Irony & Satire in Great Expectations

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  • 0:04 Satire
  • 0:41 Situational Irony
  • 2:25 Class System
  • 3:02 Educational System
  • 3:34 Child Abuse
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Burke

Erin has taught college level english courses and has a master's degree in english.

This lesson will examine the ways Charles Dickens uses irony and satire in his novel 'Great Expectations'. We will learn how irony and satire help Dickens achieve an effective social critique while keeping readers engaged, and at times, laughing.


Sometimes, when all of society's problems get too upsetting, the only thing to do is laugh at them. For example, a good Saturday Night Live sketch can criticize corrupt politicians in a thoughtful yet hilarious way. This is an example of satire, or the exposing of society's problems through humor or ridicule, and it's nothing new. In this lesson, we'll look at the satirical aspects of Great Expectations, a Victorian novel by Charles Dickens. We'll also look at the role that irony, or the difference between what's expected and what's actually true, plays in the novel.

Situational Irony

Great Expectations mostly employs the use of situational irony, where both the reader and the characters in the story are unaware of certain realities. For example, Estella, the ultimate snob, turns out to be the daughter of a gypsy and a convict. Or take Matthew Pocket, a hapless father who has no time for his own kids, but writes advice books on parenting. And the mysterious red-haired boy whom Pip, the protagonist, brawls with - he turns out to be Pip's greatest friend.

Other ironies have much greater significance in the novel, such as the identity of Pip's benefactor. For much of the novel, Pip, along with the reader, fully believes that Miss Havisham is the source of his fortune. When we learn that Magwitch is Pip's benefactor, the irony of the situation becomes clear. Sorry, Pip! The mystery patron is not that rich old lady who might set you up with her gorgeous ward. Actually, it's that common criminal who scared the daylights out of you as a kid.

Then there's perhaps the biggest irony of all - the fact that Pip's so-called ''great expectations'' are not so great after all. Pip spends a lot of time clambering to get ahead and rise up the social ladder, while leaving his common roots behind. Ironically, the longer he lives like a gentleman, the less happy he is, and his designs on Estella go nowhere. It's not until Pip stops trying to be something he's not that he actually becomes content with his station in life - and yes, he gets the girl.

Not all irony is satirical, but most satire contains irony. In Great Expectations, Dickens takes aim at the class system, the educational system, and the issue of child abuse in Victorian England through satirical situations containing irony and humor.

Class System

In Great Expectations, Dickens is merciless toward the class system and snobs. One comical example is the character of Mrs. Pocket, a ridiculous woman obsessed with titles. Through this silly woman, Dickens satirizes the attitudes of Victorian society in general, who were overall obsessed with titles and the social status they confer. Mr. Pumblechook is another example. He is a wealthy, pompous man who is overly impressed by money and social standing. Mr. Pumblechook is a comical figure almost totally lacking in self-awareness, making him a perfect example of satire.

Educational System

Early on in Great Expectations, Dickens has some fun with England's public education system. The ''school'' Pip attends as a young boy is a joke. It's run by an inept old woman who falls asleep in class. Her great-nephew, Mr. Wopsle, uses the students as a practice audience for his speeches. Pip's public school symbolizes the many problematic institutions of Dickens' day in that it's poorly run and overcrowded. While this early scene has an element of comedy to it, it shines a light on a serious problem.

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