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The Industrial Revolution in Great Britain was a time of newfound social freedoms. New inventions and scientific discoveries allowed for faster and cheaper production of goods. Manufacturing processes created jobs and fostered the birth of new industries. For the first time ever, people believed in social mobility. People believed they could make a fortune and move themselves out of the class in which they had been trapped their whole lives. In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens creates a world that parallels that of the Victorian era, where class divisions can be overcome.
The novel’s protagonist, Pip, receives a fortune that allows him to study to become a gentleman. This unfamiliar wealth quickly demoralizes him, and he dissociates himself from his prior life with his new social standing. As well as disregarding his past for an enticing life of wealth, he leaves behind Biddy for a chance with the unattainable Estella. The influence of both money and Estella on Pip deeply corrupts his morals and character throughout the story. Pip’s relationship with Estella and Biddy, and conversely with wealth and poverty, suggests Dickens’ opinions on society; that advancing one’s social standing will not advance one’s character. Pip initially fails to recognize the purpose of Biddy in his life. Biddy is first introduced to the story as the granddaughter of Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt. She works at her grandmother’s school, where she meets Pip. Pip always describes her as being a sweet and gentle child, who was also mature and intelligent for her age. Her character shares several similarities with that of Pip; she is also an orphan, is considerably lower class and she too was brought up by hand.
They spend a considerable amount of time together and Biddy grows to really care about Pip. When Pip asks her to teach him to read and write, “Biddy, who was the most obliging of girls, immediately said she would” (Dickens 66). Biddy, like Pip, lives a simple and meager life. She is perfectly content with her social status and has no interest in becoming wealthy and moving out of her lower class. Although she appears to be a perfect companion for Pip, he never expresses interest in her romantically. He never gives her very flattering descriptions in terms of her beauty. Pip says that “her hair always wanted brushing, her hands always wanted washing, and her shoes always wanted mending and pulling up at heel” (40). Even though Biddy certainly has feelings for Pip, he never conveys the same emotions. He never associates himself romantically with Biddy and the common people she represents. Pip is unable to understand that Estella is out of reach for him, and that pursuing her will only cause him pain. Pip meets Estella when his uncle Pumblechook arranges for him to meet with Miss Havisham.
Miss Havisham is exceedingly wealthy, and her adopted daughter, Estella, shares in her prosperity. From the second Pip first encounters Estella, he knows she is out of his reach. Her upper class arrogance and disdain for Pip and his manners instantly form a division between the two characters. Pip notes that she was “beautiful and self-possessed” and that “she was as scornful of [him] as if she had been one-and-twenty, and a queen” (51). She is extremely rude to Pip, making him feel inferior and worthless. She shatters all his pride, mocking his lower class behavior and dress. She makes him feel ashamed of things he used to be proud of. Pip says that “her contempt was so strong, that it became infectious, and [he] caught it” (55). The two clearly do not have anything in common, but Pip is enchanted, and falls under her lustful spell. She lives a life of luxury, boasting her wealth and elevated social class. Pip, a mere laboring boy, cannot match the grandeur she exudes. She changes his perspective of society, cementing the idea of social hierarchy in his innocent mind. He cannot see that she has no interest in him, yet he devotes himself to becoming a gentleman so that she will accept him. He wants to rid himself of the mockery and ridicule of a life with which he now will not associate. After Pip becomes aware that he has an anonymous benefactor, his bond with a life in the forge begins to wither.
As his monetary value increases, so does his moral corruption. Pip uses this newfound wealth to distance himself from his past life, and in turn, from Biddy. When he sees her again, after being exposed to the luxurious life of money, his demeanor is much more pretentious, and he lets his hubris get to his head. He makes her feel bad about her social class, as his new perspective has done to him. Pip explains how dreadful his life as a laborer was and asks her “what it would signify to [him], being coarse and common, if nobody had told [him] so” (116-117). Biddy is hurt by this bold statement, remarking that “it was neither a very true nor a very polite thing to say” (117). Pip’s tone suggests that he no longer identifies himself with Biddy, and that his current prosperity inherently makes him better than her. Although he acts rather conceited towards Biddy, Pip knows at heart that he would be better off if he were with her. He says to her “if only I could get myself to fall in love with you,” to which she responds, “but you never will, you see” (119). Biddy knows that Pip will never love her but she continues to treat him with the same kindness and respect that she showed him when he was younger. She continues to be present in his life, helping his struggling family when Mrs. Joe is badly injured. She represents a sort of moral soundness, presenting an image of what Pip’s life could have been had he not been corrupted by the lure of wealth and becoming a gentleman.
The two remain friends, but Biddy eventually moves on to marry Joe. Through Biddy, Pip sees the life he could have had materialize, if he had not let his lust and greed determine his path. After Pip is exposed to Estella and her life of luxury, he is determined to become a part of it, and to separate himself from his own. Estella’s appearance leads a naive Pip to believe that she is above him, and he becomes fixated on her and her social standing. He fails to see class as anything other than rich and poor, and his new perspective makes him realize that he is the latter. He is determined to rise above his former poverty, in hopes that Estella will eventually accept him. His anonymous benefactor affords him the opportunity to move up in class and in wealth, and he believes this to be his opportunity to win over Estella. When he meets her again, he is entirely captivated by her beauty. He says that “Estella seemed more delicately beautiful than she had ever seemed yet, even in [his] eyes” (242). He still regards her as a divine presence, and equates her elegance to superiority. He continues to adore her, and craves her acceptance of him even more than ever. Instead of the passionate embrace he has so anxiously awaited, he is met with the same scorn she showed him when they were younger. Estella is cruel to him, and continues to look down upon him and his social class. Pip recognizes how truly terrible she is, but cannot rid himself of his romantic desires. He contemplates “how happy [he] should be if [he] lived there with her,” although he knows “that [he] was never happy with her, but always miserable” (247).
Estella remains an unreachable goal for Pip, and he realizes that she will never love him. He never obtains her affection, and she moves on to marry Drummle. He watches her in all her success, and sees a life he can never and will never have. Charles Dickens attracts readers of his novel Great Expectations with a character who shares in a universal human desire: the desire to move up the social hierarchy. Dickens’ Pip feels ashamed of the impoverished life into which he was born, and longs to elevate his wealth and social standing. He does so, proving the notion of social mobility, and that those lucky enough to make a fortune can completely alter their lives. His self-determined success is not without repercussions, however, as his obsession with class drives him to question his own identity. Pip experiences the effects of wealth through his relationships with both Biddy and Estella, two characters in vastly different social standing. Estella, in all her pride and affluence, blinds Pip from Biddy, his moral security, as Pip’s fortune blinds him from his morals, and eventually happiness. Pip’s moral struggle implies an underlying warning of Dickens to his readers: that great wealth does not lead to great integrity.
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