Great Expectations

Great Expectations

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Great Expectations is set near the end of Industrial Revolution, a period of dramatic technological improvement in manufacturing and commerce that, among other things, created new opportunities for people who were born into "lower" or poorer classes to gain wealth and move into a "higher" and wealthier class. This new social mobility marked a distinct break from the hereditary aristocracy of the past, which enforced class consistency based solely on family lines. Great Expectations is set in this new world, and Dickens explores it by tracing Pip's ascent through the class system, a trajectory that would not have been possible within the rigid class hierarchy of the past.

The novel ranges from the lowest classes of convicts and orphans to the poor working class of Joe and Biddy up to the wealthy Miss Havisham, whose family made its fortune through the manufacture of beer. Notably, the novel spends virtually no time focused on the traditional aristocracy, and when it does it makes those who still believe in the inheritance of class look ridiculous through the absurd character of Mrs. Pocket, whose blind faith in blood lineage has rendered her utterly useless to society.

Yet in the world of Great Expectations where the nobility and gentility that were once associated with the aristocracy are no longer seen as founded on birthright, characters continually grapple with the question of what those traits are based on. Can they be taught? Can they be bought? Pip tries both: he educates himself in order to gain "good" manners and also spends prodigiously on luxury goods, outfitting himself with the trappings of aristocracy as if to purchase aristocracy itself.

These tensions come to a head when Provis arrives in London, ignorantly confident in his power to use his wealth to buy gentility. Provis' misguided trust in money awakens Pip to his own misunderstanding. Meanwhile, Dickens constantly upends the old equation between nobility and class: most of the novel's heroes (Joe, Biddy, and Provis) are in the lower class while most of its villains (Compeyson and Drummle) are upper class. Ultimately, Pip comes to learn that the source of true gentility is spiritual nobility rather than either great knowledge or wealth.

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The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Social Class appears in each chapter of Great Expectations. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Social Class Quotes in Great Expectations

Below you will find the important quotes in Great Expectations related to the theme of Social Class.
Book 1, Chapter 9 Quotes

"…lies is lies. Howsoever they come, they didn't ought to come, and they come from the father of lies, and work round to the same. Don't you tell no more of ‘em, Pip. That ain't the way to get out of being common, old chap…If you can't get to be uncommon through going straight, you'll never get to do it through going crooked."

Related Characters: Joe Gargery (speaker), Pip Pirrip
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

Pip regrets telling a series of lies about his visit to Miss Havisham’s, and eventually confesses what he did to Joe. Joe then reproaches him, pronouncing all lies to be indiscriminately bad.

Joe asserts here a strict and universal ethical framework. He does not differentiate between types of falsehoods as other characters might, but rather claims they are the same “howsoever they come.” Dickens thus casts Joe as the moral center of the novel. Despite his low social status and lack of education, he holds strongly to his principles in a way no member of the middle or upper class ever does. Thus when Pip rejects Joe as he ascends through society, he is also implicitly rejecting these sturdy ethical codes.

These comments prefigure both Pip’s moral decline and his failure to fully assimilate into the upper class. Joe insightfully observes that lying is correlated to Pip’s social ascent, and warns him that this will not be an effective way “to be uncommon.” “Uncommon” means, for Joe, unusual or special, but it also signifies for Pip becoming a member of the elite class instead a commoner. In addition to denying the morality of “going crooked,” Joe also implies that it is an ineffective way of changing one’s social position, particularly with the phrase “you’ll never get to do it.” Thus Dickens subtly equates pragmatism and morality here: whereas for other characters the two are are often opposed—and an evil act can generate selfish benefits—Joe believes that only honest acts can produce positive, honest ends.

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…my young mind was in that disturbed and unthankful state that I thought long after I laid me down, how common Estella would consider Joe, a mere blacksmith: how thick his boots, and how coarse his hands. 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.

Related Characters: Pip Pirrip (speaker), Estella Havisham, Joe Gargery, Miss Havisham, Mrs. Joe Gargery
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

After his conversation with Joe, Pip becomes perturbed at how Miss Havisham and Estella would think of his pseudo-father. Instead of heeding Joe’s advice, he is consumed by anxiety about social class and how others may interpret Joe’s behaviors.

This passage shows how Pip is becoming increasingly aware of and unhappy about his social status. He focuses on specific signifiers of that status—“how thick his boots, and how coarse his hands”—that would allow Estella to observe that Joe performs physical labor for a living. Similarly, he notes that certain spaces, such as a kitchen, as only inhabited by members of lower classes. We can see how Pip is training his own eye to interpret indicators of social class and how important Estella has become to his consciousness. After just one interaction with her, Pip is already filtering his perceptions of even his closest family members through her judgmental eyes.

The retrospective narrator notably implies that these thoughts are unreasonable and negative, considering it “that disturbed and unthankful state.” Dickens indicates that by the time the older Pip is recounting this story, he has realized that Joe was a meaningful and important character—and that he should not have regarded him with this type of disdain. Thus we can guess that Pip will eventually come to hate how judgmental he has become and that the older Pip believes the younger one should regard Joe in particular with more compassion.

Book 1, Chapter 13 Quotes

I was truly wretched, and had a strong conviction on me that I should never like Joe's trade. I had liked it once, but once was not now.

Related Characters: Pip Pirrip (speaker), Joe Gargery
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Joe organizes a dinner at the Blue Boar to celebrate Pip’s apprenticeship to Joe—and more specifically the twenty-five guineas offered by Miss Havisham. Pip is distraught at the event, observing that his grand hopes have been unfulfilled, and in fact have left him uninterested in pursuing work as a blacksmith.

Pip’s language here comes across as somewhat exaggerated and ungrateful. “Truly wretched” points both to how upset he is at the apprenticeship and to how his older self considers the reaction unreasonable. That he speaks in categorical statements such as “I should never like” shows a similar absolutist nature that ignores potentially positive aspects of the blacksmith profession. Nonetheless, it is evident that Pip’s experiences with Estella and Mrs. Havisham have left him dissatisfied with his simpler existence as a blacksmith’s apprentice. Pip is aware of how this change is both dependent on recent experiences—“I had liked it once”—and permanent—“I should never like.” That is to say, understanding the cause of his disillusionment is not sufficient to change it: having been opened to the social society of the upper class, he can no longer be satisfied without it.

The Blue Boar celebration thus marks a decisive moment that will reoccur in different ways throughout the novel. The widening of Pip’s “great expectations” only serves to make him less satisfied with his life. Dickens demonstrates how Pip’s development into a more experienced adult will not bring maturation, but rather an insatiable appetite for ever more status and wealth.

Book 1, Chapter 15 Quotes

I wanted to make Joe less ignorant and common, that he might be worthier of my society and less open to Estella's reproach.

Related Characters: Pip Pirrip (speaker), Estella Havisham, Joe Gargery
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

Pip begins to give Joe weekly lessons. While they might seem to come from a spirit of goodwill, he explains here that they are partially selfish: an effort to be less embarrassed by Joe in front of Estella.

Pip here adopts an increasingly judgmental and patronizing tone. He describes Joe as “ignorant and common” and positions himself as a kind educator. That Pip differentiates “my society” from Joe’s shows just how snobbishly distant he has become from his upbringing. Their respective societies, after all, are not yet different in any real way—but Pip feels them to be so, based off of his education and experiences with Miss Havisham and Estella. His distaste of Joe is thus twofold: the result of how he perceives Estella would react, as well as his own personal dissatisfaction at having to communicate with someone not worthy of his society. Beyond establishing Pip’s increased social snobbishness, Dickens stresses how extensively Pip’s recent experiences have corrupted his moral sensibilities: even actions that seem to be generous carry a hidden motive, predicting the frequent deceit Pip will encounter when he leaves for London later in the novel. There, a whole host of characters will pretend to aid each other with the actual goal of elevating themselves in society.

Miss Havisham and Estella and the strange house and the strange life appeared to have something to do with everything that was picturesque.

Related Characters: Pip Pirrip (speaker), Estella Havisham, Miss Havisham
Related Symbols: Satis House
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

Pip plans to visit Miss Havisham’s house (Statis House) after an extended absence. He reflects here on the way he continues to idealize the dwelling and those within it.

This description is deeply ironic in its use of the term “picturesque.” The term means, in a general sense, pretty or attractive, but it has a specific connotation of quaintness and delicacy. Recall that Satis House is decrepit, Miss Havisham is a deranged parody of upper class sensibilities, and Estella is a mean-spirited critic of Pip’s every action. None of this is particularly picturesque. Yet Pip reduces these qualities to the even-keeled word “strange,” thus focusing on their unusual and alluring nature, as opposed to what is actually quite negative about the strangeness.

The next phrase is similarly ambiguous. Instead of directly saying that he enjoys or idealizes their house and life, Pip obscures his point with a series of odd qualifiers. The helping verb “appeared” indicates that they are not actually picturesque, and the phrase “something to do with everything” marks the fragility of this relationship. Thus Dickens shows how deeply Pip’s assessments of upper class life have been warped by his emotional connection to Miss Havisham and particularly Estella. He is unable to actually observe what is picturesque or not—and he can only form bizarre connections based on his intuitive attraction to their lifestyle.

Book 1, Chapter 18 Quotes

…as Joe and Biddy became more at their cheerful ease again, I became quite gloomy. Dissatisfied with my fortune, of course I could not be; but it is possible that I may have been, without quite knowing it, dissatisfied with myself.

Related Characters: Pip Pirrip (speaker), Joe Gargery, Biddy
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

When Pip learns he has come into a great fortune due to an anonymous benefactor, he is at first thrilled. But as the hubbub about the announcement settles down, he grows oddly depressed by how he has responded the events.

Dickens again makes use of the dissonance between the younger and older Pips’ perspectives. The first only experiences the feeling of being “gloomy” and remains unable to pinpoint any precise reason, whereas the older Pip attempts to determine what might be causing the gloominess. He logically rules out that he is “dissatisfied with my fortune” and thus guesses that the frustration is rather with “myself.” The text thus stresses that mental states are determined less by external events or social status and more by self-perception. By all accounts, Pip should be thrilled, and his negative mood predicts the way self-disgust will haunt him throughout the novel.

The passage also indicates that Pip struggles with introspection: he senses a feeling of gloominess, but he is unable to pin it to its source. And even the wise, older Pip cannot quite pin down the origin, as there is an uncertainty conveyed in the phrases “it is possible” and “I may have been.” Thus while Dickens’ narrative structure offers the benefit of elder Pip’s wisdom, the text also clearly maintains that retrospection can only grant partial clarity into one’s mental state. 

Book 1, Chapter 19 Quotes

As I passed the church, I felt…a sublime compassion for the poor creatures who were destined to go there, Sunday after Sunday, all their lives through, and to lie obscurely at last among the low green mounds. I promised myself that I would do something for them one of these days, and formed a plan in outline for bestowing a dinner of roast beef and plum pudding, a pint of ale, and a gallon of condescension upon everybody in the village.

Related Characters: Pip Pirrip (speaker)
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

Pip walks through the marshes and thinks proudly of his new place above the other inhabitants of his town. He declares that he will return and give them a large feast.

This passage shows just how radically Pip’s image of himself has been warped by his new possession of money. He casts those he grew up with to be “poor creatures” and suddenly considers himself to be their future benefactor—even though he has only just received money himself. Though Pip’s action might seem generous when he describes “bestowing a dinner,” the detail of “a gallon of condescension” explicitly marks his viewpoint to be rude and judgmental. That phrase is, presumably, crafted by the retrospective Pip narrator judging his own youthful fantasies, but in any case it serves to show just how pompous Pip has become.

Dickens renders these thoughts particularly odious by placing them in the moment when Pip “passed the church.” He juxtaposes Pip’s pride with the values of spiritual modesty that he should presumably be taking from a religious upbringing. Furthermore, Pip’s pity at the idea that they “lie obscurely at last among the low green mounds” implies that Pip believes that members of the upper class somehow escape the fate of dying and being forgotten. He believes, at this point, that being famous and living an extravagant life in London will allow him to escape the monotony of merely attending Church until one’s death. These actions and life cycles, however, are universal—and Pip’s assumption he can escape the mortality at the core of humanity points to just how extensively he has idealized the benefits of wealth.

Book 2, Chapter 21 Quotes

"...it is a principle of [Matthew Pocket's] that no man who was not a true gentleman at heart, ever was, since the world began, a true gentleman in manner. He says, no varnish can hide the grain of the wood, and that the more varnish you put on, the more the grain will express itself."

Related Characters: Herbert Pocket (a.k.a. the pale young gentleman) (speaker), Matthew Pocket
Page Number: 140-141
Explanation and Analysis:

While recounting Miss Havishman’s life story, Herbert notes that Matthew Pocket was able to observe that her suitor was not a real gentlemen. Herbert turns this point into a broader comment on the difference between comportment and actual gentility.

By presenting this point as “a principle,” Herbert stresses that it is a universal position—not just anecdotal evidence useful in certain specific moments. Indeed, it will become an important “principle” throughout the novel, as Pip attempts to navigate a world composed of both true and false gentlemen. Pocket’s belief rests on the idea that identity is both fundamentally unchanging and always perceptible to outsiders. If one is a “true gentlemen at heart,” he reasons, this essence will be reflected in “manner.” To express this idea, Pocket uses the metaphor of putting “varnish” on wood with a “grain” (flawed texture), claiming that the deficiencies in material will only become more notable as one attempts to obscure them.

That Pocket does not distinguish between “heart” and “manner” has a series of important consequences for Pip: It firstly implies that if Pip is not inherently a gentleman, he will never be able to cover this in the metaphorical varnish of new wealth. But it also indicates that being a gentleman has far less to do with social status than with one’s “heart” or natural disposition. Indeed, Pocket seems to be giving a more eloquent formulation of Joe’s earlier point that Pip will never become uncommon by being crooked. That Pip came into his fortune through his kind actions toward Provis is further evidence of the point that true social ascent is the result of an honest, ethical sensibility. Dickens may not himself fully identify with this position, but he does house this viewpoint in a number of characters—implying that the retrospective Pip narrator considers it valuable.

Book 2, Chapter 23 Quotes

…[Mrs. Pocket] had grown up highly ornamental, but perfectly helpless and useless.

Related Characters: Pip Pirrip (speaker), Mrs. Pocket
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

When Pip is visiting the Pockets, he observes the deep incompetence of Mrs. Pocket. He attributes this to her upbringing, in which her father—incessantly proud of his title—refused to let her learn any practical skills.

Mrs. Pocket’s character forefronts an important division in England society: the social change from hereditary aristocracy to the Victorian world of industrialism and capitalism. Whereas before Mrs. Pocket’s “highly ornamental” nature would have been appropriate given her title, it now marks her as passive and out of step with the times. By disparaging her for being “helpless and useless,” Pip shows himself to value pragmatism and self-sufficiency. Recall that Miss Havisham’s wealth itself is the result of her father’s enterprising brewery, while Provis’s similarly comes from a committed work ethic. Thus while Pip may idealize the upper classes, this passage clarifies the specific qualities of the class he finds praiseworthy: it is no longer titled members of the aristocracy, but rather those who have been bestowed with economic and social power due to the new capitalist society.

Book 2, Chapter 27 Quotes

"Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one man's a blacksmith, and one's a whitesmith, and one's a goldsmith, and one's a coppersmith. Divisions among such must come, and must be met as they come. If there's been any fault at all to-day, it's mine. You and me is not two figures to be together in London; nor yet anywheres else but what is private, and beknown, an understood among friends. It ain't that I am proud, but that I want to be right, as you shall never see me no more in these clothes. I'm wrong in these clothes. I'm wrong out of the forge, the kitchen, or off th'meshes. You won't find half so much fault in me if you think of me in my forge dress, with my hammer in my hand, or even my pipe."

Related Characters: Joe Gargery (speaker), Pip Pirrip
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

During Joe's visit Pip is deeply embarrassed about the differences between their social classes. Yet when Joe, while departing, gives this moving speech, he shows himself to be aware of Pip’s fears—and to have accepted their separate positions.

Joe’s speech is marked, first and foremost, by a sense of submission: his worldview places people in specific roles—from blacksmith to coppersmith—that define them and that will inevitably lead to “divisions.” Yet whereas Pip would see these divisions as negative, and himself seeks to escape his personal history, Joe accepts them as his destiny. In particular, he rejects the social symbols—the garments of “these clothes” and the physical location “out of the forge, the kitchen, or off th’meshes”—that do not correctly conform to his self-assigned social position. The passage recalls Biddy’s earlier description of Joe’s pride as a pride that knows its location in the world and embraces it full-heartedly—as well as Mr. Pocket’s attitude that the flaws in wood should not be covered up with varnish.

Joe seems to have rather rapidly come to a similar conclusion—though he couches it in less ornate language—when he says that his normal appearance would cause Pip to not “find half so much fault.” Dickens thus further positions Joe as the wise, moral center of the tale: he is neither impressed nor corrupted by coming into contact with the wealth of London, but rather notices how it is artificial and does not match his natural identity.

Book 2, Chapter 33 Quotes

"We have no choice, you and I, but to obey our instructions. We are not free to follow our own devices, you and I."

Related Characters: Estella Havisham (speaker), Pip Pirrip
Page Number: 207
Explanation and Analysis:

Contrary to Pip’s hopes, Estella still remains extremely distant. Here she summons their need to remain separate and conform to social mandates instead of personal desires.

Her ambiguous comment has a series of different interpretive layers. In the most direct sense, she means that in the moment they must take the carriage at once to Richmond. More broadly, she implies that Miss Havisham has selected a destiny for her in Richmond that leaves her “no choice” as to who she will marry—or who she will be close to. Both characters must “obey [the] instructions” of their benefactors and are therefore unable to follow their “own devices.” More broadly, the line speaks to the way all the characters of the novel are enmeshed in their social systems, leaving them with relatively pre-determined and pre-scripted lives. Estella’s comment taunts Pip precisely because it speaks to both their banal social interaction and to a fundamental issue of human free will.

Yet while Estella’s tone is cold, she also makes a notable attempt to parallel her and Pip’s experiences. Before, Pip has been distraught that he and Estella lead different lives, and he desperately wishes to inhabit her same social sphere. Her comment seems to indicate that he has succeeded—particularly due to the way she follows each clause that begins with “We” with the reiterating “you and I.” Estella insists on equating them in the style of her sentence, even as the meaning of the sentence stresses how they must remain separate. Dickens suggests that the characters are united, oddly, precisely in the way they are both socially contained.

Book 3, Chapter 58 Quotes

…the wonderful difference between the servile manner in which [Mr. Pumblechook] had offered his hand in my new prosperity, saying, "May I?" and the ostentatious clemency with which he had just now exhibited the same fat five fingers.

Related Characters: Pip Pirrip (speaker), Mr. Pumblechook (a.k.a. Uncle Pumblechook)
Page Number: 372
Explanation and Analysis:

When Pip returns to his village after losing his fortunes, he is treated with remarkable disdain. He observes how differently Mr. Pumblechook greets him this visit in comparison to to when Pip had just come into wealth.

Earlier, Mr. Pumblechook’s behavior was characterized by servility and politeness. The phrase, “May I?” expressed a subservience to Pip, in which Pip’s consent would be required to shake hands. In contrast, now Pumblechook acts with “ostentatious clemency”: an odd combination of terms. Though “clemency” means compassion, “ostentatious” presents Pumblechook’s behavior as overly ornate and false, so his supposed kindness is overwrought and ironic rather than earnest. (Note that Dickens cleverly makes the phrase “ostentatious clemency” itself ostentatious, causing the linguistic form to parallel the content!).

Though Pumblechook’s physical identity has not changed—with “the same fat five fingers”—Pip is now adept enough at reading social codes to see how differently those fingers operate. Though one might expect Pip to be distraught at this new treatment, he actually finds it be a “wonderful difference.” This phrase expresses a certain delight at how dissimilar the two sets of reactions have been. Having gone through a full cycle of fortune and poverty, Pip has become adept at noticing how variantly he is treated, and he relishes in assessing how false others’ actions can be. Dickens implies that noticing the emptiness of a social exchange offers a certain kind of mental emancipation for Pip.