‘From the beginning, Pip’s struggles for gentility are overshadowed by a sense of his own criminality’. To what extent is Great Expectations a novel about the interlinking of crime and respectability?
Charles Dickens wrote his novel Great Expectations at a time when England was in the grips of a massive and historic socio-economic reformation. It was no longer necessary for a person to be of noble birth, or royal blood, to be allowed access to the realms of gentility and respectability. A man could ascend from poverty, through education and determination, to find himself a member of the aristocracy. But this new order of aristocracy was marred by deep undertones of criminal behaviour and the members could not change the essence of what they were, this is the main theme of the novel, ‘... no varnish can hide the grain of the wood; and that the more varnish you put on, the more the grain will express itself’ (Dickens, 1993, p.166).
There are two types of crime displayed in Great Expectations; that of the classic villain against Victorian society, and that of the guardian against the child. Let us first look at the former. At the very beginning of the novel, the main narrator Pip meets a convict in the marshes near his home; this encounter sets the tone of impending doom, and serves as a thematic, and dramatic, introduction to the novel. The convict Abel Magwitch, who develops later in the plot to gentleman-maker and provider for Pip, is caught wrestling with another convict in a ditch and professes to having caught him in the name of justice:
”Try to murder him?” said my convict, disdainfully. “Try, and not do it? I took him, and giv’ him up; that’s what I done. I not only prevented him getting off the marshes, but I dragged him here-dragged him this far on his way back. He’s a gentleman, if you please, this villain. Now, the hulks has got it’s gentleman again, through me. Murder him? Worth my while, too, to murder him, when I could do worse and drag him...