British Novels

British society is stratified, with social class being a major determining factor in life. As might be expected, this fact also means that heritage is important and that family and family ties are given a good deal of attention. For one thing, one's family decides what social class one belongs to and so becomes a defining issue for most people. This remains true today, though with less force than in the past. In the novels Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence, and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, however, an older social order is apparent, one that is more clearly based on social standing and family. Family and social class are united in both novels, given that both are reflections of some aspect of British society in the Victorian age and just after.

The concept of parents plays an important role in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, and parentage determines social position. Pip is an orphan, and the driving force in his life, a drive that takes several different forms, is to have a family, the family he was denied as a child. The stratified social structure of England equates family with social position and worth. An orphan like Pip sees little chance of achieving a high social position because of the lack of family, and antecedents count for more than individual worth or achievement. Pip thus has a double reason for yearning for parents and for seeking a family which will give him the social imprimatur he craves. Specifically, the novel is concerned with the ways in which the individual is defined by his or her upbringing or by a traumatic experience that occurs before the character is fully formed. Dickens does find a way to suggest how the life of the individual is formed by early experiences and early attitudes.

In Dickens' view, as the novel shows, true worth does come from within and not from social position or wealth, but this view goes against the grain of British society. Pip learns this lesson after many emotional hardships and disappointments, but in the beginning he is a product of his society and feels the sting of having no parents by which to hang his fortune. Pip's search for a family naturally draws him to people of a social class that will be to his benefit. Miss Havisham has the social position that Pip desires, and this fact contributes to his illusion that she is his benefactor. Pip believes that she has taken a special interest in him because he wants that to be true and wants the social position that it would confer upon him.

The novel is viewed today as one of the "dark" novels by Dickens, a term used first by Lionel Stevenson, and critics recently have stressed the novel's dark and disillusioned qualities. In Dickens' time, however, the novel was seen as a robust comedy, and Dickens himself spoke of the novel as primarily comic and grotesque in its conception. Dickens referred to the work as a "tragicomedy," thus showing both the comic and the somber qualities in one term. Dickens managed here to combine serious and comic genres in an interesting and well-shaped manner.

The title of the novel epitomizes Pip's attitude and his life after he acquires an unknown benefactor -- he has great expectations for advancement, success, and a good marriage, all the things that identify the successful stratum of British society. Pip has only vague expectations before the benefactor changes his life. Miss Havisham is the richest and seemingly the most favored person he has met to that date, and so he believes that she has taken a liking to him and is providing the funds for his education.

Dickens believes that his society places too much emphasis on social stratification and has created too many rules to foster and maintain that system. The system undermines true family values by the sort of demands placed on family connections that Pip at first sees as necessary for his own advancement. People who are unworthy gain worth based on their family connections, while people with true worth are passed over because they have no family connections. Who one's parents are becomes more important than who the individual him or herself may be. Magwitch is a man who is punished for crimes committed by his wife, and he is too good a man to do other than to accept his fate. He is a convict, but he is not a criminal. The outward trappings of the man unfairly label him one way when in fact his character is quite different. As Pip discovers, parental relationships should be based on love, respect, and a recognition of sacrifice and not on wealth and position. Pip is the kind of man he is not because of wealth and position, but because of the upbringing given him by his sister and the added lessons taught him by his foster father Magwitch.

Pip actually has a family, though no parents. He lives with his sister and her husband, Joe Gargery, the village blacksmith. Joe is a good man, but he has no social position and is thus rejected by Pip as a father figure. Joe has had no formal education and cannot read or write. He and Pip can be the best of friends up to a point, but he cannot be a father figure for the boy because he lacks the qualifications and social position Pip desires. Pip has been raised by his sister and Joe, but as he grows up and becomes more aware of the social currents around him, he is also aware of a lack in his life because he does not have the parental connections that serve others. He respects Joe and his sister, but they rapidly become what he leaves behind when the opportunity to advance presents itself.

Pip has a benefactor in Magwitch, who might be thought to be a very detrimental influence in comparison to someone like Miss Havisham. In truth, though, Magwitch is far more successful as a parental figure because he does not try to be an influence in a direct sense. Rather, he provides the funds from afar and leaves Pip to develop as a young man on his own. Magwitch is an escaped convict when Pip first meets him, and it is the kindness the boy shows to the convict that causes the latter to become Pip's benefactor. Magwitch may be a convict and appear to be nothing more than a criminal to the young man, but he is actually a kind and generous man who is more central to Pip's life than the young man suspects even upon learning that he is the source of the funds. Magwitch is not the father figure Pip would have chosen for himself, but Magwitch is in fact the actual father of Estella, the woman for whom Pip has had the highest regard. By the time Magwitch dies, Pip has changed his attitude toward the man completely and has become a foster son and a friend. Pip has learned by then that social position and money are not the ways to identify quality in people. As far as the legal system is concerned Magwitch to the end is a criminal who should be punished and cast out from society, but Pip learns that this fact reflects more badly on society than it does on Magwitch. As Magwitch is dying, Pip draws together the two most important people and aspects of his life by telling Magwitch about the daughter he had lost and abvout his own love for her.

Dickens presents his story in a seemingly simple and direct fashion, but beneath this surface is great complexity of character and meaning. The family theme is put forth through a number of relationships all of which relate to Pip's attitudes and to his development as a human being in the course of his experiences. Pip has certain attitudes about family and society and self-worth that will change during the course of his life, and change for the better. Pip learns the lessons that Dickens thinks the world should learn. He stands in for the reader and embodies a number of moral lessons as he discovers that value is within the individual and that the true value of the person may be at odds with external trappings such as position and money. Pip can achieve his great expectations through personal effort as well as the help of friends such as Magwitch and even Joe. Pip does not have to have the social position he used to aspire to, and he can be happy and productive without gaining a title or receiving a fortune on which to live.

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence also has a clear family connection, in this case expressed in the title with the reference to "sons." This novel is set in a different sort of milieu, one that is solidly working class. Paul Morel is the central character,…