Great Expectations: God's Law vs. Human Law
In his book Great Expectations, the problematic nature of moral judgement and justice that stems from a conflict between God's law and human law is one of several topical themes that Charles Dickens addresses. This paradox regularly surfaces in his treatment of plot and setting, and is more subtlety illustrated in his use of character. To facilitate the reader's awareness of such a conflict, the narrator often uses language that has Christian connotations when relating his thoughts and when giving descriptions of the environment, characters and events that take place. While these things allude to divine and moral law, the story itself revolves around crime and criminals, thereby bringing issues of human law into focus.
The climate for this theme is established from the very beginning of the novel. Pip's act of Christian charity towards the convict can also be considered a serious crime. The story opens in a churchyard where the grave, symbolic of eternal judgement can be contrasted with the nearby gallows, symbolizing human punishment. Set on the eve in which we commemorate the birth of Christianity, an institution based on charity and love, Pip feels guilty for bringing food to a starving fellow human. Pip must steal food from his own family to help Magwitch, thereby transforming mercy and compassion into crimes. As Pip is running home, he looks back at the convict and sees him limping towards the gallows "...as if he were the pirate come to life, and come down, and going back up again" (27). This imagery conveys a complicated perception of guilt as something conscious of its own moral accountability, frightening and self-destructive. When Magwitch is caught, he gives a false confession to stealing the food from the Gargery's to protect Pip. Joe replies that he wouldn't want him to starve and that he was welcome to it. Pip highlights the conflict between divine and human law by comparing the...
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