Great Expectations- Context and Background: #
Charles John Huffam Dickens (February 7, 1812 – June 9, 1870), pen-name “Boz”, was a popular English novelist of the Victorian era, 1838 – 1901.
The Victorian Era was the final phase of the evolution from feudalism to capitalism in England. As in any transitional phase, there are winners and losers. Generally the losers are those who are oblivious to or resist change. However, a large number of the losers are those in no position to capitalise on new opportunity: children and the poor, uneducated, unskilled, desperate and landless peasants thrown off their property following the enclosure act to make way for the demands of the Industrial Revolution. Dickens characters champion the victims of these poor social and economic conditions. As a journalist he soon established a method of cheap publication of novels in serial form used for all subsequent novels.
Dickens and the legal System
Dickens started his working career in a legal office where he became grounded in legal language and procedures. Most of his novels illustrate the inadequacies of the legal system in helping the poor, who then need to resort to their own wits to survive on the streets often putting them in harm’s way.
The stock plot device of the impoverished orphan child, a representative victim of such a Victorian legal institution as the Poor Laws who is morally saved when elevated into gentility by a secret inheritance, sustains the plots of Oliver Twist and later Great Expectations.
Like Shakespeare, Dickens demonstrates how the legal system favours the rich and famous rather than society’s losers through no fault of their own.
Dickens was not the first to say: “The law is an ass” ; that it is contrary to common sense. In Oliver Twist, a court prosecutor says that “...the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction”, replies:
“If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, “the law is an ass - an idiot”.
In fact, ’the law is an ass’ is from a play published by the English dramatist George Chapman in 1654 - Revenge for Honour:
Ere he shall lose an eye for such a trifle… For doing deeds of nature! I’m ashamed. The law is such an ass. #
‘Published by’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘written by’. In 1653, Chapman’s play was registered, as The Parricide, or, Revenge for Honor, to fellow playwright Henry Glapthorne. Some scholars contend that the play was the work of neither gentlemen and was written around 1620.
Whoever the author was, we can be sure it wasn’t Charles Dickens. However, it was Dickens who brought the phrase to the general public. Oliver Twist was an enormous success when it was first published as a serial and has become one of the world’s best selling novels.
Despite the move to democratic and egalitarian social structures, aspirations to improve one’s social status continued. Dickens demonstrates the corrosive effects of these false expectations by revealing the hollow core of being a “gentleman” during the 19^(th) century.