Great Expectations: the World of Laws, Crime and Punishment

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  • Topic: Prison, Great Expectations, Capital punishment
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  • Published : October 8, 1999
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The World of Laws, Crime and Punishment in Great Expectations 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...
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