Great ExpectationsSocial standards of class and prudery dictated Victorian behavior. Founded on the pretext of politeness, the practice of courteous conduct masked an often cruel and unjust society, in which acceptance and success were dependent more on caste, income, and appearance than character. Aware of this double standard, Victorian author Charles Dickens paints an insightful picture of social injustice in his novel Great Expectations. Highlighting the hypocrisy of Victorian practices, Dickens constructs a complex and engaging cast.
It is through convincing characters that Dickens delivers his outcry against socially unjust laws and penal practices. Mr. Jaggers, a stereotypical attorney, is used by Dickens to embody a corrupt and cruel justice system. A skilled and intelligent man, Mr. Jaggers is a highly esteemed, if not feared, London lawyer.
Described by Pip as a man who, seemed to bully his very sandwich as he ate it(156), Jaggers has a commanding and powerful persona. Jaggers treats his clients as inferiors who he will only meet with after they have paid their bill. Jaggers popularity clearly stems from ability and not compassion. Indeed, the outcome of his clients cases, in addition to the heinous acts they commit, are of little consequence to him. In fact, Jaggers office is adorned with two plaster replicas of former clients who were hanged. Jaggers warped sense of justice is further revealed as he exploits Molly, after gaining stardom off her murder trial, by indenturing her as a servant. The former jury member Jaggers bribed, who prepares a special meal for the lawyer, provides another example of a!corrupt judicial system.
The business-like manner in which Jaggers eliminates ethics and truth from the courtroom, prompts Pip to comment that, Which side he was on, I couldnt make out, for he seemed to be grinding the whole place in a mill(323).The hypocrisy which plagued Victorian law and life also manifests itself through the character of John Wemmick. Wemmick is a naturally kind and easygoing man. At home he is a whimsical, free-spirit, spirited husband, and devoted son. However, Wemmick takes on a different demeanor at work. As the chief clerk at Jaggers law office, Wemmick assumes a curt, impersonal, and official disposition.
He continually emphasizes the importance of portable property, goods to be liquidated. The seemingly conscientious Wemmick eagerly accepts these gifts from the very convicts and clients he helps to condemn. In fact, even after finding a trusted friend in Wemmick, Pip says that when at work, The clerk had the same air of knowing something to everybody elses disadvantage as his master had(152). For instance, this usually compassionate character cynically remarks about the deceased Compeyson, I do not think he could have been saved.
Thats the difference between the property !and the owner… (420).
This cool statement is a testament to the legal systems dehumanizing quality. In this manner, the corruption associated with the legal system is demonstrated by Wemmicks alter ego. The corruption and injustice of the Victorian penal system is further illustrated through Magwitch and his nemesis Compeyson. Magwitch, an ill-fated, but big hearted man, is continually punished more harshly than his swindling, but gentlemanly partner, Compeyson. Compeysons genteel appearance, however, masks a conniving con artist, who deserted his wealthy fiancee.
Aware of his partners swindling, Magwitch remarks that there are, All sorts of traps as Compeyson could set with his head…and get the profits from…
and let another man in for…(323).This proves true,when Magwitch receives fourteen years and Compeyson seven, for the same crime.
Furthermore, following an escape attempt, Compeyson is lightly reprimanded while Magwitch receives a death sentence. On the other hand, Magwitch,who 2is essentially good, works hard to provide for Pip and to stay legitimate. When Magwitch is apprehended, however, his hard earned money is unfairly seized by the state. Ironically, it is when Magwitch delivers justice by murdering Compeyson, that he is sentenced to death. Despite being condemned by a judge as evil, Pip admires his benefactor as a man who had felt affectionately, gratefully and generously towards me with a great constancy through a series of years(415). Magwitch is simply a hunted wounded shackled creature(415), caught in the grip of an unjust system.
Dickens portrayal of an unjust system challenges accepted Victorian notions of ethics and equity. Capturing his readers attention, Dickens masterfully weaves his social expose into a story of self-discovery. It is the dual role of entertainer and social reformer which Dickens plays so well, that establishes his works as enduring classics.