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Crime and Imprisonment in Great Expectations

Crime and Imprisonment in Great Expectations

There is a clear relationship between the characters in Great Expectations and crime. Dickens uses this connection to show that a criminal can be reformed. He also shows the characters to be prisoners of their own doing.

Pip is born into his prison. He continuously associates himself with criminals and criminal behavior. Pip likens himself to a criminal from the start: “I think my sister must have had some general idea that I was a young offender whom as Accoucheur Policeman had taken up . . . and delivered over to her to be dealt with according to the outraged majesty of the law” (41; ch. 4). He equates his home to a cage or prison and Mrs. Joe becomes not a sister but a jailer. Pip makes the quick transition from ignorance concerning the Hulks, from “Please what’s Hulks’ said I” (33; ch. 2) to feeling “sensible of the great convenience that the Hulks were handy for me. I was clearly on my way there” (34; ch. 2).

Pip sets himself up to be prepared for jail after every event. When Pumblechook chokes on the brandy that Pip has filled with tar he says “I had no doubt murdered him somehow” (46; ch. 5). Dickens ties Pip even closer to criminals by making him portray the title character in the story of George Barnwell. Pip realizes his alliance with crime during the reading; “What stung me, was the identification of the whole affair with my unoffending self. When Barnwell began to go wrong . . . I felt positively apologetic” (123; ch. 15). Again the union with criminals comes into play when Pip discovers Mrs. Joe has been attacked; “With my head full of George Barnwell, I was at first disposed to believe that I must have had some hand in the attack…

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… soon turn into beautiful flowers are associated with dark, grim prisons. It is through this early interpretation that the reader is forewarned of Pip’s future with crime and criminals.

Pip’s future is mapped out from the beginning. He unknowingly enters into a life-long partnership with Magwitch that affects every part of his life. The great expectations that were destined to make Pip a gentleman are given from a reformed criminal. The criminal has seen the wrong of his ways and has decided to help the one person who never questioned him, Pip. Dickens uses the imprisonment issue throughout the text, in some cases as a threat and others as fate.

Works Cited

Reed, John. “Confinement and Character in Dickens’ Novels.” Dickens Studies Annual London: Southern Illinois UP, 1970.

Sadrin, Anny. Great Expectations. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988.

Criminal Activity and Charles Dickens

Criminal Activity and Charles Dickens

Great Expectations, like the majority of Charles Dickens’ fiction, contains several autobiographical connotations that demonstrate the author’s keen observational talents. Pip, the novel’s protagonist, reflects Dickens’ painful childhood memories of poverty and an imprisoned father. According to Robert Coles, “there was in this greatest of storytellers an unyielding attachment of sorts to his early social and moral experiences” (566). Complementing Dickens’ childhood memories of crime and poverty was his legal training, reflected in the characterizations of lawyers and the abundance of criminal activity that hovers around the world of Great Expectations.

Charles Dickens’ father, John, made little money working as a clerk in England’s Navy Pay Office (Coles 564). John’s low salary, combined with a severe spending problem, would eventually land him in debt. As a consequence, John was placed into debtors’ prison. As was the custom of the time, John was forced to bring his family along with him (Coles 564). It was 1824 and young Dickens was only 12 years old (Coles 564). To help his father out of debt, Charles worked under the horrible conditions of a blacking factory (Collins 15). According to Edmund Spenser, quoted in Phillip Collins’ Dickens and Crime, these events “lie behind the loneliness, disgrace, and outlawry which pervade all his novels” (15). Collins concurs:

It is a commonplace that his sympathy for suffering and neglected children, which lies at the root of his educational concern, drew much of its strength from the traumatic experience of his own childhood–the period, about his 12th year when the family was in financial straits, …

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…lodge where some fetter were hanging up on the bare walls among the prison rules, into the interior of the jail. At that time, jails were much neglected, and the period of exaggerated reaction consequent all public wrong-doing . . . was still far off . . . and a frouzy, ugly, disorderly depressing scene it was. (246; ch. 32)

In addition to once again demonstrating Dickens’s observational talent, this passage illustrates how the author’s early memories of prison-life combines with his later knowledge of the Victorian legal and prison system to recreate a vivid and realistic view of Victorian life.

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: Harper, 1990.

Coles, Robert. “Charles Dickens and the Law.” Virginia Quarterly Review 59 (1983): 564-586.

Collins, Phillip. Dickens and Crime. New York: St. Martin’s, 1962.

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