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 fro
m 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 Hulk that his convict is returned to as “a wicked Noah’s ark” (56). Thus in these first few chapters, the ideals of justice, mercy, law, and punishment are intermingled and confused.
This confusion is furthered by Mrs. Joe, who actually transforms charity into punishment. Her beatings, bullying and lectures of how she brought Pip up “by hand” at great personal sacrifice are a constant reminder to Pip of his fault for ever being born. The narrator recounts his sisters response to Mrs. Hubble’s observation that young Pip has been a “world of trouble” and we see that Pip is made to feel guilty even for things completely beyond his control as a young and innocent child:
“Trouble?” echoed my sister; “trouble?” And then entered on a fearful catalogue of all the illnesses I had been guilty of, and all the acts of sleeplessness I had committed, and all the high place I had tumbled from, and all the low places I had tumbled into, and all the injuries I had done myself, and all the times she had wished me in my grave, and I had contumaciously refused to go there. (45)
Pip becomes familiar with guilt and injustice at a very young age, and these issues become central to his motivations throughout his life as a young man. Ironically it is Orlick, the most contemptible character in the novel who is Mrs. Joe’s unwitting agent of justice. Orlick, who embodies selfishness and violence, is never brought to justice for his murderous behavior.
Magwitch is another example of a failed justice system. Superficially, he appears to personify evil and moral corruption. Pip finds him horrifying upon their first encounter and equally revolting when he returns to London as Provis. Despite all this, we learn that he is a loving, generous, sympathetic man who risks his life to see Pip and spends his fortune to repay Pip for an act of kindness. While he is a criminal, and deserving of punishment from the law, he is simultaneously deserving of mercy and forgiveness from God. Compeyson, is treated much more favorably by the law than Magwitch: “And when the verdict come, warn’t it Compeyson as was recommended to mercy on account of good character and bad company, and giving up all the information he could agen me, and warn’t it me as got never a word but Guilty?” (324). Compeyson exhibits no redeeming qualities at all, but it is Magwitch who gets the tougher sentence. Though Magwitch’s fate seems inconsistent with his kind and unselfish behavior, it is
in perfect alignment with the theme under consideration.The interplay between divine and human justice is again alluded to at the convict’s final court appearance when he says to the Judge “My Lord, I have received my sentence of Death from the Almighty, but I bow to yours” (272).
One can draw from the narrator’s own self-revelations as well. In preparation for his first visit to Satis House, Pip recalls how he “…was put into clean linen of the stiffestcharacter, like a young penitent into sackcloth, and was trussed up in my tightest and fearfullest suit and delivered to Mr. Pumblechook, who formally received me as if he were the Sheriff ” (67). Just two paragraphs later, Pip observes the many little drawers of Mr. Pumblechook’s seed shop. As he peeks into the drawers and sees the seeds tied up in brown paper packets he wonders “…whether the flower-seeds and bulbs ever wanted of a fine day to break out of those jails, and bloom” (67). Given that “pip” is also the word for a small seed, one cannot help but draw a parallel here. When he returns from the Satis House, he tells outrageous lies about his experience there, and admits this to Joe later. In one short episode, Pip has described himself as a penitent, a prisoner, and a confessed wrongdoer.
The conflict between Pip’s own instincts regarding morality and conventional perceptions of justice and punishment is manifested as the guilt he is burdened with throughout his childhood and young adult life. Pip accumulates these feelings and attempts to suppress them throughout most of the story. At one point the narrator takes a moment to reflect on his guilty conscience:
As I had grown accustomed to my expectations, I had insensibly begun to notice their effect upon myself and those around me. Their influence on my own character, I disguised from my recognition as much as possible, but I knew very well that it was not all good. I lived in a state of chronic uneasiness respecting my behaviour to Joe. My conscience was not by any means comfortable about Biddy. (256)
He goes into great debt in his attempts to distract himself from this guilt, and drags his dear friend Herbert along with him (which he also expresses guilt about). His vain attempt to make reparations with his conscience by sending “a penitential codfish and a barrel of oysters