The movieGreat Expectations, directed in 1946 by David Lean, is considered one of the best movie adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novels and among Britain’s greatest films of all time (“Best 100 British films”). Based on the book of the same name,Great Expectationsis a story of love, fortune, social mobility, and class division told through the narration of an orphanage and his tumultuous journey amidst the Victorian era.
Right from the beginning of the movie, the early Pip-Estella teenage relationship has emphasized the classism discrimination deeply rooted in Victorian England. When being told to play with Pip, Estella initially refused. A stereotypical symbolization of Victorian society’s upper-class, Estella mockingly described Pip as “coarse” and “common,” demeaned the boy’s vernaculars and his costumes, as well as refusing to allow the boy’s escort to even enter through the gate of the Satis House. This class division is once again displayed vividly later in the story through Joe Gargery’s pretentious – or as described by the now upscaled Pip, “grotesque” – attempt at behaving subordinately towards Pip and Herbert. Class division and social inequity are once again exposed in the scene in which the London street is filled with the homeless and beggars in direct contrast to the prestigiously-clothed ladies and gentlemen who walked the very same street. This is a quite accurate portrait as by the late 18th century, the capital of the British Empire already become home to dozens of thousands of “full-time beggars” (Grafton and Bell 508).
Even when the class struggle was still vivid in the mid-19th century, Britain underwent the Industrial Revolution that generated considerable wealth and a pathway of upward mobility for some members of the lower class. Even some working-class households, such as the Gargeries, enjoyed the comfort of having “at least one or two servants,” much thanks to the new wealth and opportunities generated by the new era (Grafton and Bell 611). A place in the higher class was no longer exclusively reserved for descendants of the wealthy, but available through “formal training [..] and education” (Grafton and Bell 612). Admittedly, Pip’s tale of rising from a lowly “common labouring boy” into an aristocratic-ish “gentlemen” very much symbolized such social change at the time. The emphasis on self-improvement of the middle-class is seen through Pip’s participation in manner classes – a pursuit available even to industrial workers (Grafton and Bell 619). Similarly, Estella embarked on a journey to France to learn the etiquette of a lady, inferring that education was relatively more accessible for women than in previous periods (Grafton and Bell 612). Concerts, holiday parades, sporting events – where Estella met her future bridegroom Bentley Drummie – were important occasions for the nascent bourgeoisie’s offsprings to “find socially acceptable partners and for the match to work to their economic benefit” (Grafton and Bell 615).
Moreover, the movie depicts quite accurately is the state of work in the first half of the 19th century. Beginning his apprenticeship as a blacksmith exactly at the age of 14, Pip was perhaps among the last generations in Britain to be abused and employed at such early age because the country would soon pass the Factory Act curtailing child labor in 1833 (Grafton and Bell 675). Meanwhile, the relative wealth of Mr. Jaggers reflected the rise of new occupations – such as “lawyers, doctors, architects, teachers, and clergymen” – that served the demand of “growing industrial sectors” (Grafton and Bell 612). Moreover, Abel Magwitch’s newfound wealth as a sheep-farmer in Australia also alludes to the competition faced by European agriculture from the new world (Grafton and Bell 678). Indeed, by the late 18th century, these colonies were no longer a mere “dumping ground for convicts” but among the “most important sources of the European economy” (Grafton and Bell 509). In addition to that, the easily accessible steamship tickets acquired by Herbert for Magwitch, as well as Pip’s swift decision to move to Australia with his adopted father, also refers to the minimal barrier to resettle from Europe to the new colonies. Indeed, the migration out of Europe – either voluntarily to seek new economic opportunities or forcibly due to committing a crime – represented the broader change in migration patterns and an increasingly integrated global economy in the 19th century.
Another aspect of Magwitch’s story that the movie did right was its correspondence to a period when “courts exercised considerable discretion” and increase the prevalence of the death penalty (Grafton and Bell 509). The public execution in the road that horrified Tip reflected the aggressive attempt of the British government then to keep control of its crime-ridden capital, which a member of parliament once referred to as “a herd of barbarians” “without government” and a “disgrace [of] our nation.” In fact, the effort of restoring order and gentrifying the capital city seen in London was a common and growing trend among European empires as early as the 18th century – such as in Moscow, where Russian Tsar Peter vowed to make it a “well-policed,” “crime-free,” “orderly, clean, and healthy” city (Grafton and Bell 474).
Despite its relatively realistic portrait of the 19th century, the movie did have some minor historical inaccuracies. During the scene when Magwitch is escaping via a boat rowed by Herbert and Pip, the buoy in which their boat is anchored into had an electric light that blinks vividly. This is historically inaccurate as electricity was not widely used in England until the late 19th century when the German and British innovations made it possible for industrial usage (Grafton and Bell 658). This is likely to be a careless mistake and not an intentional one; throughout the movie, the film crew has carefully used the appropriate equipment of the mid-19th century – such as the antique barouches that carried Pip in his journey from Rochester to London. Another important aspect that the movie portrayed quite unrealistically is the dynamic between Joe Garger and his abusive first wife. The movie takes place amidst the growing cult of domesticity among middle-class families; as such, Mrs. Joe is expected to be ultimately “subordinate to their husbands” instead of being thede factohead of the household (Grafton and Bell 614). The author might have departed from this expected record to create an aggressive yet progressive female figure rather than a stereotypical “home goddess” commonly seen then. It might also help to showcase Joe’s particular sweet-temperedness and easygoingness towards everyone. This trait was observed when Joe allows Pip to cancel his apprenticeship without requesting any charges from Mr Jaggers, as well as when he takes care of Pip when the later succumbed to illness after his adopted father’s death.
In conclusion,Great Expectationsis a powerful and relatively accurate illustration of Victoria England and its society – from the class struggle and social mobility to the inhumanity of the law and the expansion of the state. Despite some minor historical inaccuracies, the movie did a decent job recreating the atmosphere of Britain in the mid-19th century.