Crime and the law in Great Expectations

Convict ship
Convict ships, known as the 'hulks', were used to hold prisoners when the main jails were full

Although the justice system was gradually being reformed in Victorian times, there was still much about it that we would consider harsh and unfair today. Prison sentences were long and the death penalty was used widely. Criminals such as Magwitch were often shipped abroad to the colonies and not allowed to return – this was known as transportation.

Through his novels, Dickens was a lifelong critic of the British legal system which he thought was corrupt and harsh and only encouraged criminals to carry on offending. He seems to have had a particular distrust of lawyers, probably from experiencing first-hand the impact their decisions can have. Dickens' father, John Dickens, was jailed for his debts. Mr Jaggers is actually one of the more sympathetic legal figures portrayed by Dickens.

How is the theme of crime and the law shown in the novel?

In Great Expectations, Dickens examines crime, punishment, the law and justice from many angles. Some of the key aspects are:

  • prison conditions
  • crime leads to more crime
  • Magwitch's trial
How does Dickens show this?EvidenceAnalysis
Prison conditionsThe two types of prison portrayed in the novel are Newgate Prison – the main prison in London at the time, and the prison ships known as the Hulks. Neither of these were particularly fit for humans and they both seem to have a deep effect on Pip.By the light of the torches, we saw the black Hulk lying out a little way from the mud of the shore, like a wicked Noah’s ark. Cribbed and barred and moored by massive rusty chains, the prison-ship seemed in my young eyes to be ironed like the prisoners.The countryside where the Hulks are is dark and dismal marshland. The ships seem to be covered in the same chains as the prisoners. Dickens compares the prison to a 'wicked' version of Noah's ark. Many people at the time would have believed that these criminals were little better than animals or beasts.
Crime leads to more crimeThrough the figure of Magwitch, Dickens suggests to the reader that harsh punishment and failing to deal with the underlying issues of crime (eg poverty) only makes matters worse and causes criminals to reoffend."I am not a-going fur to tell you my life, like a song or a story-book. But to give it you short and handy, I'll put it at once into a mouthful of English. In jail and out of jail, in jail and out of jail, in jail and out of jail. There, you got it. That's my life pretty much."Magwitch sums up his whole life in a couple of sentences. The simple repetition of 'in jail and out of jail' is highly effective in getting across the message that his entire life has been a never-ending cycle of jail-time. Magwitch was never given the help he needed to break that trend.
Magwitch's trialThe trial is short and swift. It inevitably can only reach one conclusion – that Magwitch is guilty of returning illegally to England and must therefore be condemned to death.Penned in the dock... Were the two-and-thirty men and women; some defiant, some stricken with terror, some sobbing and weeping, some covering their faces, some staring gloomily about... A great gallery full of people - a large theatrical audience - looked on, as the two-and-thirty and the Judge were solemnly confronted.The legal system is so overcrowded that no less than 32 prisoners are receiving the death sentence at once. The word 'penned', which is usually used about cattle or sheep, compares the prisoners to animals. The whole situation is like a scene from a play put on for the audience's entertainment.

Analysing the evidence


How is justice portrayed in Great Expectations?

  • Magwitch and Compeyson are tried for the same crime, but because Compeyson looks like a gentleman he is given a lighter sentence.
  • Jaggers is able to get Molly off a murder charge because he is a brilliant lawyer and has been paid for his services.
  • The money that Magwitch gives to Pip and which he has earned legally through hard work is confiscated by the legal system.

Dickens leads us to the conclusion that the justice system is far from fair - in fact it is highly unjust.