Danielle’s seminar paper on law in Great Expectations

From “The Law as ‘Portable Property’ in Great Expectations:

Regardless of who—if anyone—maintains legal authority, the idea of the law haunts the city. Notably, Pip fears that he carries the “Newgate cobwebs” with him on his body (296), even after exiting the prison gates. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault posits that “the economy of punishment was redistributed in the late eighteenth century,” whereby the “adoption of the jury system” replaced the more antiquated practice of “public spectacle” (Foucault 7). Serialized between 1860 and 1861, Great Expectations appeared well within the more modern and bureaucratized trial-by-jury system of justice, yet images of corporeal punishment still linger. I argue that Dickens’ London is still very much at the point of legal transition Foucault describes. Paranoid over whether the human body, jail house or court symbolizes the real center of British justice, Dickens’ characters read and interpret the law as disorienting, destabilizing and potentially even meaningless….


Meanwhile, Mr. Jaggers, whom Dorothy Van Ghent labels the novel’s representative of both civil and universal law (Van Ghent 130), is more idea than body. Jaggers enters the fates of Pip, Magwitch, and Miss Havisham because citizens have read of him in the newspaper (400). As a print personality, Jaggers the man becomes Jaggers the word, translated into a textual representation that penetrates and influences private homes across Britain. When Jaggers does present himself as a physical presence, he is “recognized ever and again by some face in the crowd of the streets” (211), yet Jaggers refuses the public’s recognition, thus remaining anonymous even as something of a legal celebrity. Van Ghent draws special attention to Jagger’s menacing forefinger, employed to ruthlessly point at the accused. That forefinger as body part becomes an object—“like an ‘it’ in its own right rather than like a member of a man” (Van Ghent 130). The forefinger thus stands in for the whole of Jaggers, replacing his body with legal certitude. His fundamental essence is that of the accuser, while he himself washes his hands clean, forbidding any reverse accusations aimed at him.

[Excerpted by Rachel]