Great Expectations: All for Getting Benefits

January 27, 2021 by Essay Writer

The fledgling years of post-industrial Britain were tumultuous ones, as are the beginnings of all eras that dismantle century-old beliefs and traditions. It was the advent of capitalism, signifying endless opportunities for wealth through industry and commerce. However, this new system also made immorality a common stepping-stone to success; crime, exploitation, and dishonesty became the tools of the nation’s trade. An absence of government regulation and thus an absence of limits brought prosperity to new heights, and suffering to new depths. While capitalism, glorified by philosophers such as Adam Smith, was a near-utopian structure in theory, the reality, particularly in London, was far from perfect. In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens criticizes the ideals of capitalism by depicting its plagues, actually and symbolically, in the lives of his characters. Through their fates and motives, the afflictions of the new socio-economic order become clear: the segregation of the classes, the erosion of morals, and the alienation of feelings.

One of the most fundamental, most often-hailed principles of capitalism is that it affords everyone the equal opportunity to obtain wealth. This principle is fully embodied in Great Expectations; not a single character’s wealth has been derived from aristocratic ancestry. In fact, many of the wealthiest characters come from the dregs of society: Magwitch is an escaped convict, Estella is the daughter of a gypsy murderess, and Pip is a mere blacksmith’s apprentice. However, inequality is as ever-present as it was in the time when parentage determined rank—it is simply more random. Segregation between classes has not been abolished by any means. There still exists a majority of poor people, and they are treated as such. The reason for this is simply because capitalism relies on there always being a class of poor people for the rich to exploit. In Great Expectations, the poor are subjected to the contempt and manipulation of their financial betters, even though such elitists may have risen from the same plane. For instance, Estella, despite being a common orphan herself (or presumed to be at that point in the novel), looks down on Pip: “‘He calls the Knaves, Jacks, this boy!’ said Estella with disdain…’And what coarse hands he has! And what thick boots!’” (Dickens, 64) Indeed, most of Dickens’s characters are guilty of forgetting their roots, ignoring the shame of once being poor by inflicting that shame upon those less fortunate. Even Pip, the self-conscious narrator, deems Joe to be beneath him after a taste of wealth: “I wanted to make Joe less ignorant and less common, that he might be worthier of my society and less open to Estella’s reproach.” (Dickens, 108) Magwitch is also unjustly treated based on his class when he and Compeyson are convicted; because of his coarseness, he is dealt a sentence of fourteen years, while the gentlemanly Compeyson is only given seven. Through such discriminatory behaviours, Dickens illustrates not only the inequality, but also the hypocrisy, of capitalistic wealth.

In Great Expectations, morality is often foregone in the pursuit of capital. In the former patriarchal model, religion reigned supreme; morality earned its reward in Heaven. In post-industrialist Britain, with a population of profiteers competing with each other, morality is seen to obstruct the gain of earthly rewards. Dickens shows Pip’s own moral struggle as he finds maturity in a city of swindlers and crooks. “‘You may get cheated, robbed, and murdered, in London. But there are plenty of people anywhere, who’ll do that for you…They’ll do it, if there’s anything to be got by it.’” (Dickens, 164-165) The theme of crime for the sake of profit is prevalent throughout Great Expectations, and embodied by two characters; Mr. Jaggers, and Compeyson. Mr. Jaggers, the shrewd, business-like lawyer, represents the distortion of justice brought about by capitalism. For the right price, he can talk a murderer out of receiving a death-sentence, conveying the idea that justice can be bought. Although Jaggers epitomizes the loss of conscience in a profiteering society, Compeyson represents its actual corruption. Despite being the man who sets the entire story in motion, shaping the lives of multiple characters, he is essentially faceless. Pip does not directly encounter him once throughout his narration, giving him more symbolic value than character status. His greed and immorality ruin some, such as Ms. Havisham, and bestow fortune upon others (though indirectly), such as Estella. In a way, he is like a twist on the “invisible hand” that Adam Smith theorized about, an unseen force that drives the economy. Another character who represents the link between morals and money is Herbert. He is portrayed as a true gentleman, one with no ill will towards anyone, and high moral standards. His marriage to Clara, despite her class, shows that he is unbiased and honourable. However, his qualities are also his hindrance, financially, as noted by Pip: “I had grand ideas of the wealth and importance of Insurers of Ships in the City, and I began to think with awe, of having laid a young Insurer on his back, blackened his enterprising eye, and cut his responsible head open. But, again, there came upon me…that odd impression that Herbert Pocket would never be very successful or rich.”(Dickens, 175) Thus, it is shown that a moral (self-dependent) capitalist is rarely a successful one. However, it must be noted that at the end of the novel, each character receives what they deserve for their morality, or lack thereof. It seems as though the immoral characters die, whereas the moral ones find happiness, showing that justice is ultimately delivered at the hands of providence.

While immorality stems from a lack of conscience, the lack of conscience stems from an alienation from emotion. Throughout Great Expectations, there are conflicts between feelings and business, for while humans are inherently driven by emotion, money certainly is not. The two characters that best embody this conflict are Wemmick and Estella. They both subscribe to the belief that emotion makes one susceptible to predators, yet they exhibit this in different ways. Wemmick personifies the duality between success and feelings; he lives a double life. On one hand, he is Mr. Jaggers’s cold drone in the office, hollow but for profit, logic, and business. On the other, he is Pip’s affable friend, a man who enjoys the leisure of life at home with his father. Pip notices this double personality when Mr. Wemmick and he dine with Jaggers: “He turned his eyes on Mr. Jaggers whenever he raised them from the table, and was as dry and distant to me as if there were twin Wemmicks and this was the wrong one.” (Dickens, 363) Wemmick lives at Walworth, which he built to resemble a castle, with his father.

His father is also an important symbol. The “Aged,” represents the former patriarchal model of governing the populace. Though still somewhat existent, its influence has been weakened considerably. The Aged lives in his castle, deaf to what is going on around him, and is content just to be nodded at every so often: “‘Here’s Mr. Pip, aged parent,’ said Wemmick, ‘and I wish you could hear his name. Nod away at him, Mr. Pip; that’s what he likes.’…I tipped him several more, and he was in great spirits.” (Dickens, 198) This is a parallel to the “aged” government, which merely resides in its castle for show, giving meaningless declarations from time to time, content to simply be acknowledged. Wemmick’s love and tenderness towards the Aged shows that he perhaps has a soft spot for the more simple, traditional ways of life. A necessity of eliminating sentiment in the business world is emphasized.

Estella, on the other hand, has been raised to have no heart. Miss Havisham believes that to be heartless is the only way to avoid suffering, and so she teaches her charge to be cold and calculating. Miss Havisham’s way of protecting Estella has a double meaning, for not only did Compeyson break Miss Havisham’s heart, he also swindled her out of money. Thus having no feelings not only prevents heartache, it also prevents money from being lost to emotion: “You had taught her, from the dawn of her intelligence, with your utmost energy and might, that there was such a thing as daylight, but that it was made to be her enemy and destroyer, and she must always turn against it, for it had blighted you and would else blight her.” It is apparent that in this society obsessed with business and wealth, emotion is viewed not only as an obstacle, but as a traitor as well.

Pip’s dramatic initiation into the world of commerce and crime is one that leads him into the discovery of his own morality and ambition. It also forces him to find a sustainable balance between the two, and to reconsider the beliefs and goals of his youth. Through the spectrum of characters that he encounters, from the most tarnished to the most unsullied, he is finally able to look beyond the marred expectations of society. Great Expectations illustrates that while the opportunities brought about by capitalism may have kindled aspiration in every member of the British populace, it also bred greed, corrupting the pursuits of many. Success is something to be striven for, especially when there are no limits imposed upon how high one can reach, but when it comes at the expense of humanity, one must question if it is really worth it.

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