The concept of social class

Geraint Hamer

From the very first chapters, Dickens explores the concept of social class and emphasises how it has a profound effect on the central characters in the novel. The first sentence in the novel is significant in that Pip has named himself due to his inability to pronounce his real name; 'I called myself Pip and came to be called Pip'. Pip's inability to pronounce his name, immediately signifies his initial lack of education and this by itself can be regarded to be in relation to social class. Moreover, as the novel develops, Dickens highlights Pip's pursuit of becoming a 'gentleman' by assigning a different identity to him as he ascends the social ladder; Herbert Pocket names him 'Handel'. Consequently, it portrays the idea that now Pip has left behind his working class background, he must now adopt a new character, albeit a character that has a very superficial outlook. This clearly indicates Dickens objective of illustrating the social class divisions perhaps not only in the novel, but in Victorian England also and consequently how it had the potential to alter a person's individuality.

The social class divisions within the novel are further indicated by Joe's arrival at Pip's opulent apartment. Pip is nevertheless, despondent by the news of Joe coming to visit; 'I had the sharpest sensitiveness as to his being seen by Drummle'. This once again is emphatic in showing the developing contrast in social status amongst the two characters. However, not only does Pip treat Joe differently, Joe also treats Pip differently, this is due to their now more apparent social division. The new tendency of Joe to refer to Pip as 'sir' only adds to the already awkward atmosphere that Dickens purposely creates to portray the social divisions, which ultimately affect the characters' personalities. Furthermore, the colloquial language used by Joe throughout the novel and in the passage; 'life is made of ever so many partings welded together... Diwisions among such must come...' emphasise his working class background and his lack of education. Additionally, the metaphor that he is a common blacksmith and Pip is a goldsmith present the difference in social class had how it ultimately brought upon their separation. Similarly, a connection between the contrasts in social status is illuminated in 'The picture of Dorian Gray' with Dorian's arrival at the opium den. Wildes' presentation of the opium den; 'a tattered green curtain that swayed and shook in the gusty wind... Greasy reflectors of ribbed tin backed them, making quivering discs of light', attempts to indicate the contrast between Dorian's aristocratic lifestyle and the slums of the opium den. The adjectives included in the passage, such as 'Greasy', 'tattered' and 'quivering' create the image of poverty and social dismay. In addition to this, Dorian's diction and tone towards the other characters can be interpreted to be degrading and indicate his hierarchical attitude.

Whereas Dickens highlights the social class divisions between the protagonist and Joe, he equally draws close attention to the similar divisions amongst the convicts, Magwitch and Compeyson. The emphasis put on social class is again stressed through the convicts' trial, whereby they are both arrested for the same crime but Compeyson ultimately escapes punishment solely because of his social status. Here, a clear comparison can be made with the character of Dorian Gray in Wilde's novel. In the same degree that Dickens uses the convicts to portray the differing views and perceptions amongst the social classes, Wilde concentrates on Dorian and his socialites. Despite Dorian's bad reputation and influence on others in society and Basil's warning of his name and reputation being questioned, Lord Henry and his 'group' never ostracize him. As Lady Narborough states to Dorian 'you are made to be good, you look good', indicating how he remains a respectable and popular individual, albeit purely down to his elegant appearance. This reiterates the importance placed on social class and the superficial nature of society during the period that the two novels were written in. The writers are perhaps highlighting the errors in society during that period, in particular the dominance and power of the hierarchical society that existed.

The character Pumbelchook is a direct contrast to the very apparent working class background of Joe, Mrs Joe and Biddy alike. Whilst these characters are very aware of their status in society, they are nevertheless content. Pumbelchook however, has no real social identity. Pumbelchook can be seen to be adopting a different character depending on his company. For instance, at the start of the novel, Dickens presents Pumbelchook as identifying himself with Mrs Joe's complaints of bringing up Pip. This is shown by reminding Pip, on numerous occasions to be 'grateful to them who brought you up by hand'. Later on in the novel, Pumbelchook takes credit for Pip's rise in social status. Additionally, his congratulatory manner towards Pip when he hears that he is to become a 'gentleman' is emphasised through his repeated handshake with Pip. Consequently, Dickens manages to once again, create a social contrast between the characters to portray the difference between the 'honest' working class, who are proud of their heritage and the rather interchanging self-identity of Pumbelchook. In Wilde's novel, Dorian Gray rides past in a carriage; noticed by Sybil but unseen by James Vane. Here, Wilde is accentuating the contrast between the social standing in that Dorian is riding in a luxurious and lavish carriage, while Sybil and James walk the grim streets of the city.

With Pip's elevation within the social pyramid, his nature can be seen to be transformed from an innocent young child to a callous 'gentleman'. This dramatic transformation is down to Estella who is the main antagonist along with the aid of Miss Havisham in essentially corrupting Pip's character. The social class of both Estella and Miss Havisham is in itself important in that Dickens portrays them as devious and depressing human beings whose main objective in life is to inflict misery upon men. This emphasises how Dickens is trying to indicate that social status does not necessarily reflect a person's character. Satis House is symbolic, in that it represents the darkness and decay of Miss Havisham's character. The stopped clocks throughout the house; 'There was a clock on the outer wall of this house...Like Miss Havisham's watch, it had stopped at twenty minutes to nine', symbolise that whilst Miss Havisham may be of high social status she certainly does not live a satisfied life. Thus, Dickens is focusing on how social class does not equate to happiness- Joe and Biddy are prime examples of this. Furthermore, the darkness and dust associated with Satis house is captured by imagery which is exemplified in passages describing Satis House; 'old brick and dismal, and had a great many iron bars to it'. Dickens includes the bleak description possibly to represent the lives of its occupants and to form the general outlook of upper class society.

Ironically, Estella's affluent upbringing does not cause contentment throughout the remainder of her life. Instead, she is exploited from members within her very own social division. Rather than being raised by Magwitch, her honest and noble father, Estella is raised by Havisham, who through her own selfish desires, corrupts Estella to the point where she is unable to interact with others and express her feelings effectively. The reader is repeatedly reminded of this conception by her numerous warnings to Pip that she has 'no heart'. Conjointly, Estella's decision to marry Drummle, a bitter and apathetic character, over Pip, ultimately results in Estella leading an isolated and miserable life for many years. This further promotes the idea that one's contentment is not an indication of their social status. This idea is also articulated in Wilde's novel through the contrast in personalities between the protagonist, Dorian Gray and the character of Sibyl Vane. The innocence and purity in which Sybil Vane possesses are significant in relation to her proletariat background. Likewise, Dorian's progressively selfish and heartless behaviour possibly indicate the aristocracy that existed in Britain and the effect it had upon society.

The superior attitude Estella shows towards Pip is fundamental in revealing the intolerance shown towards the characters of working class backgrounds. This is explicitly illustrated through Estella's greeting towards Pip, referring to him as "boy' so often, and with a carelessness that was far from complimentary, she was of about (Pip's) my own age". The greeting, devoid of any emotion, and the general air of superiority in which Estella expresses towards Pip, uncovers the class prejudices that encompass the novel. Estella's choice of language in her greeting towards Pip places emphasis on her belief that because of Pip's proletarian background, it ultimately signifies his inferiority. On the contrary, it may be argued that Pip's admiration towards Estella is not minimally down to her beauty; money, status and prestige that embrace her life may also be a factor. Consequently, the reader is left with the notion that because of Estella's image and character being so closely ascribed with status; Estella is more of a symbol of superior social status than a figure of romance.

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