Social institutions are established for the purpose of benefiting society. The benefits of such establishments, by definition, should be directed towards the entire society in which they are in place. In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens portrayal of the educational, religious and legal systems demonstrate that these establishments certainly do not benefit the majority of society. Dickens makes a mockery of social institutions by way of setting, diction and character, clearly indicating how these systems are simply not working in modern England.
In the first chapter of the novel the reader receives a clear indication of Dickens' feeling towards church through the description of setting. Pip initially describes the churchyard as a "bleak place overgrown with nettles"Ã¯Â¿Â½ (Dickens 1). The strong sense of abandonment implied by the author indicates exactly what kind of role the church has in England at the time. It is merely a graveyard, and is presently of no use to society.
This idea is developed further by examining how often characters in Great Expectations actually use the church's facilities. Only once, at the beginning of the novel, does Pip even consider the local church as a place "powerful enough to shield [him] from the vengeance of the terrible young man, if [he] divulged in that establishment"Ã¯Â¿Â½ (21). Pip, as a naÃÂÃÂ¯ve six year-old boy, decides that making a confession in the vestry would not be of any help to him. Besides Pip, not one character in the novel even attempts to find any solace in church. When one considers the major role of the Catholic Church in nineteenth century England, and the virtually non-existent role the Church has in Great Expectations, it becomes clear that Dickens is making a statement pertaining to the futility and uselessness of Catholic Church in contemporary England. In addition, character plays an important role in determining Dickens' feelings towards the social institution of church. Mr.Wopsle, being a clerk at the local church, is used by the author as a characterization of this establishment. As we initially meet Wopsle the innocent Pip describes him as having "a deep voice which he was uncommonly proud of"Ã¯Â¿Â½ (21). This narration immediately implies a lack of interest on the part of others in what Wopsle says. This notion is only exaggerated as one reads for the second time Wopsle's wild talk of the church being "thrown open"Ã¯Â¿Â½ during the course of Christmas dinner. By the end of the evening Wopsle's ranting about the church being "thrown open"Ã¯Â¿Â½ "would have probably excommunicated the whole expedition, beginning with Joe and [Pip]"Ã¯Â¿Â½ (38). The two natural, well-rounded characters of Joe and young Pip are completely disinterested in what Wopsle is saying, and as a result one is left with a mutually negative impression of Wopsle. He is pompous, he is loud mouthed and, as an actor, he is a fake. This impression reflects directly upon the establishment of church. Dickens is implying through Mr.Wopsle that people are neither interested in nor reached by the words of the church, and consequently, the social institution of church is not of any benefit to the public. With the characterization of Mr.Wopsle, the description of the local church and the uselessness of church in the novel, it becomes clear that Dickens, through the previously mentioned media, is making a mockery of the social institution of church in contemporary England, and indicating that the establishment is not working as it should.
Another social institution that Dickens portrays to be of little benefit to society is that of school. The evening school of the village is run by Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt. She is emblematic of the school system in England and as such contributes much to one's impression of the social institution. She is initially described by the narrator as "a ridiculous old woman of limited means and unlimited infirmity"Ã¯Â¿Â½(39) who would "sleep from six to seven every evening in the society of youth who paid twopence per week each for the improving opportunity of seeing her do it"Ã¯Â¿Â½(39). The demeaning and comical diction employed by Dickens strongly suggests incompetence on the part of Mrs. Wopsle, furthermore, the entire school system. Later in the novel Pip describes the "educational scheme"Ã¯Â¿Â½(67) that Mrs. Wopsle has established: "The pupils ate apples and put straw down one another's backs, until [Mrs. Wopsle] collected her energies, and made an indiscriminate totter at them with the birch-rod. After receiving the charge with every mark of derision, the pupils formed in line and buzzingly passed a ragged book from hand to hand. The book had and alphabet in it, some figures and tables, and a little spelling- that is to say, it had once. As soon as this volume began to circulate, [Mrs. Wopsle] fell into a state of coma; arising either from sleep or rheumatic paroxysm. The Pupils then entered among themselves upon a competitive examination on the subject of boots, with the view of ascertaining who could tread the hardest upon whose toes."Ã¯Â¿Â½(67) As well as suggesting a severe lack of proper educational supplies, Dickens makes another almost farcical characterization of Mrs. Wopsle. She is again portrayed to be completely unqualified to perform the task of teaching the local children, which reflects upon the educational system established at that time. Also, the paragraph puts light on the actual amount of learning that occurs in the school. Pip said himself that "it would take time to become uncommon under these circumstances"Ã¯Â¿Â½(68). In fact, the education that he does receive is not from the school, it is from Biddy. As a young boy Pip resolves that school was not the place to receive an education, making a direct mockery of the educational system that was established in Dickens' time. One can see, through the examination of Mrs. Wopsle as a representation of the educational system and the condition of the local school, Dickens is making a derisive statement about the social institution, demonstrating the futility of England's public education system in the late nineteenth century.
Perhaps the most flagrantly demeaned social institution in Great Expectations is that of law. The first indication of Dickens' contempt for the legal system can be derived from the description of setting, more specifically, London. As Pip visits London for the first time he sees the jail and comments that "from the quantity of people standing about smelling strongly of spirits and beer, [Pip] inferred that the trials were on"Ã¯Â¿Â½(152). This remark is an egregious mockery of the social institution of law, however, it gets worse. Pip sees an "exceedingly dirty and partially drunk Minister of Justice"Ã¯Â¿Â½(152) and notes that "the Lord Chief Justices proprietor wore"ÃÂ¦mildewed clothes, which had evidently not belonged to him originally, and which"ÃÂ¦he bought cheap of the executioner"Ã¯Â¿Â½(153). These observations, as well as hearing of the four public executions that are to take place the next day, give Pip a "sickening idea of London"Ã¯Â¿Â½(153). Through the description of setting Dickens is able to make strong comments pertaining to the establishment of law. As well as setting, character is a medium through which one can make inferences regarding the shape of England's legal structure. The legal system is characterized by Mr. Jaggers, a high-class criminal lawyer. Jaggers primary concern and motivation is money, taking little time to consult with possible clients except to ask "have you paid Wemmick"Ã¯Â¿Â½(154). He is impatient and contemptuous towards clients, especially those of lower classes. His interest in money and his unequal perception of classes implies strong statements about the current legal system, while presenting how little law at this time benefits the majority of society. Also, Jaggers has an obsession with hands, often washing and grooming his own or commenting on the remarkable force of those of his housekeeper's. The implication is that of control and manipulation, two words that describe Mr. Jaggers accurately. Adding to the image of control that surrounds Jaggers is the way in which he conducts himself. When dining with Pip Jaggers forces Molly to show the party her "much disfigured"Ã¯Â¿Â½ and "deeply scarred"Ã¯Â¿Â½(199) wrists, completely disregarding her sensitivity to such an area and multiple pleas to stop. Actions such as this portray Jaggers as cruel and controlling, and reflect upon the legal system as it was in the nineteenth century. Jaggers' ability to manipulate is of great use to him as he works. Pip notes that during an examination "the magistrates shivered under a single bite of finger"Ã¯Â¿Â½ and "thieves and thieftakers"ÃÂ¦shrank when a hair of his eyebrows turned in their direction"Ã¯Â¿Â½(188). The power Jaggers has to manipulate strikes fear in those around him, from the woman Pip sees him examining to the coachman who would "darkly close an eye to Mr. Jagger's name, and shake his head."Ã¯Â¿Â½(151). Through the characterization of Jaggers, as he is manipulating, cruel and motivated primarily with money, one can infer bold statements concerning the state of the legal system in England at the time. As well as this character, setting implies much about law, as Dickens is able to indicate the huge injustice that is a corrupt legal system, and demonstrate the degree to which the social institution is failing society.
Through the careful use of character, diction and setting one is able to analyse the roles of social institutions in Great Expectations. Due to their lack of service to the public, one can infer statements about the operation of these systems. Dickens makes a mockery of the educational, religious and legal system established in the late nineteenth century, drawing attention to the poor operation of these institutions in contemporary England.
Bibliography Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. 1860-61. New York: Bantam, 1981.