class antagonism creates injustice. He argues that injustices in the lower classes are the effect of upper class gentlemen. Jackson explains that class structure is responsible for social injustice. By contrasting Hagan’s beliefs to Jackson’s the significance of social class in Great Expectations is realized. Therefore, George Newlin’s general explanation of mid‑Victorian society creates excellent groundwork for discussing injustice. This groundwork is extended by both Hagan and Jackson’s separate views creating a thorough discussion on social class in Great Expectations.

George Newlin’s article explores the variety of social classes that existed in the mid‑Victorian era. With a general understanding of each class, and the conditions within each one’s status, one can decipher the many injustices that occur in Great Expectations. This understanding will help answer the question: Do injustices occur as a result of circumstance or society? Newlin’s social model consists of lower, middle and upper classes. The lower class consists of the working poor who had little skill or property. Above this rank exists the middle class population: "They differed from those below them by possessing capital, in the form of livestock, tools, trade goods or an investment in education" (Newlin 34). Newlin distinguishes the middle class from the upper class only because the middle class ranks are obligated to work. The upper class society created their fortunes through the work of the socially inferior. As a member of this upper class, a gentleman’s motivation is to obtain capital at the expense of others.

When applying Newlin’s structure to Great Expectations it is important to situate the characters within certain social classes. Joe Gargery exemplifies the middle class because of his independence and ownership of tools. Newlin believes that Joe’s honest hard work and good morals are the only things that keep him from being a part of the upper class society. Wemmick’s character represents both middle and upper classes. His character at home is comparable to Joe’s, and his life as an office clerk exemplifies an upper class gentlemen’s characteristics. Pip demonstrates a similar degree of social mobility. He originates from the middle class, but aspires to become a gentleman. Although Wemmick and Pip are socially mobile, each character is motivated differently. Newlin states that "[the] status