Worksheet: Crime and Punishment
Dickens was a frequent critic of the Victorian judicial system. This stemmed from his own experiences as a trainee in a lawyer's office and as a reporter. This criticism is also evident in Great Expectations. We are introduced to many different facets of the judicial system as well as its consequences, and these are presented through setting and characterisation. It is pertinent that we think of how these work in tandem to create Dickens' critique of the Victorian judicial system.
Context: Crime and Imprisonment In the 1820s when the first part of the novel is set, theft was considered a felony and punishable by death. The law held that children over 7 were as capable of criminal intent as adults, and so they could be tried as adults. Consider Magwitch's account of his childhood imprisonment for theft. Such instances were relatively common. One example is the case of 11-year-old John Greening (see his charge sheet on the right), who in 1873 was sentenced to 1-month of hard labour and 5 years in a reformatory for stealing gooseberries.
To cope with burgeoning numbers of criminals and overcrowded, filthy jails, prison hulks were created. These were decommissioned Royal Navy ships used as floating prisons. Conditions on these hulks were not much better; many convicts died of typhoid and cholera because of bad hygiene. As the hulks were moored on rivers, conditions were also very damp, and prisoners were also prone to malarial fevers.
The hulks were also used to house convicts that were sentenced to transportation, a form of punishment that involved exiling convicted criminals or political prisoners to a remote territory such as an overseas colony. England transported prisoners to Australia (a colony at that time) and to other colonies, for example, the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. The sentence of transportation could be for life (i. e., the prisoner was not allowed to ever return to England), or could be for a set number of years. Magwitch is given a life sentence, which is why he cannot risk getting caught, or he will be executed.
Prison and judicial reforms did take place over the course of the 19th century. In the 18th century, you could be hanged for around 200 different offences including theft. By the early 19th century that number had been reduced by half. Nevertheless, punishments continued to be severe, with the intention of discouraging criminal behaviour. However, it took some time to recognise that underlying socio-economic problems rather than simply moral degeneracy were at the root of many crimes committed by the poor. This is a point that Dickens makes in his characterisation of Magwitch.
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Victorian Prisons and Punishments Victorian Crime and Punishment 1 Victorian Children in Trouble with the Law Juvenile Crime in the 19th Century We will be examining the following issues raised in the novel's presentation of crime...