Great Expectations criticises the Victorian judicial and penal system. Through the novel, Charles Dickens displays his point of view of criminality and punishment. This is shown in his portraits of all pieces of such system: the lawyer, the clerk, the judge, the prison authorities and the convicts. In treating the theme of the Victorian system of punishment, Dickens shows his position against prisons, transportation and death penalty.
The main character, a little child who has expectations of becoming a gentleman to be of the same social position of the girls he loves, passes from having no interest on criminality and its penalties to be very concerned on the issue. By means of other characters, for instance Mrs. Joe Gargery, Dickens tries to define the people’s common view about convicts, transportation and capital punishment. In portraying the character of the convict, Dickens sets out the case in hand of two people sentenced to transportation for forgery of banknotes and analyses their psychology.
By reading the novel, the reader becomes aware of the Victorian unfair justice regarding poor and illiterate people, but advantageous towards the rich and educated middle-class. The prison system in England may have had a significant effect on the life and writing of Charles Dickens due to his father’s imprisonment in Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison as a consequence of his debts. These kinds of prisons came to be workhouses for people who had lost all their belongings. In case debtors had family, it must accompany them in prison. This painful experience may have kept way in his mind for the rest of his life.
His involvement with the legal world came when he was employed as a clerk at a lawyer’s office. His later interest in penology made him read many works related to this subject. For this reason, he incorporated both the treatment of convicts and capital punishment in many novels. Great Expectations is a harsh criticism on the British legal and penal System as well as on Victorian society, achieved after exploring his characters’ behaviour, since the laws were only unfair for those on the bottom rung of the social ladder.
London was one of the greatest cities in the world in the 19th C. At this time huge amounts of money were invested in industry and buildings as trade with other countries increased. On the other side of the business world, made rich by the cheap labour of the exploited working class, there was a world of poverty, theft and criminality, increased by the Industrial Revolution. In this acquisitive society, the only important thing was to make fortune, so people were much terrified of losing it. Because of this, any sort of theft was regarded as a serious crime and laws were made to show people that this offence was harshly punished.
At the time when Great Expectations is set, the 1810-20s, there were a great number of offenders, most of whom were convicted of theft. Theft was considered a felony like homicide and was punishable with death. Jails were dark, overcrowded and filthy. All kinds of prisoners were kept together with no separation of men and women, the young and the old, or the sane and the insane. The poor conditions of the Victorian prisons are described in detail by Dickens in Great Expectations. In the 2nd volume of the novel, Pip comes across “a grim stone building” (163): Newgate Prison.
Looking with horror, Pip offers us a portrait of the inside of the prison and criticism on capital punishment: “As I declined the proposal on the plea of an appointment, he was so good as to take me into a yard and show me where the gallows was kept, and also where people were publicly whipped, and then he showed me the Debtors’ door, out of which culprits came to be hanged: heightening the interest of that dreadful portal by giving me to understand that four on em” would come out at the door the day after tomorrow at eight in the morning to be killed in a row.
This was horrible, and gave me a sickening idea of London” (164) At this time the reformation of the British Prison System took place and a new alternative for punishment was found in transportation. Regarding the colonialist question, the Victorians believed that the easiest and cheapest way of eliminating the criminal element from the British society was sending them as far as they could and never allowing them to return under threat of having them executed.
Many prisoners were convicted because of little thefts such as stealing pocket-handkerchiefs, watches, and jewellery, and the forgery of banknotes. All these little offences, considered as serious crimes, represented a threat to the Victorian commerce. Dickens writes about transportation in the 1860s, when it ceased to be a system of punishment. Probably, Dickens wanted to show how unfair it was to eliminate criminality of the Victorian society by sentencing convicts to transportation as it were not a social problem.
The hulks, the name that received the ships that transported convicts to the penal colony Australia, were used as floating prisons. In the novel, Dickens offers the reader a portrait of the convicts when being transported to the hulks: “At that time it was customary to carry Convicts down to the dockyards by stage-coach (… ) The two convicts were handcuffed together, and had irons on their legs-irons of a pattern that I knew well. They wore the dress that I likewise knew well.
Their keeper had a brace of pistols, and carried a thick-knobbed bludgeon under his arm; but he was on terms of good understanding with them, and stood, with them beside him, looking on at the putting-to of horses, rather with an air as if the convicts were an interesting Exhibition not formally open at the moment” (224) Before reaching Australia, convicts spent about eight months on the hulks doing a hard labour for ten hours a day. It was very difficult to survive the horrors of the hulks because not only they were overcrowded, but also there were contagious diseases and malnutrition.
As Convicts to Australia’ reports, “Convicts were housed below decks on the prison deck and often further confined behind bars. In many cases they were restrained in chains and were only allowed on deck for fresh air and exercise. Conditions were cramped and they slept on hammocks”. Also the treatment of convicts on trips was inhuman: “Cruel masters, harsh discipline and scurvy, dysentery and typhoid resulted in a huge loss of life”. Governed by rules based on survival instead of mutual aid among convicts, the life on the hulks was quite difficult. The cause was that the legal system mixed thieves with criminals.
That is, people who committed little thefts because of their poor condition and people with mental diseases capable of committing crimes. For all these reasons, many convicts attempted to escape from the hulks, which makes an appearance in the opening chapters of Great Expectations as the Hulks are part of Pip’s habitat. Pip and his family were eating when the guns were fired, which warned people about convicts’ escape from the hulks. Once the convicts entered Australia, they were assigned their labours: to work for the government or to work for a landowner.
The common view of Victorian society was that convicts were brutal and senseless criminals as, at the beginning of the novel, Mrs. Joe Gargery explains Pip “People are put in the Hulks because they murder, and because they rob, and forge, and do all sorts of bad” (14). Common people showed their solidarity with the forces of law when helping the soldiers to find the escaped convicts as happens in the first chapters. As showed in the last part of the novel, people liked witnessing trials and executions and enjoyed themselves seeing the condemned suffering.
This was like a show, which reminds us of the Roman spectacle in the theatre with gladiators and Christians and lions. Charles Dickens not only analyses the criminal psychology, but also that of the little pieces that compound both legal and penal system. In the novel, Mr. Jaggers is the representative figure of the lawyer of the time. His office is located in Little Britain, the street where lawyers had their offices, near the Old Bailey (criminal courts) and Newgate prison. That is, the Old Town of London: the world of criminality.
Dickens describes the interior of the lawyers’ offices through Pip the first moment he enters Mr. Jaggers’ office: “To Pip’s eyes the rooms seem filled with shabby people (). These are sinister misfits whose appearances suggest death and degradation and dirt rather than the predictability and neatness we associate with lawyers today. There is an atmosphere of corruption or at least the possibility of it” (Barnes). This sinister office also contains in its walls the busts of two clients who died in gallows.
This description has contact with reality, as there was a room in Newgate prison where there were many busts of executed prisoners, in which stuck out the mark that the rope had made in their necks. “There were not so many papers about, as I should have expected to see; and there were some odd objects about, that I should not have expected to see-such as an old rusty pistol, a sword in a scabbard, several strange-looking boxes and packages, and two dreadful casts on a shelf, of faces peculiarly swollen, and twitchy about the nose” (162).
The lawyer’s office is also near Smithfield market, a cattle market where animals were slaughtered publicly. The comparison between Smithfield and Newgate is established when Pip is conducted inside the prison and imagines that convicts are going to be executed in the same way as animals are in Smithfield. Mr. Jaggers, the sinister lawyer, has a strong character in the exercise of power. He provokes horror on Pip as Pip notices his unpleasant tone when arguing with his clerk, Mr. Wemmick, and the way he threats his clients.
The description of his office suggests that a large part of his work as a solicitor consists of manipulating evidence and he is always seen followed by a troop of supplicants whom he brushes off disdainfully, much as someone might try to get rid of a tiresome puppy (). He bullies them and gleefully profits from their problems” (Barnes). The treatment of his housekeeper, Molly, is also another example of his character. Molly was time ago one of his clients, accused of murder. After having defended her and won the trial, she became his submissive housekeeper.
Being exhibited as an animal, she was forced to show her disfigured and scarred wrists to the guests Pip, Dummle and Startop in a meal (212). Another example of Mr. Jaggers’ power is the fact that his clients have never dared steal in his house despite never locking the door and having objects of great value because they fear him. Furthermore, there is also another passage in which Pip accompanies Mr. Jaggers to the Police Court to examine a client. Here readers can see the fear the clients have of Mr. Jaggers when saying something that he didn’t approve (200).
Regarding Mr. Jaggers’ private life, the world of law is his only life because he has not disconnected the private life from the work. Thus his life is only focused on the office, which is contrasted with his clerk’s life. Mr. Wemmick separates radically his personal life in the castle and his office life. The separation of the two lives almost makes him like two people who behave differently in the two spaces. As Anne Barnes observes, “Wemmick and other office clerks were more likely to move just south of the river to places like Walworth, from where it was easy to commute daily into the City”.
Wemmick himself, who in Walworth seems a model of upright living, sees nothing sinister about wearing pieces of jewellery which have been given to him as bribes by people who have now been executed for their crimes. The acquiring of portable property by dubious means is regarded as a normal part of legal life” (Barnes). Contrary to him, Mr. Jaggers lived in a gloomy apartment, near to Little Britain, filled with books related to his profession. The Lord Chief of Justice (the judge) and the prison authorities are also treated in the novel.
Not only are they presented as people who made business by charging the entry for the judicial spectacle, but also stealing clothes after executing prisoners: “() the more so as the Lord Chief Justice’s proprietor wore (from his hat down to his boots and up again to his pocket-handkerchief inclusive) mildewed clothes, which had evidently not belonged to him originally, and which, I took it into my head, he had bought cheap of the executioner” (164).
Moreover, there was a law whereby the money of an emancipated convict who dared to return Great Britain was confiscated by the government. Dickens exemplifies this in the novel when Magwitch is caught in the river and all the money given to Pip is seized by the government.
Apart from this, prison authorities made business just inviting people to enter there by some money, which is shown through Pip’s eyes: While I looked about me here, an exceedingly dirty and partially drunk minister of justice asked me if I would like to step in and hear the trial or so: informing me that he could give me a front place for half-a-crown, whence I should command a full view of the Lord Chief Justice in his wig and robes-mentioning that awful personage like waxwork, and presently offering him at the reduced price of eighteenpence” (164).
Through the novel, Dickens tries to demonstrate that convicts were victims of the cruel laws that sentenced people to death or transportation, just only for being poor. By doing this, he explores the criminal psychology to difference the good-hearted criminal punished for his/her social status and that greedy criminal who uses people to get profit. As Leavis and Lewis point out, “Dickens is always asking questions such as Why do people in similar circumstances and under the same pressure behave differently? ‘
Abel Magwitch is one of the two criminals portrayed in the novel who represents the honest man punished for his social status. He was a vagrant who survived due to little theft. He spent all his youth “in jail and out of jail” (342) and all his adulthood in Australia. He was imprisoned for putting forged banknotes into circulation, a common activity that increased during the first half of the 19th C. He received a harder sentence because of his harsh manners when defending himself and his wretch appearance, but mostly for his antecedents (346). Then, he was punished with transportation and was sent to New South Wales, Australia.
There, he was assigned to a private landowner and worked as a shepherd until his master’s death (also an emancipated convict), when he was left all his money and emancipated himself. As an honest man he earned the money by working several years instead of stealing it. Australia meant a new life for the convicted poor because it was rich in primary resources and there were lots of opportunities to get rich. Magwitch understands that despite being wealthy, he will never ascend the social ladder in a heartless society that rejects convicted and ex-convicted people.
Magwitch once heard a colonist saying: “He was a convict, a few year ago, and is an ignorant common fellow now, for he’s lucky” (317). So He became a benefactor of the little child who helped him on the marshes of Kent and decided to make him a gentleman as a symbol of gratitude towards Pip. When he returned England to see the boy he helped, he was sentenced to death, without pardon. As Leavis and Lewis claim, “Charles Dickens was very sensitive to the physical and psychological effects that punishment had on the individuals” .
The psychological effect that transportation left in Magwitch is the fact that he sleeps with a pistol on the pillow (320). Another theme in this novel regarding Magwitch is the idea of fatherhood. He was not allowed to take care of his daughter, Estella, and he was said that she was dead. So the protection for his daughter and his feelings of parenthood are shown in his relationship towards Pip considering himself as Pip’s second father. However, Pip, being a respectable gentleman, feels repugnance towards the convict. His snobbish attitude cannot support the idea of being a gentleman because of the gratitude of a convict.
Compeyson is the other criminal portrayed by Dickens who represents meanness, greed and disloyalty. He was a gentleman as he was educated in a boarding school. He forged the banknotes so that his associate Magwitch could put them into circulation. He used Magwitch, like he used Miss. Havisham to get her money, to get profit of him in case they were caught. In the trial he got a lesser sentence due to his education and rich appearance, which Magwitch had not. Here Dickens demonstrates that laws were unfair for those on the bottom of the ladder, but not for the gentlemen.
The theme of prisons as punishment is also treated in the novel. As I mentioned before, the first time Pip meets Newgate prison, he goes out of the tour round the prison with horror. This feeling is widened when Magwitch is sentenced to death and sent to this prison. Despite being ill, he is jailed in the common prison with sane and insane prisoners. There, some sick prisoners acted as nurses for the prisoners who were worse (453). It is said that Dickens Newgate prison not only is part of the history of England, but also a part of Dickens life.
The experience Dickens obtained in his childhood and the visits he made to Newgate may have given him such information to write the novel with a realist tone. By means of the narration of Pip taking care of Magwitch in Newgate, Dickens express his attitude towards the conditions of the British prisons and his totally rejection of capital punishment when the condemned are waiting for the sentence of execution: Penned in the dock () were the two-and-thirty men and women; some defiant some stricken with terror, some sobbing and weeping, some covering their faces, some staring gloomily about ().
They were all formally doomed, and some of them were supported out, and some of them sauntered out with a haggard look of bravery, and a few nodded to the gallery and others went out chewing the fragments of herb they had taken from the sweet herbs lying about” (451-452).
It is when Pip learns to feel beyond the mask of respectability that he sees the unfair justice that condemns people with good-hearts: “For now, my repugnance to him had all melted away, and in the hunted wounded shackled creature who held my hand in his, I only saw a man who meant to be my benefactor, and who had left affectionately, gratefully, and generously, towards me with great constancy through a series of years” (441).
As a conclusion, Charles Dickens criticises both sorts of punishment, the prison system and transportation as well as the unfairness carried for the judicial systems when creating laws little favourable for the poor. At the same time, he points out the Victorian hypocrisy of the rich and the lack of culture of the poor regarding the world of criminality.