Criminal Activity and Charles Dickens
Great Expectations, like the majority of Charles Dickens’ fiction, contains several autobiographical connotations that demonstrate the author’s keen observational talents. Pip, the novel’s protagonist, reflects Dickens’ painful childhood memories of poverty and an imprisoned father. According to Robert Coles, “there was in this greatest of storytellers an unyielding attachment of sorts to his early social and moral experiences” (566). Complementing Dickens’ childhood memories of crime and poverty was his legal training, reflected in the characterizations of lawyers and the abundance of criminal activity that hovers around the world of Great Expectations.
Charles Dickens’ father, John, made little money working as a clerk in England’s Navy Pay Office (Coles 564). John’s low salary, combined with a severe spending problem, would eventually land him in debt. As a consequence, John was placed into debtors’ prison. As was the custom of the time, John was forced to bring his family along with him (Coles 564). It was 1824 and young Dickens was only 12 years old (Coles 564). To help his father out of debt, Charles worked under the horrible conditions of a blacking factory (Collins 15). According to Edmund Spenser, quoted in Phillip Collins’ Dickens and Crime, these events “lie behind the loneliness, disgrace, and outlawry which pervade all his novels” (15). Collins concurs:
It is a commonplace that his sympathy for suffering and neglected children, which lies at the root of his educational concern, drew much of its strength from the traumatic experience of his own childhood–the period, about his 12th year when the family was in financial straits, …
…lodge where some fetter were hanging up on the bare walls among the prison rules, into the interior of the jail. At that time, jails were much neglected, and the period of exaggerated reaction consequent all public wrong-doing . . . was still far off . . . and a frouzy, ugly, disorderly depressing scene it was. (246; ch. 32)
In addition to once again demonstrating Dickens’s observational talent, this passage illustrates how the author’s early memories of prison-life combines with his later knowledge of the Victorian legal and prison system to recreate a vivid and realistic view of Victorian life.
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: Harper, 1990.
Coles, Robert. “Charles Dickens and the Law.” Virginia Quarterly Review 59 (1983): 564-586.
Collins, Phillip. Dickens and Crime. New York: St. Martin’s, 1962.