Great Expectations: The World Of Laws, Crime And P Essay

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Great Expectations: The World Of Laws, Crime And Punishment

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 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"

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.

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