Dickens’ Treatment of the Victorian Concept of a Gentleman in Great Expectations

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Victorian society was very class orientated and gentlemen were the elite of their world. Traditionally gentlemen came from good backgrounds, were wealthy and conducted themselves in a proper and gentlemanly manner. Charles Dickens’ disagrees with these stereotypes and he shows this in his novels. In Great Expectations Philip Phirrip, nicknamed ‘Pip’, thrives to become what the Victorians perceived to be a gentleman. Pip wants to have great wealth and to have all the things that he felt were important in order to become a gentleman. Characters like Joe Gargery and Magwitch also show their belief that they consider these material things to be important in a gentleman by their change of attitude to Pip after he becomes a ‘gentleman’. Throughout the novel though, Pip’s view on what a real gentleman changes considerately and this is portrayed very visibly by the way that Pip narrates the story at the end. His change in views from the time that he performs the actions to the time that he narrates them is shown by Pip’s use of regretful language or the way he feels about what he did in the past.

Dickens recognized the old fashioned views that the society of the time had concerning gentleman and showed throughout his novels his opinion on this matter. The Victorians had a very definite view of what they thought a gentleman was. A gentleman definitely had to have wealth as his first major asset. When Magwitch gives Pip a large amount of money to help him in life, he shows his belief for what the Victorian’s perceived to be a gentleman. Magwitch says, “I’ve come to the old country to see my gentleman spend his money like a gentleman”, which demonstrates thoroughly his beliefs that by giving Pip his money, that is enough to enable him to call Pip a gentleman. Joe also illustrates this when he says, “It ain’t that I am proud…. I’m wrong in these clothes. I’m wrong out of the forge,” again Joe feels uncomfortable around Pip. Joe feels uncomfortable around Pip because he is prejudging Pip’s social status now on the luxuries that he sees around him. Dickens is using these characters to show the typical view of his time and to show that it is the uneducated characters that have the views like that.

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Another feature is coming from a sophisticated background and not working hard in your life, which we see clearly when Estella says, “He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy…..And what coarse hands he has! And thick boots”. This thoroughly shows the snobbery that the upper classes had in Dickens’ eyes which is portrayed by Estella looking down on Pip purely because of his social status. Pip is another person who believes that possessions and money are the answer to all his problems and that these will turn him into a gentleman overnight. The whole idea that Pip started to look down on Joe and his roots in the forge show how Pip feels that gentlemen should not be associated with people of a lower class.

The type of people that Pip looks up to on his journey to be a gentleman are people that follow these traditional stereotypes of gentlemen. One of these characters that Pip looks up to at first was Bentley Drummle. At first Bentley Drummle seemed to be a charming and well mannered fellow, but later on he commits countless acts of indecency that take away that title. It turns out to Pip later on in the novel that Drummle is very arrogant shown when Dickens writes, “Then Drummle glanced at me, with an insolent triumph on his great-jowled face that cut me to the heart.” This is not the behaviour of behaviour what we today would call a gentleman. The thing that would have hurt Pip most though was the fact that Bentley Drummle treats Estella with such cruelty, “I had hear of her as leading a most unhappy life, and as being separated from her husband who had used her with great cruelty.”

This again shows how the so-called ‘gentlemen’ turned out to be the worst of all society. The other person who Pip considered a gentleman was Compeyson. Compeyson was well-dressed and well spoken so the people around him automatically assume that he is indeed a gentleman. When Magwitch is in court he talks about the appearances of Compeyson and himself when he says, “I noticed first of all what a gentleman Compeyson looked wi’his curly hair and his black clothes and his white pocket handkerchief and what a common sort of wretch I looked.” Dickens has included these characters to show the injustice that the people who are considered gentlemen in his society are in reality the cruelest and most indecent of all. This is shown very clearly by Dickens in the fate of these characters. Compeyson in the end, dies by drowning and Drummle dies in a horse accident. This clearly portrays the fact that Dickens as a social critic wants to try and change people’s views on what they think a gentleman really is and to base their judgments on character, not on wealth.

When Pip first arrives in London he is treated very well by Herbert who goes out especially to buy Pip strawberries, but when it comes to being hospitable to people who Pip grew up with like Joe Gargery, Pip is at the very least unwelcoming. Pip is disgusted at the thought of Joe coming and all he can think about is his new ‘friends’ seeing him with the people he used to associate with. Pip thought this would be a huge step back after all the distance he had climbed up the social ladder. Pip says to Biddy, “Joe is a dear fellow- in fact, I think he is the dearest fellow that ever lived- but he is rather backward in some things.” In this statement Pip is being very condescending towards Joe and already Pip feels that he has the right to look down on the very people that brought him up. Pip would just like to get on with his life and leave his past behind him, never rearing it’s ugly head again and destroying his reputation. Forgetting all about Joe though is not something that Pip does overnight, because when he is younger he says, “It is a miserable thing to feel ashamed of home”, suggesting that Pip at this point is feeling ashamed of his thoughts towards Joe and his whole upbringing.

The only character in Great Expectations that really shows all the characteristics of a true gentleman is Herbert Pocket. Herbert mixes a unique blend of having a distinguished and well off background, whilst also being very caring and considerate towards others around him. Pip looks to Herbert constantly for guidance and help in becoming a ‘gentleman’. When Pip first arrives in London he sees Herbert on the street and said, “He carried off his rather old clothes, much better than I carried off my new suit,” showing Pip’s obvious respect for Herbert and his gentlemanly ways. Later on in the novel when Herbert and Pip are dining, Herbert says, “In London it is not custom to put the knife in the mouth.” Herbert is a tutor almost for Pip to learn first hand how a gentleman should act, but Pip does obviously not learn enough from Herbert based on the way he treats the people who really care for him. Herbert is welcoming, considerate, generous, loyal and trustworthy. Dickens is showing through Herbert what a real gentleman should be like and shows that this behaviour will be rewarded by the fact that Herbert has a peaceful ending in the story, finding someone he loves and living happily ever after.

Pip does change throughout the story and that is why some say that Dickens gave Pip his name. Pip represents a seed, which is significant because of the way that Pip blossoms from a young seed into a beautiful flower. When Abel Magwitch returns to London to tell Pip that he is the mystery benefactor, Pip’s fantasies that it was Miss. Havisham that was the benefactor are crushed. Pip realises in his head that it has all been a lie and he is not a gentleman by any standards. Pip realises that the money he had was not a rich inheritance but a working class man’s sweat and blood. This was indeed the turning point for Pip and after that he started to treat people with the respect that they had deserved. The piece of imagery that Dickens uses that sums up all his points throughout the book is when he says that those who present themselves as gentlemen are not necessarily honourable people:

“It is a principle of his that no man who was not a true gentleman at heart, ever was, since the world began, a true gentleman in manner. 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”.

This quotation tale compares Pip to a piece of wood and Pip’s possessions and money to varnish. Here Dickens is saying that being a true gentleman requires much more than just possessions and if someone thinks they are a gentleman just on those terms then their true colours will shine through.

Dickens manages to totally subvert the Victorian readers expectations to outline his role as a social critic. Dickens knew that he was in a position of influence and also knew that by writing a story like Great Expectations it would make it impossible for people to ignore it. Dickens narrates the story in first person to make people think that this story is not just something in a book and it could actually occur. He also uses the retrospective viewpoint to highlight the dual perspective of both the child’s and adult’s perspective. We have no actual concrete evidence of how the Victorian public took this book, all we know is that because of the huge amount of stories sold, the book must have made a significant impressions on the readers at the time.

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Dickens’ Treatment of the Victorian Concept of a Gentleman in Great Expectations. (2017, Oct 16). Retrieved from


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