Great Expectations

Great Expectations

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Themes and Colors
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Ambition and Self-Improvement Theme Icon
Integrity and Reputation Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Great Expectations, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Justice Theme Icon

From Pip's encounters with escaped convicts at the beginning of Great Expectations, to the grotesque courts and prisons in parts II and III, the novel casts the British legal system in a dubious light. Though Mr. Jaggers functions as an upstanding force in Pip's life by checking Pip's extravagance, it is questionable whether his law practice truly serves the law. After all, Mr. Jaggers built his reputation on successfully acquitting a murderer. Likewise Wemmick's separate moral codes—one for the law firm, one for home—highlight the legal mindset's inadequacy in matters of the heart or family. Most distressing of all, some of the novel's most heinous crimes slip right through the legal system.

The law treats Orlick and Compeyson much more lightly than they deserve. A number of characters attempt to make up for the law's blind spots by taking the law into their own hands and seeking revenge, but revenge justice proves just as faulty: Provis' wrestling match with Compeyson on the marsh is futile and lands them both back in prison, Miss Havisham's perverse plot to torture Estella's suitors robs everyone of the chance at love, and, while Orlick may be content with clubbing Mrs. Joe for scolding him, it's clear to the reader that this revenge is deeply horrific, leaving Mrs. Joe handicapped for life.

Ultimately, through Pip's development and that of the characters around him, the novel suggests that the only true and enduring scale of justice is the human conscience. As Pip becomes more compassionate, he inspires empathy among previously stoic characters like Wemmick and Miss Havisham as well. In the end, the novel's most fulfilling portraits of justice are the sincere apologies and forgiveness exchanged between Pip and Miss Havisham and between Pip, Joe and Biddy.

Justice ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Justice appears in each chapter of Great Expectations. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Justice Quotes in Great Expectations

Below you will find the important quotes in Great Expectations related to the theme of Justice.
Book 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

"People are put in the Hulks because they murder, and because they rob, and forge, and do all sorts of bad; and they always begin by asking questions. Now you get along to bed!"

Related Characters: Mrs. Joe Gargery (speaker), Pip Pirrip
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

Pip hears canons being fired from the Hulks (ships where prisoners were kept) and asks about the reason for the noise. His sister, Mrs. Joe, responds by scolding him for his inquisitiveness.

Mrs. Joe takes advantage of the question to offer a moral lesson for Pip, beginning a trend in the novel in which various characters offer both solicited and unsolicited advice for the adolescent protagonist. Hers is an warning against asking too many questions—which she introduces by scaling back slowly from the severity of crimes that land people in the Hulks. She begins with the worst crime of all—“they murder”—and then reduces the severity to “they rob,” then “forge,” and “do all sorts of bad." Mrs. Joe thus establishes the moral opening of the novel and stresses how harsh punishments will be leveled on those who commit a wide variety of crimes.

It is somewhat flippant to leap from murder to “asking questions” as types of bad action, and Mrs. Joe’s link thus indicates that the novel sets high stakes on digging too deeply into things. This idea will haunt Pip throughout the text, as he tries to delve deeply into London society, while remaining sufficiently ignorant of its misdoings to stay out of guilt. Mrs. Joe's scolding also foreshadows how Pip will be aided by his curiosity, particularly when it pertains to the criminal activity of the Hulks.

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Book 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

The terrors that had assailed me whenever Mrs. Joe had gone near the pantry, or out of the room, were only to be equaled by the remorse with which my mind dwelt on what my hands hand done. Under the weight of my wicked secret, I pondered whether the Church would be powerful enough to shield me from the vengeance of the terrible young man, if I divulged to that establishment. I conceived the idea that the time when the banns were read and when the clergyman said, "Ye are now to declare it!" would be the time for me to rise and propose a private conference in the vestry.

Related Characters: Pip Pirrip (speaker), Mrs. Joe Gargery
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

As Pip organizes the stolen food and file for the convict, he feels exceedingly guilty. He considers turning the man in at the Church, hoping that the religious institution would offer him a source of security.

Dickens establishes Pip in this scene to be a sympathetic and sensitive character. Although he is nervous about being caught, he is equally crippled by “remorse” for having been placed in this morally-confusing situation. Rather than write off his act as the necessary response to a coercive threat, Pip takes full accountability for his “wicked secret.” The fact that he summons a potential explanation to the Church seems to indicate that Pip wants to purge his guilt through confession.

Yet Pip describes the Church here less as a moral or spiritual force and more as a protective social institution. Wondering if “the Church would be powerful enough” and describing it as “that establishment” highlights its infrastructural role in England. Indeed, Pip sees Christmas Mass less as a time for personal reflection or good faith and rather as a place to “propose a private conference” that would aid his own ends. Dickens thus highlights, through the perspective of an earnest child, the way the Church of England may be imagined as a pragmatic rather than solely religious institution.

Book 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

I thought what terrible good sauce for a dinner my fugitive friend on the marshes was. They had not enjoyed themselves a quarter so much before the entertainment was brightened with the excitement he furnished.

Related Characters: Pip Pirrip (speaker), Provis (a.k.a. Abel Magwitch) (a.k.a. the convict)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

The retinue of soldiers mill around the Christmas Party and create an enjoyable commotion. Pip observes that the mood of the event has notably improved, and he attributes this change, indirectly, to the convict.

That the convict is deemed a “terrible good sauce” stresses the way he is being metaphorically eaten or consumed by the other characters. His misfortune becomes “excitement” for those at the party, because he generates “entertainment” in what is otherwise a relatively boring affair. This passage shows a somewhat mean-spirited "schadenfreude"—happiness at the misfortune of offers—considering it is Christmas Day: the best part of the meal is not gratitude, but rather the excitement “furnished”by negative events.

Pip’s comment speaks more broadly to the odd way humans tend to relate to positive and negative events. Often in Dickens’ novel, seemingly bad occurrences will actually lead to more excitement and energy in the resulting social interactions—whereas good experiences can lead to apathy or jealousy. Of course, Pip has no awareness of these complicated dynamics, but Dickens once more uses the innocent eyes of a child to offer the social commentary that external events and internal experiences do not necessarily align.

"Let him go free? Let him profit by the means I found out? Let him make a tool of me afresh and again? Once more? No, no, no. If I had died at the bottom there…I'd have held to him with that grip, that you should have been safe to find him in my hold."

Related Characters: Provis (a.k.a. Abel Magwitch) (a.k.a. the convict) (speaker), Compeyson (a.k.a. the other convict)
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

The convict Provis yells these lines at the soldiers to explain why he is wrestling with the other convict Compeyson. He wishes to prevent Compeyson from being free at any costs—even if it results in his arrest.

Provis could perhaps have escaped had he not been concerned with preventing Compeyson from doing so, yet he chooses vengeance over personal liberty. His exact reasons for doing so remain murky at this point. That Provis says, “profit by the means I found out” speaks to the way he discovered an exit from the Hulks and hints at how both convicts will “profit” economically after escaping. “Make a tool of me afresh and again” demonstrates that the two have a shared history, in which Provis has presumably been wronged before. Thus his act shows that attending to this history of wrongdoing is more important to him than forging his own future.

This passage is one of the many places in Dickens’ novel where moral justice conflicts with personal well-being. Provis has evidently opted for the former, but this sense of justice is itself muddled: a strange mixture of vengeance and ethics. When Provis cites his willingness to have “died at the bottom there” so long as Compeyson died with him, he morbidly predicts just how radically committed he will be to their equal demise. Dickens is a master of this type of foreshadowing, and it is worth paying attention throughout the text to how early abstract comments by characters take on a belated literal significance to the plot.

Book 2, Chapter 32 Quotes

…how strange it was that I should be encompassed by all this taint of prison and crime; that, in my childhood out on our lonely marshes on a winter evening, I should have first encountered it; that it should have reappeared on two occasions, starting out like a stain that was faded but not gone; that it should in this new way pervade my fortune and advancement.

Related Characters: Pip Pirrip (speaker)
Page Number: 207
Explanation and Analysis:

Pip visits Newgate Prison and is highly disturbed by the presence of the convicts. Later, he is disheartened by how often he has come into contact with criminals.

This passage reiterates that Pip thinks of social relations in terms of contamination: just as he is constantly anxious that associations with Joe will cause others to look down on him, he worries that these repeated run-ins with criminals are a “stain” on his identity. Indeed, that he feels “encompassed by all this taint” shows how he sees himself as uniquely surrounded by unlawfulness. And the fact that he traces it back to his “childhood” and then to “two occasions” casts Pip as detective or interpreter of his own story, revealing how carefully he watches his own actions in terms of how others may perceive them.

His paranoid personality seems, at first glance, entirely irrational, for no one except Pip would be able to track these repeated encounters. Yet Pip’s comment is also quite astute, for it foreshadows how his entire life has been built on the crimes of his benefactor Provis: it is no coincidence that his “fortune and advancement” are associated with a “stain,” for they are actually the direct result of crime. Dickens places Pip, then, in a similar role as the reader of the novel—collecting repeated images and events throughout the protagonist's life and trying to divine how they will affect his future.

Book 3, Chapter 44 Quotes

"Miss Havisham gives you to him as the greatest slight and injury that could be done to the many far better men who admire you, and to the few who truly love you. Among those few, there may be one who loves you even as dearly, though he has not loved you as long as I. Take him, and I can bear it better for your sake."

Related Characters: Pip Pirrip (speaker), Estella Havisham, Miss Havisham, Bentley Drummle
Page Number: 284
Explanation and Analysis:

When Pip finally confronts Miss Havisham and Estella at Satis House, he expresses his deep love for Estella. He begs her not to marry Drummle, but rather to select someone who truly cares for her.

This passage characterizes Pip’s increasingly selfless behavior. He does not phrase his criticism of Drummel in terms of personal motivation, but rather is perturbed by how it is “the greatest slight and jury” to a variety of “far better men.” That is to say, Pip is more concerned with the theoretical ethics of Miss Havisham’s cruel act than with his own desires to be with Estella. Though he reiterates his love, he actually points out that “there may be one who loves you even as dearly”—thus accepting both that he will not marry Estella and that someone else may have sentiments that equal his own. Pleading that she “take him” thus reflects an entirely earnest wish that Estella be happy in her marriage, whether or not it's to Pip.

Pip’s moving speech is thus an affront to Miss Havisham in two ways: first, because it directly criticizes her actions for how cruel they are to Estella and other men, and second because it expresses an entirely honest, selfless, and non-manipulative sentiment. Miss Havisham has taught Estella to be cruel partly out of a world-view that love is empty and disingenuous, but Pip’s wish that Estella be happy above all expresses a true and total love—providing the counterexample to Miss Havisham’s beliefs. Though his love for Estella has previously driven Pip to deceptive and crooked actions, here it causes him to act fully nobly—a critical indicator of his personal development.

Book 3, Chapter 49 Quotes

"Believe this: when she first came to me, I meant to save her from misery like my own. At first I meant no more…But as she grew and promised to be very beautiful, I gradually did worse, and with my praises, and with my jewels, and with my teachings, and with this figure of myself always before her, a warning to back and point my lessons, I stole her heart away and put ice in its place"…[Miss Havisham] burst out again, What had she done!

Related Characters: Miss Havisham (speaker), Estella Havisham
Page Number: 313
Explanation and Analysis:

During Pip’s visit, Miss Havisham repents the way she has raised Estella. She claims that her intentions were originally relatively kind but became crueler as Estella grew older.

Though we should remain skeptical of Miss Havisham by this point in the novel, her tone does seem honest and repentant. That she originally “meant to save [Estella] from misery like [her] own” casts Miss Havisham’s intent as selfless, even feminist: her goal was to protect her daughter from being preyed upon by men, and thus she prevented her from forming emotional attachments. Yet Miss Havisham was, in a sense, herself seduced by Estella’s beauty—for it was only as Estella aged and became increasingly attractive that Miss Havisham sought to cultivate a true monster.

Her language highlights the power of her own teaching: a combination of “praises” and “teachings,” with the monetary addition of “jewels” allowed Estella to become fully inhuman. Her “heart” is replaced with “ice”—speaking to the entirely cold way she treats everyone around her, even Miss Havisham herself. This passage parallels in many ways Pip’s own regret at being deceived by money and by the teachings of the upper class—though Miss Havisham regrets the role of the teacher instead of the student. Dickens thus gathers the characters together, at the novel’s end, in a common narrative of realization and regret. Inspired by Pip’s own selflessness, Miss Havisham concludes that her own tactics have been similarly diabolical.

Book 3, Chapter 59 Quotes

"…now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape."

Related Characters: Estella Havisham (speaker), Pip Pirrip
Page Number: 380
Explanation and Analysis:

In the novel’s final scene, Pip and Estella reunite at the remnants of Satis House. Estella comments on her tortuous marriage with Drummle and how it has changed her character deeply from the one that Miss Havisham crafted years before.

Estella juxtaposes two forms of teaching: the “suffering” she experienced in her marriage and “all other teaching” that had been provided by Miss Havisham. Whereas the second type had given her an emotionally-vacant heart of ice, the first has allowed her to make sense of human emotions. Evidently, Estella has experienced great physical and/or psychological abuse, implied by the phrase “bent and broken,” which can operate both literally and metaphorically. Like Pip, she has gone through a period of maturation and learning and come to reject her colder, judgmental personality. Dickens portrays their journeys as parallel ones, indicating they may finally come together at the novel’s end.

Yet while Estella considers these experiences to have improved her character, she continues to use oddly-aloof language. She considers herself “a better shape,” a phrase that makes her a tool, much as Miss Havisham always had. And she is able only to “understand” Pip’s heart, not actually reciprocate or feel the emotions. It remains unclear, then, whether the two will actually unite, but Dickens at the very least affirms how their parallel sufferings have brought them together at last.