Class mobility in Great Expectations

Professor John Bowen discusses class and social mobility in Charles Dickens’s novel, Great Expectations . Filmed at the Charles Dickens Museum, London.

So, here we are in Doughty Street, which is the house that Charles Dickens moved into when he was 25 years old and newly married – and it's a distinctly smarter house than anything he'd known before. In a way he's a sort of vertical invader into Victorian literary life. He'd leave school at 15 – his family, although they have aspirations to be genteel, in fact are constantly getting into financial difficulty, so he'd never really known the benefits of a stable home until he moved here and it's a sign that he's arrived – he's not just a fly-by-night. Some critics said that like a rocket, he would go up, but he would come down like a stick and this was his sign that no, he was here to stay.

People often think of the Victorians as being very stratified in class terms – very fixed class identities. If you look at Dickens’s novels, it's very different from that. There is a very mobile society, in which suddenly fortunes can be made and just as suddenly lost and of course, he knew the suffering that often went with poverty, with a lowly class position and did so much to try and combat that in his own life and in his fiction. At the same time, he also knew that people weren't just passive recipients of class identity or class relationships, but they could transform them too, through their ability to summon up different identities – to pretend to be different, to move in a society in which sudden wealth could be made, or just as suddenly lost.

So Dickens writes very few novels in the first person and the first of those, David Copperfield, tells a rather triumphant story of someone who comes from poverty into success, happiness, a benevolent patriarch at the end, with all his children around him. Great Expectations tells a much darker and more haunted version of that story of class mobility. It's one that the Victorians are fascinated by – the sense that you could make yourself anew.

Pip is haunted by guilt throughout his life, from – almost from the first scene and the sense that somehow his degrading, impoverished, potentially criminal childhood will carry through his whole life, is one that he never loses and that often means that he behaves badly, particularly towards Joe, his stepfather, towards whom he feels very guilty, but also is unable to be kind or to be generous towards him. And the way that the novel is plotted, is extraordinary, because about four fifths of the way through, Pip has this astonishing revelation, that the source of his wealth is not as he thought Miss Havisham, but Magwitch, the convict, the criminal whom we meet right on the very first pages of the novel. And it is the most shocking revelation and transformation for him. His whole sense of self is emptied out – there's nothing there, because he's always built up a fantasy of himself, as someone who's destined to have wealth and suddenly he knows that everything that has made him what he is, has been irresistibly tainted with this criminal past.

So, one of the things that people are often quite surprised by, is just how little seems to happen in the middle of Great Expectations, so that Pip, with enormous hopes, inherits his wealth, but then what does he do with it? Almost nothing, as far as we can see. There's very little sense that you can get pleasure from wealth, for example, so Pip himself doesn't seem to gain any pleasure from coming to London – he lives somewhere very unpleasant, constantly he feels the taint of the criminal past touching him – but even though it's also true of Miss Havisham who, you know, is very wealthy, she has enormous power, but there's nothing of pleasure in that power. It's about having a kind of control – first of all over Estella and secondly over Pip and that you use your wealth not to fulfil yourself, but to revenge yourself on others. And it's one of the most disillusioned books – another title you could almost think would be Lost Illusions. So there are, in the course of the 19th century, a great number of novels – what are called bildungsroman, which are novels of culture or novels of development. It's about the psychological progression of, usually a young man from the provinces and Dickens – in some ways David Copperfield is like that, but Great Expectations is quite different, in that it's not about a movement to incite or fulfilment, but in a way it's a novel about a movement to emptiness and loss of the self. So, there are two possible plots that Dickens could have told. One would be a romance plot which would have been the coming together with Estella at the end and the other would be the development plot – psychological fulfilment plot and he gives us neither of those. In fact, one way of thinking about it is that he takes those two major plots of the 19th century and ruins them.

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