The novel, Great Expectations, deals with the concepts of a ‘true gentleman’; where the Victorian idea, which is based upon birth, wealth, social status and apparel, contrasts to Dickens’ portrayal of a gentleman who is a person of kindness, humility and generosity. Dickens upbringing and early life allows him to understand the position of the poor due to their humble upbringing, which keeps them in the lower social class. His didactic message, what it is to be a true gentleman, is reinforced by the bildungsroman style of the novel.
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In Victorian times, one who came from a wealthy and respectable family was considered to be a gentleman. This is clear in numerous characters in the novel, who are immediately perceived to be gentlemen as they boast a large amount of money and dress in the finest clothes. One example, Compeyson, uses this to get a reduced sentence in court, as Magwitch says ‘one, the younger, well brought up, who will be spoke to as such’. This highlights the importance of social class in the Victorian era and it is clear to see here that the justice system is very much more favourable to the higher social ranks, deciding how they would get treated and addressed, and that the punishment is not dependent on the crime, rather the individual at trial’s background and upbringing. Dickens has shown that the Victorian concept of a gentleman is all about wealth and social ranking, not the characteristics we see in a gentleman today.
In addition to this, many of the characters in the novel show they also have the misconception that money makes a gentleman. Magwitch’s comment on Pip’s return that he [Pip] has ‘contracted expensive habits’ proves this and gives the impression that spending money in such lavish ways was normal and acceptable in those times, and something that Pip cannot control. The tone Magwitch uses is also verging on proud, in the sense that he is proud that Pip is able to afford to live such a comfortable lifestyle, without having to worry about financial issues. However, Pip may not be able to avoid this as he hasn’t had the education of restraint that comes from having some money; only that of the poor whereby if you have little money, you should spend it. Dickens plays on his lack of knowledge to portray the Victorian gentleman as being rich; however, this contrasts to his own gentleman of generosity and humility.
Appearance was of extreme significance and greatly affects the perception of a gentleman in Victorian times. Magwitch appears as a criminal at first, described as, ‘A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg…who limped and shivered, and glared and growled.’ The language Dickens has used such as ‘coarse’ is harsh and amplifies the terror instigates by the bestial imagery of ‘glared’ and growled’. He is described with very little narrative perspective as the verbs are omitted from the first to sentences which underscores the disgust the Victorians would have felt for him seeing as his appearance is not worthy of a gentleman in their society. This is accentuated by the fact he appears to be part of the savage sea and marsh, springing up from its deep depths. However, Dickens also wrote that Magwitch ‘limped and shivered’ perhaps implying he only appears this way as a result of the life and adversity he has had to bear. Estella also mocks Pip for having ‘thick boots’ and ‘coarse hands’. Again the use of harsh words such as ‘coarse’ and ‘thick’, previously used to invoke terror, here imply a sense of disgust that the Victorians felt whilst looking down on Pip. After getting his inheritance, Pip then tries to resolve his ill appearance to appear as more of a gentleman. This one visit to Satis House completely changes the course of Pip’s life and is where he latches on to the Victorian conception on a gentleman, reinforced by Magwitch who thinks Pip is a gentleman after seeing his jewellery and attire.
Throughout this novel, Dickens challenges what realistically constitutes a gentleman. He believes that it is not the luxuries of a noble birth and money that matter but rather how a person treats his fellow man and whether or not they show humility. Compeyson is a ‘gentleman’ but is in fact immoral and a criminal. He plays on his gentlemanly appearance in court and was ‘recommended mercy on account of good character and bad company’ whilst Magwitch had to serve a long sentence despite not being the brains behind the crime. Even in the time of Dickens, there was a justice for the rich and a justice for the poor; society has ranks and levels, just as a prison. This statement proposes favourability towards the higher social ranks as Magwitch, the ‘bad company’, is imprisoned whilst Compeyson is able to walk free as the courts believed that the only reason he committed the crime was due to the influence Magwitch had on him. Dickens appears to make the characters considered to be Victorian gentleman more good-looking in the novel, whereas he makes those who he feels are ‘true gentleman’ less attractive, such as Magwitch who is in fact Pip’s generous benefactor. He contests that to be a gentleman, you need to ‘look’ like one, it is rather your actions and treatment of others which makes you a gentleman.
Due to his wealth, Bentley Drummle is considered a gentleman; however, Dickens describes him as ‘sluggish’ and he is said to ‘always creep in-shore like some kind of amphibious creature.’ The use of ‘sluggish’ implies that he is habitually idle, harsh and unattractive; surprising, considering he is a ‘gentleman’. He is also described as an ‘amphibious creature’, which gives the impression he is cold blooded, rather vile and horrible, not the characteristics expected of a ‘true gentleman’. Dickens’ overall disdain for Drummle and Compeyson is made clear through their hostile deaths which are both some sort of poetic justice for all the wrongdoing they have committed in their lifetimes. Compeyson drowns to his death whilst trying to get Magwitch convicted further for his own crimes; and Drummle dies ‘consequent on his ill-treatment of a horse’. This is very ironic as he displays brutish and abusive behaviour throughout the novel, and this is, ultimately, partly to blame for his death.
Joe is a gentleman, the complete opposite of Drummle. He carried on the family trade after being born into a simple blacksmith family and only has enough money to get by. Pip describes him as a ‘good-natured, sweet-tempered, easy-going, foolish, dear fellow-a sort of Hercules in strength’. The use of pathetic fallacy here reinforces the positive image Dickens has created about Joe comparing him to the strongest god in Greek mythology. Through this, he has gained his humility and a quality of a gentleman in Dickens’ eyes. It is through Joe that Dickens finally begins to show what he thinks makes a gentleman. Pip also finally says he is ‘looking up to Joe’, implying he can be considered a gentleman as he carried the qualities of a true gentleman – someone to look up to and who has humility.
The fates of these two characters, Joe and Magwitch, are testament to Dickens’ belief that to be a true gentleman it is essential to treat others correctly. Joe lives happily for the rest of his life after marrying Biddy as Pip says, ‘Dear Biddy, you have the best husband in the world’. Pip has evidently matured, accepting more responsibility for his sins, debt and life. He is frugal and writes to Joe and Biddy, not showing his upset that Joe beat him to marrying Biddy, rather relief that he did not ask her the same. However, Magwitch dies at the end of the novel, although it is a much more peaceful death than Compeyson. It is when Magwitch is on his deathbed, Pip realises that ‘when he took [his] place by Magwitch’s side, [he] felt it was [his] place henceforth while he lived’. Dickens makes Magwitch’s death peaceful and comfortable and the rest of Joe’s life happy to replicate his opinion of a true gentleman, showing how they will be treated and ‘rewarded’ whilst Compeyson and Drummle endure ghastly departures due to their decadent nature.
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Dickens’ didactic message is delivered through Pip, through whom the reader learns how to become gentlemanly. As Pip is the first person narrator, the reader sees the experiences through his eyes, allowing him to explain why he made his decisions and highlight his mistakes, although they may not always agree with what he says and does. As soon as Pip being trying to map himself to the Victorian gentleman, Dickens demonstrates the rapid pace of his moral decline. To begin with, Herbert is Pip’s closet friend; he tries to introduce him to the etiquette and manners expected of a gentleman in London and Pip values his opinion highly. However, as he plunges into his moral decline, Pip starts ‘disregarding Herbert’s efforts to check [him]’. This is proof that, here, he cannot be considered a true gentleman, according to Dickens and our modern day society, as he is acting as if he is superior to others, not treating them the way they treated him. This is not a quality of the modern gentleman, but fits that of his society which Dickens contests.
Pip acted as gentleman in a way that he hoped would impress Estella; however, this leads him to give priority to money and appearance, and to be ashamed of his simple, ‘ungentlemanly’ background and upbringing. Upon hearing Joe is to visit him he says, ‘If I could keep him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money.’ In his quest to get money to become all-powerful, Pip learns that he can never erase the ‘shame’ of his past, and this is accentuates by the fact he wants to distance himself from Joe. It also shows how much he values money, and naively believes that with it he is able to always get his way. This underscores the change in Pip who once ‘looked up to Joe’ as a young boy, but is now a cruel individual whose only concern is to become worthy enough to win over Estella, who says to him, ‘Since your change of fortune and prospects, you have changed you companions’ to which Pip replied ‘Naturally’. Here we can see he is fully trying to fill the Victorian ideal of a gentleman, as if the act of setting himself apart from Joe and Biddy, who he considers to be below him, is ‘natural’. Although he may be a Victorian gentleman, he is not the gentleman who Dickens portrays, and through this Dickens suggests that to become a Victorian gentleman it is necessary to push away those who care about you most; the ones who will be there for you no matter your status.
Through the bildungsroman style of the novel and the retrospective narrator, Pip, Dickens displays his conceptions of how a true gentleman should act. When he is sick and taken in by Joe and Biddy near the end of the novel, Pip realises his wrongdoings and says to them, ‘receive my humble thanks for all you have done for me, and all I have so ill repaid.’ Pip has now gradually understood that a chapter of his life has permanently closed and he will no longer receive the treatment of an affluent gentleman, nor can he visit the manor and depend on Jo and Biddy at his leisure like he once did. This is a significant moment for Pip; time and fortune have changed his place; he starts out for the forge with the opinion he is already a changed man, nevertheless only when he reacts to the changed around him does he truly demonstrate his more matured and improved nature. His selfless happiness for Joe and Biddy is the greatest proof of his growth. Seeing them as a married couple, he realises he needs to move on independently and he boldly declares he will earn money to pay Joe back, generous both spiritually and materialistically. Pip’s character has remarkably transformed from the self-absorbed child who sought self-improvement to the cost of other and it is here the Dickens reveals his perceptions of a gentleman through Pip’s final humility: that it is not your social rank, wealth or background that makes you a gentleman, but rather your humility, kindness, generosity and treatment of others. His name, Pip, is indicative of his character, a small seed or ‘pip’ growing mentally and physically into the man he eventually became towards the end of the novel; small and humble – a true gentleman and a great man in the eyes of Dickens.
In conclusion, Charles Dickens, a social critic of humble origins himself, has conveyed his conception of a true gentleman, which is such a good conception that it is commonly used in our society today. He shows that you can only be a true gentleman at heart and if you are not it will be revealed. Matthew Pocket’s metaphor that ‘No varnish can hide the grain of the wood; and that the more varnish you put on, the more the grain will express itself’ very successfully delivers and summarises Dickens’ message, that no matter how much you try to, your true identity will always be revealed. It also effectively reinforces Dickens’ treatment of the Victorian preconception of a gentleman as misconstrued and mistakenly engrossed with social status, wealth, birth, and apparel.
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