History of the Novel
The Historical and Cultural Context of Great Expectations
Almost one hundred and fifty years have elapsed since Charles Dickens wrote Great Expectations. The perspective from which contemporary readers enjoyed the book, first in serial form in the journal All the Year Round, and the reader of the novel today are further apart than that comparatively short space of time might suggest.
The book was written in an era when huge changes were taking place in the way people lived. Cities were flourishing and industries emerging in the wake of advances in technology. Rural dwellers with little or no land had no prospect of bettering their circumstances moved in droves to the cities, where they eked out a tedious existence doing repetitive, often dangerous work in mills and factories. Children, too, were forced to do menial work in order that their families could survive, and it was not until the 1860s that child labour laws were introduced.
A middle class began to emerge, those who had made some progress on the industrial ladder and had some formal education, and it was these who provided a ready audience for Dickens’ work. Not all of those who moved to the cities were so fortunate, however, and many were forced into the workhouses and debtors’ prisons that were overflowing with those who had failed to achieve advancement. An underworld of crime developed in the cities, and pickpockets, swindlers and thieves were prevalent in the mean streets of the big cities. Those who had managed to rise above this unsavoury world began to make their homes in towns close to the cities, but out of the reach of its more seedy elements. Dickens has Estella going to stay in Richmond, and Wemmick also lives outside the city, in Walworth, for example.
Dickens uses Great Expectations, as he does his other novels, to explore some of the flaws in Victorian society. At first glance, it seems a simple enough analogy. Humble...