Great Expectations | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Great Expectations | Context


The Victorian Age

Charles Dickens lived most of his life during the Victorian period. This era lasted during the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901. In this era Great Britain became the dominant power in the world, building a large colonial empire and achieving economic prosperity through industrialization.


The Industrial Age, which began in Great Britain in the mid- to late 1700s, was marked by a shift from hand tools to mechanized tools, such as the power loom and the steam engine. In turn technology such as the steam engine revolutionized transportation first in the form of steamboats and later in the form of railroads. Some of Pip's adventures in Great Expectations involve steamboats chugging through London in the 1820s. Such mechanized tools fueled the growth of industry, including trade and finance, that became concentrated in large cities such as London.

As the novel ends in the winter of 1840 with Pip's return to England, the setting is markedly different from that of his pre-Victorian boyhood. The country is industrialized, and political and social reform is taking place in the forms of extended suffrage rights (Reform Bill, 1832) and the recent crowning of Queen Victoria in 1837 that would begin her nearly 64-year reign.


Victorian society developed a strict morality, which was used to enhance political and social stability. This morality consisted of repressing sexual urges, except for those expressed within the socially acceptable confines of marriage. In fact some Victorian scholars claimed that sexual desires lead to the urge for political revolutions. Therefore many Victorians believed that repressing their sexuality also helped maintain control and order in society.

Concerning this Victorian attitude toward sexuality, Great Expectations shows both positive and negative aspects. Dickens generally supports marriage, as can be seen through Wemmick's marriage to Miss Skiffins. However, in contrast, Miss Havisham places such an importance on having an idealized marriage that she becomes an embittered recluse when the marriage falls through.

Also Victorian morality promoted a strict work ethic. During this age Great Britain shifted from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Industrialization soared as factories sprang up throughout the country. The Victorian work ethic was promoted to fuel this industrial engine.

In fact the idea that a person can improve his or her life through the Victorian ethic of hard work permeates the novel. Indeed the novel's title refers to Pip's expectations to move from a skilled worker to an upper-class gentleman. Pip views himself critically because he attempts to obtain social advancement without working. In contrast, Joe Gargery, Wemmick, and Herbert Pocket are admired because they are steady workers who use their income to support families.

Population and Class

As industry developed, the population of Great Britain changed dramatically. With improved health facilities, the population soared from 14 million in 1830 to nearly 35.5 million in 1900. Also the structure of the population changed. The size of the middle class increased dramatically, as more people were able to get better-paying jobs as clerks and merchants. In addition education improved, allowing more people to earn college degrees and move into professions such as lawyers and doctors. Because of this the middle class gained more influence in the government. Also a large working or lower class, consisting mostly of factory laborers, formed.

Britain still had an upper class. However, the nobility felt threatened by the growing dominance of the middle class. Furthermore some people in the middle class, such as successful merchants, were able to obtain great wealth and move into the upper class. Indeed social mobility was a trademark of the Victorian period. Middle-class people often shared rags-to-riches stories with one another about poor people who worked hard and thereby were able to improve their stations in life. In fact many Victorian authors wrote what are now referred to as education novels, which depict a talented young lad moving up the social hierarchy from humble rural origins to the wealthy middle class or upper class and learning about life along the way. Great Expectations can be seen as an example of this type of novel.

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