Charles Dickens was born in the Regency period of English history, at the end of the eighteenth century. He therefore experienced what it was like living when the aristocracy held the new middle classes in contempt and held a lot of power in their family name and wealth. Many of his novels, like Great Expectations, explore that kind of power.

The fact that Estella is so derisive of Pip because of his upbringing is ironic because she turns out to be the daughter of a maid and murderer. What turns out to be important in Great Expectations, is not money or class but loyalty and friendship. A man is not good or a gentleman because he looks like one or is born one, he becomes one through an appreciation of these values.

Serialisation-The story was not published as a novel like we buy it today, but it was bought in sections week by week. Many of the cliff-hangers and withheld information could therefore take weeks to be resolved adding to the tension felt by readers.

Society- Dickens began his career as a journalist and lived through a time of important social upheavals and changes. He was particularly interested in the impact the laws had on the poor and on children. Many of his novels explore upward mobility and the treatment of the working classes who often lived in work houses or cramped dirty areas of London. Great Expectations does not explore the lives of the poor as much as other novels like Oliver Twist, but Jaggers’ defense of Molly and her employment and the eventual redemption of Magwitch can be seen as sympathetic to a poor, criminal class that Dickens experienced in London.

Capitalism– Great Expectations sees many characters change and move both physically and socially. Part of the reason Pip’s journey is possible was due to the emergence of the middle classes and a capitalist economy where money could change hands between anyone. Compeyson and Magwitch show that no matter who you are this new system can get you rich but also that riches do not make you a good man. Pip only reaches maturity having lost all his money. Miss Havisham’s isolated and perpetual stillness is also reflected in the fact that her business is shut down too. Her money just sits there with her, going nowhere except back into her crumbling estate. When wealth flows through financial aid it marks true friendship in Great Expectations, this is clearly seen in Joe paying Pip’s debts and Pip helping Herbert set up a business.


Links to Other Texts

Jane Austen was writing during the regency period Charles Dickens was born in. She too challenged social norms and status but usually did so through romantic narratives as in Pride and Prejudice.

To see a more obvious critique of society and the treatment of the poor Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist would be a good choice as it depicts the life of a boy taken from a work house, to the streets of London and then to the house of a gentleman. Something like A Christmas Carol shows how a selfish, bitter, wealthy character like Ebenezer Scrooge can change and become a generous, kind person, something that Miss Havisham never achieves.