Marxism and Charles Dickens: Money and Class Mobility in Great Expectations
by C.H. Newell
In The Communist Manifesto, the first chapter “Bourgeois and Proletarians” is subtitled by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx as such: “The history of all society hitherto is the history of class struggles” (62). The division between what Engels and Marx define as the proletariat and bourgeois classes of society begins after the end of feudalism with the birth of private ownership. One particularly interesting aspect of which is social mobility. After private ownership, as long as a person had money they were capable of elevating themselves to another class. The character Pip in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is a classic example of a man whose social status transformed solely due to money, which contributed to the alienation of his being, as well as eventually leading him to a realisation of class consciousness. Pip, the blacksmith’s apprentice, goes from a lower class boy in the countryside to a gentleman in London high society. Although, Pip did not achieve any class mobility through his own labour, but rather through the capital of an anonymous benefactor. Finally, Pip later comes to learn his benefactor is a former criminal named Magwitch whom he encountered years ago as a boy. In Marxist terms, the money changed Pip’s social identity and at the same time alienated him from his own being. He did nothing to actually earn the money. Therefore the alienation Pip experiences is more severe. However, in the end Pip does realise his own self-deceit. Pip is “at last compelled to confront soberly [his] situation in life, [his] relations to others” (The Communist Manifesto 65). Only through his move between classes and back again is Pip capable of awakening to the reality of life: class is merely a divisive social construct.
Social mobility, or class mobility, was made more possible after the death of feudalism by the emergence of private ownership. However, as Marx states in The Communist Manifesto, “the modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonism… but [has] established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones” (62). Therefore, an individual can move between classes, but at a price; both a monetary one, as well as one of a social nature. This is evident in the entirety of Great Expectations, as we read along while Pip goes from proletariat to hobnobbing with the upper crust of London society in university studies and smoking rooms. Through the journey of Pip we see how these new divisions in class are no less oppressive than those during the previous feudalist period. The first time Pip truly realises the difference between classes is after his first encounters with Miss Havisham and Estella at Satis House.
As part of the bourgeois class who inherited land and wealth from her father, Miss Havisham begins negatively shaping Pip’s conception of his own social status as a “common labouring-boy” (Dickens 60). She literally embodies the bourgeoisie in Marxist terms: staying in her old wedding dress for years and letting the house around her deteriorate, because “in bourgeois society… the past dominates the present” (The Communist Manifesto 76). After Pip initially visits Satis House, his want to become a ‘gentleman’ grows. In the presence of Miss Havisham, Pip sees the life of leisure. For instance, unlike at the marsh with Joe in the forge, Miss Havisham does nothing except ‘play’, as she calls it (Dickens 58). First, he laments the job working with Joe as a blacksmith. He proclaims it dirty, harsh work after experiencing the leisurely days at Satis House. Simultaneously in a conflicted state, Pip does not turn his back on Joe yet admiring his hard working nature. However, once the young protege of Miss Havisham, Estella, asserts an influence on Pip he worries. The thought of Estella seeing him do the work of the proletariat is upsetting. Pip believes if she were ever to witness this she would never talk to or want to see him again. He sees himself not as “distinguished and happy” like he once thought working for Joe would make him feel. Rather he feels “dusty with the dust of small-coal… [with] a weight upon [his] daily remembrance to which the anvil was a feather” (Dickens 107). Therefore, the influence of both Miss Havisham and Estella grow on Pip seducing him away from the proletariat. In turn his former proletariat mind is then warped. From this point on, Pip becomes obsessed with class mobility seeking to push his way upward into the bourgeoisie.
The snobbish Mr. Jaggers arrives soon after Pip starts spending time at Satis House. He is there to announce a wealthy benefactor wishing to fund the boy’s move between classes. Funnily enough, Pip assumes it is Miss Havisham. This makes him feel important and thrusts him into a transition. In this new upper class life Pip finds himself far removed from work. Marx believed labour was a good thing only as long as “the relation of the worker to the product of labour” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 74) remains free of alienation. In the newly industrialised world of the late 18th century and into the middle of the 19th century, many people were alienated from the fruits of their labour. That is to say, the labourers in factories and cotton mills using machinery were producing “wonderful things” for the bourgeois, those who own the means of production, augmenting their capital. For the workers, this only meant “privation” as they became more like machines themselves (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 73).
Given a sum of money with which to transform himself into a gentleman, Pip is completely alienated from the activity of labour. Pip makes his way using money he did not earn. There is no personal meaning to his capital. He is alienated even from the money through which he enters into a higher class. “In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality” (The Communist Manifesto 76). Therefore, it is the money which basically moves independently between classes. Pip is dependent on this gifted money for everything, robbing him of personhood. Later in the novel, Pip begins lamenting the fact he had not “risen to manhood content to be partners with Joe in the honest old forge” (Dickens 272). With Joe, making a living was honest. The money he earned at the forge would have given him more personal pride, a sense of himself and his identity. Whereas the money Magwitch provides only serves to alienate him from the class in which he was born, his true needs, the people around him and, effectively, the proletariat. In addition, Pip finds a totally new world open up to him via money. Pip imagines his anxieties assuaged by means of capital: “If I could have kept [Joe] away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money” (Dickens 218). The social relationships between Pip and others are alienated, just as Pip finds himself alienated from his own being. Subsequently, Pip’s alienation is reversed by seeing Joe once again and discovering Magwitch as the mysterious, anonymous benefactor.
Engels and Marx view written history as the history of class struggle. In similar fashion, as does Pip’s former mentor Joe Bargery believe the world works in such terms: “Life is made of ever so many partings welded together … Divisions among such must come, and must be met as they come” (Dickens 224). Perhaps the most visible instance of a recognition of class divisions comes when Pip is visited by Joe at his new place in London. Even when Pip went back to visit at his old home in the marsh, Dickens did not impart such an intense recognition by any of the characters. However, once Joe and his perceived common identity come to London it is as if Pip is confronted with his old life in an upsetting juxtaposition.
Joe himself recognises this well enough, as he tells Pip: “I’m wrong in these clothes. I’m wrong out of the forge, the kitchen, or off th’meshes. You won’t find half so much fault in me if you think of me in my forge dress” (Dickens 224). Joe has succumbed to the expectations of society playing the part of the class to which he supposedly belongs. His identity is completely bound up in his work, his designation as proletariat. Without the proper clothes of his trade, he does not even feel normal or right. He is literally uncomfortable, perceiving himself out of place. Having Joe in his presence only exacerbates these feelings of shame and pushes Pip further into the mindset of the bourgeoisie. In opposition, Pip does recognise he is from a lower class. He aims to act and appear as part of the bourgeoisie.
One of the only ways Pip relates back to the world of the blacksmith he experienced is through a classical piece by Handel: the Harmonious Blacksmith (Dickens 179). The great expectations of Dickens’ title come to bear on Pip who confronts what is expected of him, as a member of the upper class. Because of this he begins to reject Joe and his old status of blacksmith apprentice. On the contrary, once Pip discovers the identity of his mysterious benefactor this prompts him to face his own newly formed prejudice as an upper class gentleman.
Magwitch, formerly a member of the lumpenproletariat, somehow tears himself from those moorings and gains capital, which Marx defines as “accumulated labour” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 98). Marx saw the lumpenproletariat as a group which will never attain class consciousness, technically of no use to any kind of social production. Less amicably, Marx saw them as the “passive putrifying of the lowest layers of old society” (The Communist Manifesto 72). However, Magwitch defies this definition due to his unusual class consciousness. It is his desire to strike back at the ruling class which drives him to work, in order to pay for Pip’s education as a gentleman. On one hand, Magwitch helped Pip. On the other hand, Marx might disagree. It is through the mysterious donation of Magwitch that Pip becomes alienated from his being. Nevertheless, if the former criminal had not helped Pip move from proletariat to bourgeoisie, the latter may never have reached a point of respective class consciousness. Pip’s journey towards becoming a ‘gentleman’ has taken him full circle and brought him back to the lower class. Furthermore, the realisation Pip has come to over the course of the novel have transformed his views concerning the poor life he initially led. No longer does he see the gentlemanly world in which he lived as a sort of Exodus from the life of a blacksmith.
As the old criminal reveals he was the anonymous benefactor, Pip tells us: “[t]he abhorrence in which I held the man, the dread I had of him, the repugnance with which I shrank from him, could not have been exceeded if he had been some terrible beast” (Dickens 320). As a young boy and a firm member of the proletariat, Pip was willing to give Magwitch food and help him. Now, after his transition to a member of the bourgeoisie, Pip finds himself repulsed by the criminal as being the source of his class mobility. Ultimately, this disgust finally drives Pip into a space where he transcends his alienation through realising his own estrangement as a new member of the bourgeois class.
Even the title of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations demands a particular interpretation. Social class comes along with certain expectations forced upon individuals: how to appear, how to present oneself based on financial status, with whom one should be seen and associate. In his own life Dickens dealt with the disparity between the rich and the poor; in Marxist terms, the gap between proletariat and bourgeoisie. The author’s father wound up for a time in debtors jail. Such policies targeting the poor were particularly worsened during the industrial revolution and the bold emergence of capitalism. This also brought about class mobility, not at all common during the days of feudalism. Coming to fame and recognition after such hardships, Dickens understood the ins and outs of society in terms fo class struggle.
Through the character of Pip, and to a lesser extent the criminal Magwitch, Dickens explores how a member of the Marxian proletariat was able to make his way into the bourgeoisie. Pip also experiences the inner struggle of rejecting his given social status and those in his former social sphere. By the end of the novel Pip’s experience as a member of the bourgeoisie ultimately helped him towards a realisation of class consciousness. It took Pip leaving the marshes and entering into city society for him to realise, as Marx writes in the Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie: “The human being is in the most literal sense a political animal, not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society” (223). This transition from proletariat to bourgeoisie was necessary in order for Pip to wake from a sleep of ignorance and helps him finally comprehend the idea of class as a socially constructed system of division between individuals.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. London: Penguin Books, 1996. Print.
Engels, Friedrich and Karl Marx. The Communist Manifesto. Ed. L.M. Findlay. Toronto: Broadview Press Ltd., 2004. Print.
Marx, Karl. “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844”. The Marx-Engels Reader; second edition. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978. pp. 66-125. Print.
—. “Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie”. The Marx-Engels Reader; second edition. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978. pp. 221-293. Print.