The word context within a work of literature can mean lots of different things:
Biographical context - what happened in the writer’s life when the story was written
Historical context - what world events were happening when the story was written
Social context - what was happening in society at the time the story was written
Literary context - what influence other texts have had on the story
No matter which aspect of context you write about, you must link it to the text you're studying.
Demonstrating a good understanding of different types of context and why this is significant will enable you to obtain higher marks.
Charles Dickens is obviously important as he is the author of ‘Great Expectations’! However, what is most important is how what happened during his life might have affected what he wrote about. Dickens believed that many aspects of Victorian society were unjust and corrupt. What could have happened in his life to make him feel this way?
Charles Dickens was born in Hampshire and grew up in London and Kent. His father was a clerk in the Navy, so the family were middle class. Dickens was the second of eight children.
When Dickens was just 12 years old, his father was sent to debtor’s prison due to mounting debts created by the family living beyond their means. Dickens’s mother and younger siblings went with his father to the prison, which was common practice at the time. Debtor’s prison was a very unforgiving environment; Dickens later became a supporter of prison reform, perhaps influenced by his family’s experiences.
During this time, Dickens was sent to board with family friends. To pay for his keep, he left school and had to work in a boot-blacking factory for ten hours a day, pasting labels onto tins. His experience of the factory and the harsh working conditions could have led to Dickens’s support for reform of labour conditions and the treatment of the poor, perhaps reflected by his sympathetic portrayal of Magwitch in ‘Great Expectations’. Dickens later wondered to his friend John Forster (author of ‘Life of Charles Dickens’), “How I could have been so easily cast away at such an age” and his experience may have influenced his later passionate campaigning for children’s rights.
After three years, Dickens was able to return to school due to his father receiving a family legacy, and this led to a job in a law office. He soon left to become a freelance reporter, reporting on legal proceedings. Dickens was unimpressed by the bureaucracy of the legal system and the unfair treatment of the poor in the law courts. This influenced his presentation of the law system in his novels, including the presentation of Jaggers and Magwitch’s trial in ‘Great Expectations’.
Dickens began writing for newspapers and magazines, which led to the publication of his first novel, ‘The Pickwick Papers’. His novels were published serially in newspapers, with cliff-hanger endings to each section, which meant that readers had to wait for the next instalment. Dickens became immensely rich and successful, publishing 15 novels in all. However, he never forgot his early experiences and was an active supporter of reform in many areas of Victorian society, including the treatment of children and the poor, prisons and education.
The Industrial revolution
At the time Dickens was writing, the Industrial Revolution was taking place in Great Britain. This was when the manufacture of products moved from the home to big factories. As a result, lots of workers left the countryside and moved to the big cities, including London, to find work in these factories. These people had to work very long hours for little pay, and conditions were extremely tough. Children were an important part of the workforce. Dickens had first-hand experience of this due to his job in the boot blacking factory when his family was sent to debtor’s prison. As a result, he was an active campaigner for better working conditions and for the rights of children. The terrible conditions these workers endured was reflected in his novels, such as young David’s work in Murdstone and Grinby's warehouse
in ‘David Copperfield.’
During the time Dickens was writing, Great Britain had a very strict social system, with the upper class at the top running the country and holding the wealth. Those who were part of the lower, or working classes, had very little power, money or rights. They had harsh working conditions to contend with, and few educational opportunities. In addition, they were looked down on by the upper classes and treated very harshly. Overcrowding and slums were common in Victorian London and poverty led to a high mortality rate amongst the poor. There were workhouses to feed and clothe the very poorest in society, but these were often described as ‘prisons for the poor.’ Dickens was very sympathetic to the lower class and those in poverty, and his compassionate presentation of lower-class characters such as Joe Gargery in ‘Great Expectations’, as honest and hardworking, reflects his personal views.
Crime and punishment
From his work in a lawyer’s office and later as a court reporter, Dickens experienced first-hand the injustice and bureaucracy of Victorian law. Punishment for rather minor crimes was particularly harsh, especially for the poor. The most serious crimes were punished by hanging, but other punishments including whipping and manual labour. Prison conditions were dire at this time, as reflected in the description of the ‘prison hulks’ and Pip’s visit to Newgate prison - perhaps the most notorious gaol in Victorian London - in ‘Great Expectations.’ There was no distinction made between a punishment for an adult or a child, and therefore many children were sent to prison. Transportation was another common punishment in the Victorian Era, mirrored by the transportation of Magwitch to Australia. Dickens was very sympathetic towards the treatment of the poor by the law of the land, and critical of the system which made it practically impossible for many poor people to escape a life of crime; many of them, as Magwitch says, were “in and out of goal, in and out of gaol…”
Victorian society was patriarchal - run and dominated by men. The roles of women were very limited, which is reflected in ‘Great Expectations’ in Dickens’s female characters, who could all be argued to be frustrated by their roles in society in some way: Mrs Gargery resents her unimportant position as a blacksmith’s wife and having to bring Pip ‘up by hand,’ Miss Havisham is frozen in her role as a bride, and Estella is brought up simply to be decorative and loved by men. ‘Great Expectations’ has been considered as having elements of a semi-autobiographical novel. Dickens had a complicated relationship with his mother, who had been in favour of Dickens remaining at the boot blacking factory, rather than going back to school, after the Dickens family was released from debtor’s prison. This led to difficult relationships with women in his adult life. Could this have influenced Dickens’s presentation of his female characters, including Pip’s mother figure, Mrs Gargery and her bad treatment of the young Pip, Miss Havisham’s madness and Estella’s cruel behaviour towards her suitors?
Dickens loved to read the ‘Arabian Nights’ in his childhood, and the fairy tale nature of these stories could be reflected in ‘Great Expectations’ - particularly the ‘rags to riches’ fable of Aladdin. Other favourites from his youth included picaresque novels such as ‘Tom Jones’ by Henry Fielding. Picaresque novels follow the escapades of a lower-class hero, who has to survive using his natural intelligence in a society which is immoral and corrupt, which somewhat reflects the story of Pip. Like ‘Tom Jones’, ‘Great Expectations’ is a bildungsroman, which was a popular form of novel in Dickens’s time. Bildungsroman novels follow the story of a protagonist from their childhood to adulthood; many of Dickens’ earlier novels were bildungsromans, such as ‘Nicholas Nickleby,’ ‘David Copperfield’ and ‘Oliver Twist’. ‘Great Expectations’ was first serialised in a newspaper, meaning that the readers had to wait a week between episodes. Dickens made use of cliff-hanger endings and twists in the tale to build suspense - this meant that his novels were very popular. Serialisation was common among other Victorian novelists such as Thomas Hardy and Wilkie Collins.
Student example paragraphs:
Let’s take a look at two examples of students writing about context.
Q: How is the character of Magwitch presented in ‘Great Expectations’?
Pupil 1: Dickens may be using his presentation of Magwitch to criticise the Victorian society of the time in which he was writing. Magwitch describes his poverty-stricken childhood to Pip and describes himself as “in and out of gaol, in and out of gaol.” This could reflect the legal system of Dickens’s time, which treated the poor extremely harshly and made it very difficult to leave a life of crime. Dickens was a campaigner for legal and prison reform during his lifetime, which reflects his enlightened views on this topic. Despite his criminal background, and initial fearsome presentation, Magwitch is eventually shown by Dickens to be a kind, hardworking and sensitive man who has suffered greatly. By presenting Magwitch in this way, Dickens may be commenting on the unfair legal system and its unjust treatment of the most vulnerable of society.
Pupil 2: In Victorian times the legal system was very harsh towards the poorest members of society. Punishments included hanging, whipping and transportation. Conditions in prisons, such as the infamous Newgate Prison, were extremely dire.
Question: Why was Pupil 1’s answer more effective than Pupil 2’s?
Some things to consider:
Pupil 1 makes links between the context and things that happen in the book.
Pupil 2’s work is a bit like a history essay!
Pupil 1 talks about Dickens’s aims when writing the book.
Well done for working through this section on context. Now for some questions to test out your knowledge!
You should always refer to your own text when working through these examples. These quotations are for reference only.