Where is the unjust legal system illustrated in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens?Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While the prison/criminal motif runs throughout Dickens's novel, the injustice of the judicial system of Victorian England is clearly illustrated in certain chapters.

1. In Chapter XX when Pip first arrives in London, he discovers that the office of Mr. Jaggers is located on a "grimy street" that is near Old Bailey where the courts are located and around the corner from Newgate Prison.  As Mr. Jaggers approaches, he is rushed by rather unsavory types of people, whom he addresses,

Now, I have nothing to say to you,” said Mr. Jaggers, throwing his finger at them. “I want to know no more than I know. As to the result, it's a toss-up. I told you from the first it was a toss-up. Have you paid Wemmick?”

“We made the money up this morning, sir,” said one of the men submissively, while the other perused Mr. Jaggers's face.

“I don't ask you when you made it up, or where, or whether you made it up at all. Has Wemmick got it?”

“Yes, sir,” said both the men together.

“Very well; then you may go. Now, I won't have it!” said Mr Jaggers, waving his hand at them to put them behind him. “If you say a word to me, I'll throw up the case.”

Apparently, then, the judicial system is based upon money and court influence.  Obviously, Jaggers is a man of great influence as the people waiting outside his office beg him to help them and fear his wrath lest he not take their cases.  Also, that Jaggers is rather unscrupulous is indicated in his selectiveness of only those with money as well as his constant washing of his hands that Pip interprets as his attempt to rid himself of his guilt in defending such clients. [see Ch. XXVI and others]

2. The most salient example of the unjust legal system comes in Chapter XLI as Provis/Magwitch relates his personal history in which he grew up as an orphan and gamin in the streets who survived by thievery.  As a younger man, he met Compeyson at the races and was exploited by him to put his stolen notes into circulation.  When the two men were on trial, the superficial standard of value, social class, allows the upper-class Compeyson, the greater criminal, to receive a lesser sentence that the "common sort of a wretch" which Magwitch appeared. Magwitch tells Pip,

"Of course he'd much the best of it to the last and his punishment was light.  I was put in irons, brought to trial again, and sent for life."

Before the 'gentleman' Compeyson had told Magwitch that they were to have "Separate defenses, no communication" because he knew that he would receive a lesser sentence if he distanced himself from the poor Magwitch.

3. This system of "justice" for the rich is figuratively expressed in Chapter XXXIII after Pip and Estella dine and they near Newgate. When Estella asks what place this is and Pip replies, she shudders and remarks, "Wretches." Of course, the irony is that she herself is the child of such wretches, but she has the veneer of the upperclass as the adopted daughter of Miss Havisham.

4.  Earlier, in Chapter XXXII, there is an illustration of the injustice of the legal system as Pip talks with Wemmick, who informs him that he is on his way to the infamous Newgate prison where Mr. Jaggers has been hired by a robber.  When Pip asks if the man is guilty, Wemmick replies, "Bless your soul and body, no....But he is accused of it."  Without doubt, the narrative of Great Expectations portrays a criminal justice system that dehumanizes certain people and corrupts others.

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Great Expectations

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