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.
Social Class ThemeTracker
Social Class Quotes in Great Expectations
"…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."
…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.
I wanted to make Joe less ignorant and common, that he might be worthier of my society and less open to Estella's reproach.
Miss Havisham and Estella and the strange house and the strange life appeared to have something to do with everything that was picturesque.
…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.
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.
"...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."
"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."
…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.