Crime, Punishment and Justice in Great Expectations
In his novel Great Expectations Charles Dickens' characters often seem to be operating outside or just outside the law in gray areas where what is legally correct clash with what is morally the right thing to do. The theme of crime in Dickens' novels is used as a focal point to explore his deep concern for the pervasive array of social problems that permeated England in the nineteenth century (Ford 82-83).
Dickens frames this novel as an individual's struggle to rise above the social and political conditions of that time. Criminality, punishment, and a perverse sense of justice are some of the themes Dickens surfaces to explore this world. At several points throughout the novel convicts come into the story, Pip encounters Magwitch on the marshes in the first chapter (Dickens 2), Magwitch and Compeysen are recaptured by the soldiers (Dickens 52), a mysterious figure appears at the Three Jolly Bargemen stirring his drink with the file Pip stole for Magwitch (Dickens 88), Pip overhears two convicts talking on the couch, when Pip moves to London he almost immediately sees Newgate Prison (Dickens 163), and Magwitch eventually reappears as Pip's benefactor (Dickens 297).
The plot revolves around on crimes committed in the past, both Magwitch and Compeyson were convicted of fraud (Dickens 325), Molly, Jagger's housekeeper has been acquitted of murder, although she is most likely guilty, and in a greater sense Pip's contacts with Wemmick and Jaggers' housekeeper as well as his visit to Newgate (Dickens163) make him aware of the consequences of crime and the sentences that are often out of proportion with the committed transgression. At the end of the novel Pip's helping Magwitch in his effort to escape places Pip in jeopardy with the law.
Throughout the novel Pip speaks of his sense of guilt (Lucus 299). He feels guilty about his attitude toward Joe, Biddy, and Magwitch among others during the course of the novel. This guilt is sometimes associated with his frequent encounters with criminal elements. During the novel the Pip character learns to feel guilty about the right things, such as his treatment of Joe and Biddy and his initial revulsion at the returned Magwitch when he discovers him as his benefactor (Dickens 297).
The inequitable application of the law is also examined. In Jagger's office when Mike brings an obviously false witness, Pip becomes aware of how the law operates (Dickens 162). Another example is the story of how Jaggers has Molly cover her strong wrists to make her appear innocent (Dickens 206). Magwitch's own story of his trial and imprisonment insinuates that the law is biased toward those who can present a good appearance and speak eloquently such as members of the educated middle and upper classes (Dickens 325).
In the world Charles Dickens was writing about in 1861 when Great Expectations was first published criminality was closely linked to class in society and this tenet holds a constant presence in this story. Rules are broken in order to overcome a society that is inherently unjust and flawed. The moral codes and values that prevail in English society are questionable. While Pip longs to be accepted by society, he is ultimately linked to a criminal, and thus comes to understand the problems associated with his dream of becoming a gentleman.
This idea of social class is an important element in the novel. Pip's desire to become a gentleman and escape his roots drives the action within the novel. Lucus (290) notes that in life we can never be sure which associations constitute the biography or identity of the real self. Pip experiences guilt because the pursuit of his dream has caused him to abandon the people he should most care about. The social pressures to which he becomes exposed shape his attitude toward his own way of life. Estella's influence has deeply conditioned the way he sees people. Pip knows that Biddy is better than Estella, but it is Estella who becomes the ideal by which Biddy is measured. "She was not beautiful…she was common, and could not be like Estella…but she was pleasant and wholesome and sweet tempered" (Dickens 130). Because he sees Biddy this way he chooses a path from which there is no return. He cannot destroy he education that Miss Havisham has arranged through Estella (Lucus 295).
This rejection of his past is most poignantly expressed with Joe's visit to Pip in London. Pip admits, "If I could have kept him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money" (Dickens 209). There are many elements that have conspired to create this attitude in Pip: his sister's and Mr. Pumblechock's negative regard for expectations, Miss Havisham's malice, Magwitch's gratitude for a small boy's act of kindness, Pip's love of Estella, and Pip's growing vanity and determination to become a gentleman (Lucus 296).
Maywitch speaks of the inequities in the justice system as it pertains to social class when describing his trial with Compeyson, "At last, me and Compeyson was both committed for felony- on charge of putting stolen notes in circulation -- and there was other charges behind. Compeyson says to me, "Separate defenses, no communication," and that was all. And I was so miserable poor, that I sold all the clothes I had, except what hung on my back, afore I could get Jaggers" (Dickens 323). From this passage it is evident that the quality of a defendant's defense was highly dependent on the resources available.
Maywitch goes on to tell of the trial:
"When we was put in the dock, I notices first of all what a gentleman Compeyson looked, wi' his curly hair and his black clothes and his white pocket-handercher, and what a common sort of wretch I looked. When the prosecution opened and the evidence was put short, aforhand, I noticed how heavy it all bore on me, and how light on him. When the evidence was giv in the box, I noticed how it was always me that had come for'ard, and could be swore to, how it was always me that the money had been paid to, how it was always me that had seemed to work the thing and get the profit. But, when the defense came on, then I see the plan plainer; for, says the counsellor for Compeyson, 'My lord and gentlemen, here you has afore you, side by side, two persons as your eyes can separate wide; one, the younger, well brought up, who will be spoke to as such; one, the elder, ill brought up, who will be spoke to as such one, the younger, well brought up, who will be spoke to as such; one, the younger, seldom if ever seen in these here transactions, and only suspected; t'other, the elder, always seen in 'em and always wi' his guild brought home. Can you doubt, if there is but one in it, which is the one, and, if there is two in it, which is much the worst one?' And such-like. And when it come to character, warn't it his schoolfellows as was in this position and in that, and warn't it him as had been know'd by witnesses in such clubs and societies, and nowt to his disadvantage? An warn't it me as had been tried afore, and as had been know'd up hill and down dale in Bridewells and Lock-up's? And when it came to speech-making, warn't it Compeyson as could speak to 'em wi' his face dropping every now and then into his white pocket-handhercher-ah! And wi' verses in his speech, too -- and warn't it mes as could only say, 'Gentlemen, this man at my side is a most precious rascal'? And when the verdict come, warn't it Compeyson as was recommended to mercy on account of good character and bad company, and giving up all the information he could agen me, and warn't it me as not never a word but guilty? And when I says to compeyson, 'once me out of this court, I'll smash that face o' yourn?' ain't it compeyson as prays the judge to be protected, and gets two turnkeys stood betwixt us? And when we're sentenced, ain't it him as gets seven-year, and me fourteen, and aint it him as the judge is sorry for, because he might a done so well, and ain't it me the judge perceives to be an old offender of wiolent passion, likely to come to worse?'"(Dickens 323-324).
In this passage Dickens clearly demonstrates the prejudice nineteenth century British society held against members of the lower class, and the predisposition of the judicial system as well as the others maintain this norm.
Later in the novel, Pip accepts Magwitch and gives up his dream of clean money. But there are others in the novel who know that money is never clean, that it is on the contrary always dirty. For Wemmick and Jaggers life…