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Crime and Punishment in Dickens' Great Expectations

How is the theme of crime and punishment portrayed in Great Expectations?

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The themes of crime and punishment recur throughout Dickens’ Great Expectations. Magwitch, who Pip meets and aids as a young boy, is an escaped convict guilty of fraud. Several years later, Pip is funded by an anonymous benefactor, who he assumes to be Mrs. Havisham – upon turning 23, he learns that it was in fact Magwitch, who never forgot the kindness that Pip showed him and used the experience as motivation to become successful in Australia. Pip is initially disgusted by this and refuses to take any more money, preserving his integrity through his unwillingness to accept stolen money. However, Pip ultimately softens upon hearing Magwitch’s history; he tells Magwitch that his daughter is alive and the convict dies shortly afterwards, being spared an execution and dying happy in that knowledge. Magwitch is punished for his crime, but his good deeds are also rewarded in a sense, too. Jaggers’ maidservant, Molly, was spared from the gallows after being accused of murder (despite the implication being that she was guilty) thus evading traditional justice, but is instead punished by the removal of her daughter. Dickens does not only explore crime and punishment in the traditional, legal sense: Mrs. Havisham is ‘punished’ for the ‘crime’ of raising Estella to hate and spurn men, thus meaning she is incapable of loving Pip, by realising her mistake shortly before she dies and lamenting that she prevented them from being happy together. Estella’s husband, Bentley Drummie, is hostile and abusive, but eventually dies in an accident following his mistreatment of a horse, a kind of poetic justice. The novel, then, explores the theme of justice: ultimately, characters get what they deserve by the end of the story, whether or not their crimes were legally forbidden.

References

Dickens, C. (1992). Great Expectations. London: Wordsworth Editions.