AUTHOR: Nandita Mathihalli,
3rd year,
School of Law, CHRIST (Deemed to be University).



    The Great Expectations[2] was notably one of the most popular classic novels that Dickens wrote during his time of the late 1800s. Charles Dickens grew up in a family that was beset by financial insecurity. At a young age of eleven, Dickens was forced to drop out of school and sent to work as a labourer at the London Warehouse, where he earned six shillings a week for pasting labels on bottles. Dickens experienced a very harsh childhood that posed him with many difficulties most of which he had to tackle alone. His father was arrested for the non-payments of debts and his mother along with seven other siblings joined his father at the jail. He spent time on streets earning daily bread and butter for the family. The ruthless childhood he experienced allowed him to express the same through his great works of literature as grew older. Dickens is known to have been an influential writer and one among the few writers to be recognised while they were alive and presented their work. It is brought to notice to the readers of Great Expectations that Dickens brought about his personal experiences, childhood trauma and emotions as a child through the characters of his work.
    Great Expectations revolves entirely around the life journey of Philip or better-known Pip the protagonist, whose journey starts off as a young boy who is at age of around eight to ten years old. It puts forth to the reader about a rather oppressed and dark childhood the young boy has.
    The basic essence of the plot is that young Philip is threatened by a convict who has escaped prison and has caught hold of Pip at the marshes. The convict threatens Pip to get him a File for his Iron leg along with brandy and food, so as to prevent himself from starvation and the harsh cold weather. Pip upon being terrified by the convict but at the same time being a generous little boy managed to steal all that the convict had asked from him and duly delivered it to the convict, much to the surprise of the convict. The family Christmas dinner at Pip’s house is interrupted by the police soldiers who are in search of two convicts escaped from prison. Pip becomes extremely apprehensive upon seeing the police personnel. We see that Pip along with Mr Joe and the Police personnel have caught hold of the convicts namely Magwitch, the convict who had threatened Pip along with compeyson and finally they are both arrested. The incident passes and Pip is introduced to a play date – a girl of about the age of Pip named Estella, who is the daughter of Miss Havisham at the Satis House. Even though he is continually hurt by Estella’s behaviour he still is madly in love with her and wants to pursue her. In the quest for pursuing his love, he starts learning to read and write more extensively and wants to win her by wanting to become a gentleman hoping, Miss Havisham shall let him marry his daughter Estella. His dreams are shattered when Miss Havisham puts Pip to work at the forge where he meets his future perpetrator, Orlick. There are various incidents of fights and dissent between Pip and Orlick, ultimately Orlick taking a revenge on Pip by attacking Mrs Joe and leaving her as a mute invalid.  A twist in the plot is seen at this part, where Jaggers, a lawyer from England arrives informs Pip that an anonymous benefactor at London has left Pip with fortune.  
    The plot now turns to London, along with Mr. Jaggers and a dear friend he meets in London, named Herbert. The young adult Pip who is nearly twenty-one, is in the hope that he can finally persuade Estella, to accept him as he would now be known as a gentleman. It is given that Pip looked upon his loved ones back home with disdain, for he had then become a handsome youth who was also very well to do and thus a sense of superiority and high headedness developed.  The time he spends at London continues as such but also brings to the utter shock of Philip that his sister, Mrs Joe dies and that Estella has been married to a gentleman named Mr. Drummle. The disappointment leads Pip to think over his attitude and how he had become arrogant. Much to the surprise of Pip, the secret benefactor he then discovers to be none other than the escaped convict, Magwitch. Initially left shocked but soon Pip realises the plight of Magwitch and also learns that police are after Magwitch’s arrest. Pip and his friend Herbert help Magwitch to escape his arrest but they are unsuccessful. Magwitch is finally tried and sentenced to death. Simultaneously, nearly escapes his murder by escaping from Orlick who is in London, but finally is arrested by the police.
    Towards he ending, Pip has finally reconciled with Mr. Joe and also discovers that Mr Joe is married to Pip’s dear friend, Biddy. Furthermore, a subtle message by Dickens that Pip and Estella have resolved to rebuild and mutually understand the state of mind and heart each of them are at. Pip conveys that he would always be a friend, stand by her and nothing more as always.  


    The classic novel of Great Expectations by Dickens revolves around several themes that include Class struggle, Oppression faced especially during the Victorian Era, the crude justice system, Romance, Mystery and several others that the author has brought to this very literature piece. The core themes that I could provide for in this very classic are Crime and Punishment, Ethics and Personal Development and Class Struggle. Boyd White[3] through his paper mentions of how a piece of literature classic emerges as an ethical and cultural performance to its readers. I have attempted to substantiate the three core themes of this classic to be identified as a cultural and ethical performance.

    Crime and Punishment[4] :

     The essence of the theme of Crime and Punishment can be seen in the several instances of the Victorian Era of England during the nineteenth century. It begins with Pip himself with and the guilty feeling of stealing from his own house in order to aid the escaped convict, Magwitch. It is a sense of moral guilt that Pip carries with himself the entire time, trembling with the fear that his sister and even worse the police personnel will have him proven guilty to aid a criminal. Dickens portrays through the feelings of Pip of how possibly horrifying the criminal justice system was. The state of the criminal justice system thus brings us to the trial proceedings and the prison conditions.
    The trial proceedings as described by Dickens in the plot is when Magwitch, the convict is being tried. He illustrates how Magwitch tells Pip about his sad fate about how throughout his life he has just been chased by the police. The never ending evil spirit in the form of police personnel parading Magwitch throughout his life hints that he had not been fairly tried for the crime he was accused to have committed. The trials were speedy and unprofessional, so much so that the number of criminals grew in number. Not because crime had increased but because of the fact that accused were never given a chance of fair trial.  It was also conveyed through Dickens that Magwitch had mainly been awarded the death sentence because in comparison to the other convict along with Magwitch, he belonged to a higher class and probably more qualified. Thus, on the mere absurd reasons as such stated, Magwitch was awarded the death sentence. The Hanging of Magwitch is presented in story as thirty-two prison wards being awarded death sentence together. Such a state would essentially be no less than a mass murder that Dickens describes to us. The incident of the hanging of the huge numbers of prisoners together was managed as if they were no human beings but mere objects. The Plight of the prisoners with the various emotions expressed in detail about the immense apprehension, sadness, disappointment and most of all utter helplessness of the prisoners.
    With regards to the prison conditions[5] during that period, we learn by the detailed description of Dickens as to the horrific and deadly conditions of prisons. Through the eyes of Pip as young boy Dickens describes the sight of “The Hulk”. The Hulks were essentially enormous ships that carried prisoners on sea since there was practically no room to stay the prisoners at land. As a young child Pip’s eyes are caught on the horrific sight of The Hulk from the harbour wherein the prisoners were treated no less equal than animals or beasts.    

     Ethics and Personal Development:

     The plotline of Great Expectations observes the individual consciousness of the characters.  As the story unfolds around the lifetime of Pip we may begin to appreciate his efforts to identify that a person’s ethics and morals is what makes a man the real gentleman and not money, fame or even belonging to the higher class. The earliest instance is Pip as a young boy steals from his own house in order to aid a criminal. He lies about the same to Mr and Mrs Joe, and feels deeply disappointed at the same time. Pip always looked up to his mentor and guide Pip from the beginning and realises at a young age that Pip shall never lie or betray Mr Joe, since he was one among the few who saw Pip to be successful and most importantly a ‘gentleman’. The subtle understanding of emotions between the characters marks a rather mature behaviour expressed by Pip at a very young age. A true gentleman is in fact not the person who would make more money or belong to the upper class, but a man who stands by his ethics, one who is honest and sympathetic towards the rest. The need to be thankful for what life lays before him is beautifully portrayed by the author of Great Expectations when Pip realises how much of a great favour Magwitch had done for him. The core ethics and moral system that an ideal society must have is shown here in the classic.
    Class Struggle[6] : The class struggle t
    hat Dickens depicted though the classic has involvement of material aspects of the higher and lower class[7]. The concept of class was brought in by Karl Marx, made such a distinction in the society so as to study the population. Marx saw the division of classes merely as a systemised method of the population so as to study. What eventually followed was distinction based on the classes. The two main classes we saw were the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie. Great expectations with respect to class struggles was seen through Pip’s way to become a gentleman, by learning to read, write and study he aspired to a person who belonged to the elite. Miss Havisham ‘s Satis House and Estella’s pride of her belonging to an upper class was something common during the nineteenth century England. Magwitch’s trial also conveys to the readers about the bias for the upper classes in contrast to the lower class, that Magwitch belong to, and was granted extended period of sentence in comparison to Compeyson who was a gentleman. Dickens has this described the atrocities and a sense of blind desire to elevate to the upper class.


    In this very section I would provide an insight of the core theme relating to Law and Literature which is crime and punishment through two ways. The first would be the way this very piece of literature created by Charles Dickens encourages the legal fraternity towards being a Judicious Spectator[8] through the way of Sympathetic Engagement[9]. The second being the compare and contrast analysis of the storyline of the classic in relation to case laws.
    Judicious Spectator as concept is highlighted in much detail by Martha Nussbaum in her paper Poets as Judges: Legal Rhetoric and the Literary Imagination[10]. Judicious Spectator what essentially involves is, an empathetic way of arbitration. In her paper she talks about the ideal “Poet Judge”[11]. The Poet Judge is a unique Judge, whose judgements are extraordinary as they contain the least amount of bias. The poet Judge analyses any matter given at hand in a manner just as how the rays of the sun falls on every nook and corner of the object at hand. Such is the intensity and dedication of the Poet Judge while delivering the judgement with no absolute bias.
    A trial or a court case is what appears before the judge with all facts and evidences laid out systematically, assuming there has been no partiality or bias or distortion of the facts so presented. All what remains is the final judgement that the judge pronounces. Every nation across the world aims for a justice delivery system which could be as efficient as possible along with securing that the citizens would always look forward to the judiciary for their grievance and injustice. This system would fail if Judges, who fundamentally play the ultimate role have to deliver judgments that too with the utmost caution and non-bias. It is in the concept of what Judicious Spectatorship is, which ensures the system remains faithful and that the legal fraternity themselves do not break the trust of those who approach them.
    The element of Judicious Spectator cannot alone assist the judiciary for delivery of quality judgements but also must consider the element of what is known as ‘Sympathetic Engagement’[12]. Sympathetic Engagement is a concept that was put forth by Richard Posner in his Article Law and Literature: A Relation Reargued. [13] Sympathetic Engagement as Posner views, is very essential for the legal fraternity. Sympathetic Engagement is way of analysing the character, plot and themes in any form of literary piece, only to introduce the same method while judgments are delivered. In colloquial terms it may be simply put as ‘stepping into the shoes of another’, not literally but metaphorically.
    The storyline of Great expectations with regard to crime and punishment is the Justice Delivery System during the Victorian Era at England and the Prison conditions and form of Punishments awarded. The Trial and death sentence of Mr Abel Magwitch, the secret benefactor and the escaped convict holds utmost significance to the aspect of law in the narrative.
    In would hence, elucidate the Trial, the prison condition as well as the way of execution of the punishment in contrast with relevant case laws. This analysis would bring us to the significance and rather a pressing need for the concepts of Judicious Spectatorship and Sympathetic Engagement.
    The trial scene of Magwitch presents to the readers the absurdity and complete disappointment of the legal system or the way of judgements announced during the Victorian Era. It is known to us as Magwitch narrates to Pip that himself and Compeyson were partner in crimes. Compeyson was a man younger than Magwitch who finished his schooling at a boarding school, was well dressed and well kept. Compeyson had a fine accent who could also speak well. Magwitch himself on the other hand remembers that he was a poor boy who managed to do odd jobs here and elsewhere, thus barely managing to make ends meet. After being introduced to Compeyson by co incidence or fate, Magwitch and Compeyson are charged for felony and putting stolen notes into circulation.
    Compeyson very conveniently pays for his lawyer individually and tells Magwitch that they would stay by the defence council but have separate arguments. Magwitch had to sell the clothes he had on to hire a lawyer which left him with no money at all. At the scene it is described by Magwitch, “I noticed first of all what a gentleman compeyson looked with his curly hair and his black clothes and white pocket handkerchief, and what a common sort of wretch I looked. When the prosecution opened and the evidence was put short, aforehand,
    I noticed how heavy it all bore on me, and how light it all bore on him… And when the verdict come, warn’t it Compeyson as was recommended to mercy on account of good character but bad company. And we’re sentenced, ain’t it him as gets seven year, and me fourteen. ”  
    I would explain this scene of utter injustice described by Dickens here in contrast with Judicious Spectatorship and Sympathetic Engagement with the 1980 case in the Supreme Court of India. The case of Prem Shankar Shukla V. Delhi Administration[15], involved with handcuffing and discrimination based on social and economic status of the prisoner. In the judgment Justice Krishna Iyer has given that the constitution recognises prisoner rights under articles 14, 15, 21 and 20 (a), (b) and (c). The unwarranted and inhumane practice of the police to keep the hands and legs of the prisoners continually handcuffed violated the basic human rights of the prisoners. The court alongside stating the same also recognised the need for handcuffing of prisoners so as to prevent the prisoners from fleeing but stated that they may be handcuffed after proper authority for fixed number o hours and at specific places.
    With regards to the discrimination between the handcuffing of the prisoners, it was done on the basis of economic and social status or background of the prisoner. A police personnel may keep a prisoner handcuffed in those iron chains only due to the fact a particular prisoner of a low social and economic background is likely to be more liable for more punishment or torture than a prisoner belonging to a higher economic and social background. Such a case the Supreme court clearly struck down the practice and stated that all prisoners may be treated equally and granted equal rights.
    With respect to the prison conditions, Dickens at another instance explains The Great Hulks through the eyes of Pip. The Great Hulks were enormous ships during the Victorian Era that carried many prisoners from England who could not be imprisoned at land due to lack space. The Hulks sailed all the way till Australia, back then a colony of Britain, and the numerous prisoners were just deported there and never sent back. Towards the end of Magwitch’s jail term, we infer how Pip visits him and notices that he so terminally bruised and ill due to the iron clippings on his chest. The inhumane capital punishments were common and no legislation or order took notice of such cases. This particular scenario can be explained through the writ petition that was filed in 2016 in The Supreme Court of India. In the petition In Re Inhumane Conditions in 1382 Prisons [16] , the Supreme Court lay down specific guidelines that all prisons across the country had to abide by after viewing the conditions of one thousand three hundred and eighty-two prisons in India.
    This petition was filed in light of the letter that former Chief Justice of India, R.C Lahoti wrote to the then Chief Justice of India in 2017, in light of the prison conditions in the country. In his letter Justice Lahoti threw light on the view that –  “Judges rarely express concern for the inhumane treatment that the person being sentenced is likely to face from fellow prisoners or prison officials, or that time in prison provides poor preparation for a productive life afterwards. Courts rarely consider tragic personal pasts that may be partly responsible for criminal behaviour, or how the communities and families of a defendant will suffer during and long after his imprisonment.” [17] 
    Through the above cased analysed and that of what Dickens wrote in the Great Expectations we infer that the Concept of Judicious Spectatorship and Sympathetic engagement go hand in hand. We see how Dickens recognises and ultimately conveys to us that Magwitch was an offender since he had violated the law of the land, but at the same time, looks through his fate of how as an impoverished childhood and lack of education got him with unfair means by Compeyson  increased  the amount of jail term. We as readers recognise his crime against the society, but at the very moment sympathise and empathise with his fate and condition while he is at trial, the prison till the very moment of when he is hung to death.
    Similarly, in the cases above discussed, we see Justice Krishna Iyer and Justice R.C Lahoti, emerge as a Judicious Spectator along with the element of Sympathetic Engagement. Both judges recognise that one who breaks the law should go behind the bars, but just because he or she may be a prisoner, all his rights cannot be infringed or so as to say that the prisoner may have no rights after being sentenced for punishment. The mindset, background and life experiences of the prisoners must be considered and their inhumane treatment be abolished is what the judges convey.


    at Expectations is truly one of the greatest works of Charles Dickens. The novel contains of so many themes almost to say that it captures every aspect of life. Dickens way of detailed writing gives the reader an insight into the exact picture of plot, where it was set and how it looked. The author has revolved the entire storyline around the life of Pip. Dickens has very beautifully portrayed the Pip’s thinking, his emotions and feelings at different stages of his life very realistically. The reader is able to take to the extent of hating a particular character in the novel but the plotline grows and we discover that hate for the character was unnecessary. This is particular aspect of the novel is definitely a fine piece of art.
    The Victorian Era of suppression, class struggle and faulty criminal justice system gives the reader an insight of the nineteenth century England. Many although argue that Dickens did not necessarily provide an accurate representation of the nineteenth century England, I would still like to believe that Dickens did portray the truth. Dickens inculcation of his certain own personal struggles brings to our notice of the sad state of his childhood.
    This novel may be specially considered with respect to Law as Literature as well as Law in Literature that Dickens has brought to his readers from Great Expectations.


    [1] Nandita Mathihalli,  Law student at School of Law, Christ (Deemed to be University)

    [2] Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 1981, Bantam Classics, (1861)

    [3]  Robin West, Communities, Texts and Law: Reflections on The Law and Literature Movement, Georgetown University Law Centre, Georgetown Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 11-63, 


     John Mullan, Crime and Crime fiction, Crime in Great Expectations, 17 May 2017, 6:36 pm IST,  

    [5] BBC Bitesize, 19th century prose – Great Expectations, Themes, 

    [6] John Bowen, Great Expectations and Class, 15 May 2014, 3:30 pm IST, 

    [7] David Cannadine, The Rise and fall of Class Struggle in Britain, Columbia University Press, August 2000.

    [8] Nussbaum, Martha C. “Poets as Judges: Judicial Rhetoric and the Literary Imagination.” The University of Chicago Law Review, vol. 62, no. 4, 1995, pp. 1477–1519. JSTOR, JSTOR, .


     Posner, Richard A. “Law and Literature: A Relation Reargued.” Virginia Law Review, vol. 72, no. 8, 1986, pp. 1351–1392. JSTOR, JSTOR, .


     Supra at 7         


     Id at 9

    [12] Supra at 8  

    [13] Id at 11

    [14] Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, Chapter 42 pg 371, 1986, Bantam Classics (1860)

    [15] Prem Shankar Shukla V. Delhi Administration, AIR 1980 SC 1535

    [16]  In Re Inhumane Conditions in 1382 Prisons, AIR 1980 SC 1579.

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    [17] Decency, Dignity, and Desert: Restoring Ideals of Humane Punishment to Constitutional Discourse by Eva S. Nilsen, Boston University School of Law Working Paper Series, Public Law & Legal Theory Working Paper No. 07-33

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