Great Expectations

by: Charles Dickens

Social Class

Quotes Social Class
I thought how Joe and my sister were then sitting in a kitchen, and how Miss Havisham and Estella never sat in a kitchen, but were far above the level of such common doings.

After Pip’s first visit to Miss Havisham’s house, Pip sees his family’s way of life in a new and negative light. He has never thought of sitting in the kitchen as being anything other than normal; now sitting in the kitchen seems low class. He has just realized that in upper-class households, only the servants go into the kitchen; their masters are waited on upstairs. Pip’s family, having no servants, lives in a completely different way, which Pip now sees as “common,” and therefore bad.

“[I]t is indisputable that while you cannot possibly be genteel and bake, you may be as genteel as never was and brew.”

Herbert Pocket explains to Pip how Miss Havisham became upper class: Her father was a brewer. British society had strange rules about what were considered proper ways to support oneself. Owning land farmed by tenants and investing money were acceptably genteel, because they did not involve any actual work. Lawyers and doctors, who work for their money but earn their living using knowledge rather than physical labor, were considered middle class. Owning a factory, which was a relatively recent development in Pip’s lifetime, was looked down upon, until society saw the huge fortunes being made this way.

“He says, no varnish can hide the grain of the wood; and that the more varnish you put on, the more the grain will express itself.”

Herbert describes how his father, Matthew Pocket, knew that Miss Havisham’s suitor, Compeyson, was not “a true gentleman at heart.” Compeyson was showy with his wealth, which made his lies all the more obvious to Matthew. More importantly, Compeyson was not “a true gentleman in manner,” in other words, a good and kind man. Matthew lives up to his own standards: He and Herbert display the behavior of true gentlemen throughout the novel, always trying to make others comfortable and never expecting anyone else, including Miss Havisham, to provide for them.

Both… had such a noticeable air of being in somebody else’s hands, that I wondered who really was in possession of the house… until I found this unknown power to be the servants.

Here, Pip describes his realization that in Mathew Pocket’s household, the servants are in charge, not Mrs. Pocket, who has no useful skills in managing the household. Throughout the novel, servants possess more control than their masters. They choose how hard to work, and they often know the masters’ business better than the masters themselves, so that firing any servant is very difficult. The relative power servants have suggests the irony in distinctions between common and genteel persons.

“The blessed darling comes of no family… and never looked into the red book, and hasn’t a notion about her grandpapa. What a fortune for the son of my mother!”

Herbert compares Clara, the woman he hopes to marry who is content with her life, and his mother, who is obsessed with rank and lineage. His mother constantly reads the “red book,” a guide to the members of the noble families. Raised to believe that she would become a noblewoman, his mother never learned any useful skills because she expected to be waited on. As she didn’t marry into the nobility, her helplessness is a burden to her husband and children. Herbert concludes that to have someone practical and hardworking is of greater value than someone of social rank.