Great Expectations Time Period

Instructor: Sarah Bostock
After finishing this lesson, you will understand how and why Charles Dickens chose the time period for his coming-of-age novel ''Great Expectations''. You will also briefly explore the social context of the Victorian Age in which his novel is set.

The Victorian Class System

Imagine that you fell in love with a person, but your social standing prevented you from pursuing a marriage with them. It feels more far-fetched today, but just over a hundred years ago, it was pretty standard. That time period in 19th century England is often referred to as the Victorian Age because Queen Victoria reigned between 1837-1901. During that time, England's people were divided by social classes, or social and economic status. The three main classes of people included the working class, the middle class, and the upper class.

The working class people were quite separated from the other two classes. The separation grew further as the Industrial Revolution, or the rapid growth of modern industry, advanced in England. The working class people consisted of men and women who often did physical labor for very low wages. Most of them lived in dilapidated housing, ate very frugally, and had very little opportunities for economic or social advancement.

Charles Dickens Working in a Factory as a Youth
Charles Dickens Working in a Factory

Charles Dickens, A Social Writer

Charles Dickens was born into a poor family in 1812. By the time Dickens was twelve years old, his father was sent to prison for not being able to pay his bills. At the time, Dickens had to quit school and go work in a factory. This early experience shaped many of his novels, including his 1861 novel Great Expectations. Dickens began his early writing career when he was still in his teens and eventually worked his way up the social ladder to the middle class.

Charles Dickens at his Writing Desk
Charles Dickens at his Writing Desk

Charles Dickens used his literature to promote the need for social reform. He explores many social ills in his works and shows a great empathy to those who are victims of social circumstance. Great Expectations, as well as other novels such as Oliver Twist and Hard Times, focuses on characters who suffer from the separation of classes in England. Several other Victorian novelists also wrote about the need for social reform, including Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Carlyle, and Benjamin Disraeli.

'Great Expectations'

Great Expectations was written in 1861 and is considered a bildungsroman or coming of age story. Additionally, the novel is also considered to be a bit autobiographical and has elements that stem from Dickens' own childhood. Autobiographical refers to the writer's personal accounts of his or her own life.

The novel is also considered a social-problem novel since Dickens explores the plight of the working-class in England. The book begins on Christmas Eve in 1812 when the protagonist, or main character, is six years old. This main character is Pip, and he narrates the story as an older man living in 1840, who looks back at his life. Although told from the same character, the audience can tell when it is the younger Pip narrating or the older Pip by his emotions, language, and viewpoints.

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