Great Expectations criticizes the ambition of the working class to reach the level of wealth and education possessed by the elite, upper class by illustrating the magnitude to which Pip is manipulated by Magwitch to reach these objectives. Pip is convinced that he must abandon his family and any chance of simple success in order to fulfill the educational and societal requirements for this aspired quality of life. Magwitch, a narcissist, wants to demonstrate his viability by using the unlucky state of affairs in his life to create a gentleman solely by his own exertion. Magwitch portrays Pip to the public as a gentleman who is not accustom to labor, but he ironically does this as a result of his own physical labor. In the text, Dickens makes several references to the exploitation that took place during the fairs of the 1800s to criticize Pip's gentlemanly hopes by displaying how Magwitch's development of a gentleman through his own physical labor mirrors the frequently untruthful attempts of a fair exhibitor to display his oddities.
The traditional definition of the gentleman which was adopted by the upper-classes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was one that made virtuous the leisurely lifestyle of the wealthy. The gentleman possessed social qualities which made his company desirable. "High birth, talent, grace, physical attractiveness, eloquence, learning and sprezzatura (a nonchalant, effortless ease) in both physical and intellectual activities" (Platz 150) were qualities of the gentleman that contributed to the social importance of the position. These virtues, however, allowed for other characteristics, which in the labor sensitive culture of the mid-nineteenth century, were seen as flaws that were quickly attributed to the static wealth of the landed gentry. The title of "gentleman" had typically been applied to "younger sons of nobility, who had no title, land, military rank, or fixed occupation and therefore could not claim any established legal name" (Letwin 5). The title of gentleman therefore denotes one who passes his time idly without and obligation or responsibility besides remaining socially amiable. The emergence of the middle class in the nineteenth century allowed people not of noble birth to enter the ranks of gentility. Becoming an educated and morally noble gentleman had come within the reach of those who had previously been excluded. Industry made it possible for someone of the working class to elevate his social position through his own efforts. This new definition of the gentleman "had a great appeal among the emerging middle class because high birth, the traditional passport to recognition as a gentleman, could be side-stepped-at least in theory" (Platz 152). This new opportunity created a split between the traditional upper classes and the newly established English bourgeoisie. Dickens recognized the paradoxical aspiration toward the position of an idle gentleman through labor. Obtaining the appearance of a gentleman became more important than the means by which the facade is constructed. Platz writes, "Dickens' Great Expectations can be interpreted as an attempt to dismantle both the legitimacy and symbolic authority of the gentleman" (162). Pip deceives himself by accepting the old standard of the idle gentleman as a goal obtainable by a nineteenth century orphan. Platz continues, "Instead of shaping his inner self, as the traditional code would have required, [Pip] gives in to facile snobbery" (162). Pip's acceptance of this illusion allows him to be paraded by Magwitch as proof that a gentleman can indeed be created by labor. This deception is foiled because the exposure of the means to Pip's "expectations" leads to his realization that he has been an exhibit in Magwitch's sideshow.
Dickens was familiar with the character of the traditional gentleman within his own family. John Dickens, Charles' father, was "a resilient man, with a gift of