The Class of Minor Characters in Great Expectations
Charles Dickens is known for creating a rich tapestry of personalities in his novels, not just through his main characters but also through the minor ones. These characters often have strange names, idiosyncrasies, and provide comedic and dramatic elements to the story. In Great Expectations, Dickens uses minor characters to educate the main character and accentuate the overall theme of the novel. The minor characters in the story such as Uncle Pumblechook, the Pockets, and Bentley Drummle help reinforce the theme of class; and whether by example or interaction, they influence the conclusions that Pip ultimately makes on his journey through the different classes.
In much of Great Expectations, Dickens examines the class system of Victorian England, from criminals like Magwitch, to the lower class like Joe, to the rising middle class of the Pockets and Pumblechook, to the upper class Miss Havisham and Bentle Drummle. Social class is a crucial theme in the novel and all the characters mark Pip’s journey from the bottom to the top and back down again, until he finally realizes that wealth and social status are secondary to the content of one’s humanity and morality.
Dickens’ underlying theme is the immense folly of the rising middle class that wishes to rise to the frivolous aristocracy. Uncle Pumblechook is an ideal example of this.
Uncle Pumblechook is a member of the upwardly-reaching middle class, highly concerned with money and status. He arrogant and pompous to those around him, and never has a kind word for those who do not benefit him. Dickens usually gives characters names suited to their character, and Pumblechook’s name speaks volumes, being wordy and overblown just like the man. It also rhymes with “bumble” and “crook.” Pumblechook was the one who initially brought Pip into the lavish upper class world of Estella and Miss Havisham, acting as a conduit between the low class of Pip and the high class of Havisham. However, Pumblechook is cruel and dismissive to Pip while he is young and has no prospects, and it is not until after Pip becomes rich that he shows his false morality and shallow emphasis on class by completely reversing the way he treats his nephew. Even though Pumblechook knows that he is not Pip’s benefactor, he takes credit for it, believing that it will help his social standing. Eventually, robbed by the despicable Orlick, who could be seen as revenge from the lower class, Pumblechook seems like nothing more than a target for both the upper and lower classes, unable to join one or protect himself from the other. Pumblechook could be Dickens’ way of showing how the desire of the middle class to elevate itself is nothing more than a pointless endeavor, but one that many choose to pursue.
The Pockets also represent the desire of the middle class to elevate itself, especially Mrs. Pocket. Like Pumblechook, the Pockets find themselves in the middle looking up. Mrs. Pocket continuously exclaims her noble lineage, though her current status fails to reflect it. Instead of being a dutiful wife or mother, she acts like an aristocrat, idle, selfish, and frivolous. When Pip firsts visits the Pockets with Herbert, he sees the young Pockets playing with their nurses and notices that they “were not growing up or being brought up, but were tumbling up” (329). Again, Dickens seems to be commenting on the error of the middle class to adopt the leisurely lifestyle or the aristocracy. Mrs. Pocket’s first appearance in the novel characterizes her as a woman who lives a life of leisure: “Mrs. Pocket was sitting on a garden chair under a tree, reading, with her legs upon another garden chair; and Mrs. Pocket’s two nursemaids, were looking about them while the children played” (329). Though Pip’s friend Herbert appears to have avoided much of the frivolous attributes of his mother, the suggestion by Dickens is that the false entitlement of Mrs. Pocket is something that is handed down, as it may be to the youngest children.
Mrs. Pocket’s father had instilled in her the desire for aristocratic frivolity. His efforts to raise his daughter into a lady, he insisted that she “be brought up from the cradle as one who in the nature of things must carry a title, and who was to be guarded from the acquisition of plebeian domestic knowledge” (334). Despite the fact that she inherited neither great wealth, nor title, she inherited an upper class sensibility and none of the hardworking ethic that allowed the middle class to rise in the first place. Dickens opinion of such an upbringing seems to be suggested in his description of Mrs. Pocket as “highly ornamental, but perfectly helpless and useless” (334). Despite her upbringing, or perhaps because of the uselessness it instilled, she ended up marrying Mr. Pocket, a man also of no great wealth or title.
Like Mrs. Pocket, Dickens portrays Mr. Pocket as futilely caught in the pursuit of wealth and sophistication. As the emasculated middle class male, Mr. Pocket is not as delusional as Mrs. Pocket in his desire for wealth, being on of the few relatives of Miss Havisham not interested in inheriting her money. Though his wife dominates him and he is relatively meek, Herbert’s better attributes most likely come from Mr. Pocket, as each seem avers to Mrs. Pocket’s concern with titles. Pip observed Mr. Pocket’s frustration with the concern of class when he literally tries to elevate himself by his own hair when he “put his two hands into his disturbed hair, and appeared to make an extraordinary effort to lift himself up by it” (339). This image of Mr. Pocket attempting to raise himself physically if not socially, signifies Dickens’ belief that the aristocratic desires of the middle class are ridiculous, as the value of a human is not measured financially or socially. This belief can also be seen in the portrayal of Bentley Drummle.
Bentley Drummle portrays the upper class at its worst, and antagonizes Pip throughout the novel simply because of his class. Even his name has a ring of royalty and wealth, but Drummle proves that wealth does not account for a person’s worth. Contrasted with Herbert, in Pip’s eyes each seem to represent the true nobility of classes, as he thought about Joe visiting him in London: “I had little objection to his being seen by Herbert or his father, for both of whom I had a respect; but I had the sharpest sensitiveness as to his being seen by Drummle, whom I held in contempt” (386). Though Pip has yet to learn the final lesson of class, his emotions are still influenced by what he sees: the accepting nature of the Herbert and Mr. Pocket as products of the middle class ideals, and the derisive exclusivity of Drummle’s upper class. Pip eventually realizes that Drummle’s immense wealth does nothing to enhance his poor character, while Pip Joe is a hardworking and compassionate person, despite the lack of wealth. When he marries Estella, Drummle takes the place Pip wishes to be, but the miserable marriage that ensued shows Pip that class has little to do with happiness or morality.
Minor characters like Drummle, Mr. and Mrs. Pocket, and Uncle Pumblechook provide examples of values for Pip, staying true to Dickens’ theme of class. Dickens portrayal of Drummle as a boorish oaf, Mrs. Pocket as useless and frivolous, Mr. Pocket as emasculated but decent, and Pumblechook as overblown and overly ambitious, shows Pip that wealth is secondary to character. Dickens’ ideas of class communicated through theses characters, along with Pip, Estella, Miss Havisham, and Magwitch, suggest that value is judged by compassion, humanity, and responsibility.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Planet PDF. 2004. 5 January 2006.
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