Great Expectations as Social Commentary
During the nineteenth century, British society was dominated and ruled by a tightly woven system of class distinctions. Social relations and acceptance were based upon position. Charles Dickens utilizes Great Expectations as a commentary on the system of class and each person's place within it. In the character of Pip, Dickens demonstrates the working class' obsession to overthrow their limitations and re-invent new lives. Dickens also uses Pip and various other characters to show that escape from one's origins is never possible, and attempting to do so only creates confusion and suffering. Ultimately Dickens shows that trying to overthrow one's social rank is never possible; only through acceptance of one's position is any semblance of gentility possible.
The novel opens with young Pip in front of the graves of his father, mother, and brothers. Having never known his parents he derives information from their tombstones; "[t]he shape of the letters on my father's, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man with curly black hair" and "[f]rom the character and turn of the inscription, 'Also Georgiana Wife of Above,' I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly" (23; ch. 1). He is left alone without a clear sense either of his parentage or position in life. This, he says, is his "first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things" (24; ch. 1). A small boy surrounded by vast land, wind, and sea; his world is a harsh and unfriendly one.
In his book Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels, J. Hillis Miller states:
Great Expectations, like most of Dickens' novels, does not begin with a description of the perfect bliss of childhood, the period when the world and the self are identified, and the parents are seen as benign gods whose care and whose over-looking judgment protect and justify the child. Dickens' heroes . . . have never experienced this perfect security. Each becomes aware of himself as isolated from all that is out-side of himself. (251)
As an orphan, Pip must search for and define his own condition.
The beginning of the novel is therefore the starting point of Pip's quest to find his place in life. As the narrator of his own story he tells us of his need to become someone else, "I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip" (23; ch. 1). By re-naming himself, Pip is also trying to overthrow his limitations. The means by which he can do this arrives with the presence of Magwitch.
Magwitch, a convict, appears like a ghost rising up from the grave. He seizes Pip, threatens to kill him, holds him upside down, and forces Pip to steal food and a file for him. Pip returns home to procure the items that Magwitch has demanded. Feeling compassion for Magwitch, who he last saw "clasping himself, as if to hold himself together" (27; ch. 1) from the...