Great Expectations: God\'s Law vs. Human Law



Great Expectations: God\'s Law vs. Human Law


In his book Great Expectations, the problematic nature of moral judgement
and justice that stems from a conflict between God\'s law and human law is one of
several topical themes that Charles Dickens addresses. This paradox regularly
surfaces in his treatment of plot and setting, and is more subtlety illustrated
in his use of character. To facilitate the reader\'s awareness of such a
conflict, the narrator often uses language that has Christian connotations when
relating his thoughts and when giving descriptions of the environment,
characters and events that take place. While these things allude to divine and
moral law, the story itself revolves around crime and criminals, thereby
bringing issues of human law into focus.
The climate for this theme is established from the very beginning of the
novel. Pip\'s act of Christian charity towards the convict can also be
considered a serious crime. The story opens in a churchyard where the grave,
symbolic of eternal judgement can be contrasted with the nearby gallows,
symbolizing human punishment. Set on the eve in which we commemorate the birth
of Christianity, an institution based on charity and love, Pip feels guilty for
bringing food to a starving fellow human. Pip must steal food from his own
family to help Magwitch, thereby transforming mercy and compassion into crimes.
As Pip is running home, he looks back at the convict and sees him limping
towards the gallows "...as if he were the pirate come to life, and come down,
and going back up again" (27). This imagery conveys a complicated perception of
guilt as something conscious of its own moral accountability, frightening and
self-destructive. When Magwitch is caught, he gives a false confession to
stealing the food from the Gargery\'s to protect Pip. Joe replies that he
wouldn\'t want him to starve and that he was welcome to it. Pip highlights the
conflict between divine and human law by comparing the Hulk that his convict is
returned to as "a wicked Noah\'s ark" (56). Thus in these first few chapters,
the ideals of justice, mercy, law, and punishment are intermingled and confused.
This confusion is furthered by Mrs. Joe, who actually transforms charity
into punishment. Her beatings, bullying and lectures of how she brought Pip up
"by hand" at great personal sacrifice are a constant reminder to Pip of his
fault for ever being born. The narrator recounts his sisters response to Mrs.
Hubble\'s observation that young Pip has been a "world of trouble" and we see
that Pip is made to feel guilty even for things completely beyond his control as
a young and innocent child:
"Trouble?" echoed my sister; "trouble?" And then entered on a fearful
catalogue of all the illnesses I had been guilty of, and all the acts of
sleeplessness I had committed, and all the high place I had tumbled from, and
all the low places I had tumbled into, and all the injuries I had done myself,
and all the times she had wished me in my grave, and I had contumaciously
refused to go there. (45) Pip becomes familiar with guilt and injustice at a
very young age, and these issues become central to his motivations throughout
his life as a young man. Ironically it is Orlick, the most contemptible
character in the novel who is Mrs. Joe\'s unwitting agent of justice. Orlick,
who embodies selfishness and violence, is never brought to justice for his
murderous behavior.
Magwitch is another example of a failed justice system. Superficially, he
appears to personify evil and moral corruption. Pip finds him horrifying upon
their first encounter and equally revolting when he returns to London as Provis.
Despite all this, we learn that he is a loving, generous, sympathetic man who
risks his life to see Pip and spends his fortune to repay Pip for an act of
kindness. While he is a criminal, and deserving of punishment from the law, he
is simultaneously deserving of mercy and forgiveness from God. Compeyson, is
treated much more favorably by the law than Magwitch: "And when the verdict come,
warn\'t it Compeyson as was recommended to mercy on account of good character and
bad company, and giving up all the information he could agen me, and warn\'t it
me as got never a word but Guilty?" (324). Compeyson exhibits no redeeming
qualities at all, but it is Magwitch who gets the tougher sentence. Though
Magwitch\'s fate seems inconsistent with his kind and unselfish behavior, it is
in perfect alignment with the theme under consideration. The interplay between
divine