Social Class Influence on the Individual Essay
Social Class Influence on the Individual“Poor as a church mouse” vs. “born with a silver spoon in your mouth” are contrasting themes in this book of hardships and life trials. In Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, the main character Pip interacts with characters of various social groups. These groups directly or indirectly, help Pip understand his own opportunities and purpose in life. From these interactions, it becomes clear that social class influences how people interact and view one another as well as their opportunities in life.
Some people do not have the same opportunity as others of getting education. This contrast is shown in the life circumstances of two characters of different social classes. Joe (uncle to Pip) had different educational opportunities than others did. He had little chance for education when he was a boy because his family moved a lot and his father was a blacksmith so he did not feel that education was needed. As a child Pip realized that Joe, even as an adult, could not read, so he “… derived from this, that Joe’s education, like Steam, was yet in its infancy. Pursuing the subject, I inquired- ‘Didn’t you ever go to school, Joe, when you were as little as me?’ ’No, Pip’ ” (Dickens 56-57).
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Bentley Drummle was a classmate of Pip that, “came of rich people down in Somersetshire…” (Dickens 255). Pip and Drummle studied together under the same tutor in London as Pip was preparing to become a gentleman. It is obvious that Drummle had more of an educational opportunity than Joe because Drummle came from a wealthier family. Since formal education cost a lot of money during the 1800s, children from rich and poor families had different opportunities of getting education. Private schools were expensive.There were few public schools, so “Many children in early Victorian England never went to school at all and more than half of them grew-up unable even to read or write.” (www.nettlesworth.
durham.sch.uk). Later in life, Pip was only able to get an education because it was paid for by his rich benefactor. Prior to this opportunity Pip only had public school available, which was not much.
Skills, as well as education, affect society’s view of jobs and occupations. People whose jobs require responsibility, leadership, or special expertise such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. usually have higher status. Mr. Jaggers was a powerful and successful criminal lawyer. People had high respect for him because of his skills and expertise. Also, “Some scholarsuse life chances as an indicator of social class. Life chances reflect the sets of resources, opportunities and choices available to a person, a person’s life chances depend largely on money, education, and support from the family and the community.
” (Cohen). Pip’s life chances improved when he received money from his benefactor. He was able to pursue an education and had a great deal of support from family, benefactor, guardian, and friends like Herbert and Wemmick. Today there are many more resources that were not available long ago to improve one’s life style, such as public schools, scholarships/grants for higher education, social programs that help the poor, etc. Wealth also influences how people think about and treat others. Pip meets Estella at the home of Miss Havisham (a crazy, wealthy, old woman) before he becomes a gentleman. Pip and Estella both allow their fortune to affect how they look at other people.Estella sees herself in a higher class than Pip, so she treats him as though he is nothing.
When Miss Havisham asks Estella to play cards with Pip, she replies, “With this boy! Why, he is a common laboring boy!…
And what coarse hands he has, and what thick boots!” (Dickens 74-75). When Pip comes into money, he begins to feel superior as Estella had. He is embarrassed by how Joe talks and dresses when he arrives to see Miss Havisham. Once Pip is in London he avoids visiting Joe so it appears that a person’s attitude changes about themselves and others, when that person comes into wealth.
Also other people’s attitudes may change towards them. Not only in Pip’s day, but for centuries, people have treated one another according to their wealth. Early in the history of the United States voting rights were limited by gender, race, and wealth. Only white males with property had voting rights. It was said that, “…The American class system has persisted since the nation’s birth. The notion of social equality was so restricted in the late eighteenth century that neither the term nor even the concept of equality appeared in the Constitution or Bill of Rights.”(Martin Jr. and Sullivan).
Social class discrimination was a big part of this time period in Great Britain as well. Pip felt this discrimination before he had money and after he lost his money. Today, as in Pips time period, people are categorized into social classes using various criteria. Wealth is just one of the characteristics that influence someone’s placement in a social class. Social class is defined as, “…a group of people who share a common status or position in society. Social classes represent differences in wealth, power, employment, family background, and other qualities.” (Cohen). In the past, wealth was most likely to be the biggest factor for placement in social class.
Today other criteria as well would impact social class placement. For Pip, his change of income landed him in various social classes. It is difficult but not impossible to move up in social class. Both Pip and his friend Herbert moved up in social class with the help of others. Pip has the opportunity to move up in social class and to become a gentleman through the generosity of his benefactor.
Pip, along with Miss Havisham and Wemmick, secretly help Herbert to get a position that allows him to improve himself. Pip says of his desire to help Herbert, “…I had a great affection for him, I wished my own good fortune to reflect some rays upon him…how I could best try with my resources to help Herbert to some present income—say of a hundred a year, to keep him in good hope and heart—and gradually to buy him on to some small partnership…and that in my help must always be rendered without Herbert’s knowledge or suspicion…” (Dickens 373-374). It was unlikely that Pip and Herbert could have raised their social status without help. Just as Pip struggled to get out of the “common class,” historically people have found it difficult to improve social status. Historically there have been four classes. The upper class made up of people with inherited money, better education and economic opportunities. The middle class and working class depended on jobs created by the upper class… The lowest of the classes, the underclass was the unemployed members of society.
Those in the lower class were, “… faced with high crime, poor living conditions including housing, limited educational opportunity, lack of adult role models, and poor health, many held little hope of breaking from the cycle.” (Martin Jr. and Sullivan). Pip did not have very many educational opportunities and until came into money, he found it difficult to move up in social status. Hard work and personal achievement can help a person improve their social status. “Class Structure” is the system of social classes in a society. (Cohen).At the top are the wealthy and those with influence and power.
The middle class consists of those people with secure jobs and comfortable standard of living, while the lower class and working class have people with low paying jobs or are unemployed. “In most western democracies… the class structure is largely informal. Such countries allow for some degree of social mobility. In other words, it is possible for a person to move from one class to another through his or her actions and achievements.” (Cohen). For example if someone form the working class saves their money, works hard, and gets an education.
They are more likely to find a better paying job that is more stable. Then eventually move up to the middle class. By the same token, a person like Pip who loses their money may find themselves in debt and in a lower class. Just as in the time of Charles Dickens, today social class continues to impact on how people relate to one another. Today our opportunities are still advanced or limited by our placement in society.
An educational opportunity determines what kind of job you will have later in life.The poor may not have the resources to even know what opportunities exist and yet the wealthy may look down on them as being lazy. The poor in turn may view the rich as privileged and selfish people. These class views effect how they treat each other and the poor’s upward mobility.
By reading Great Expectations one gains a greater appreciation for the role of classes in our lives and perhaps the importance of not limiting ourselves or each other by them.