The Illustrated London News for January 18, 1845 included an article entitled “The Winter Assize,” which began with praise for the Industrial Revolution of the early nineteenth century, claiming that the switch from agriculture-based production to heavy industry — from work in the fields to work in the factories — paved the way for huge socio-economic change in England. The article argued that rapid industrial development led to economic improvement on a mass scale, causing Britain to “pass through a period of almost unparalleled prosperity.” However, the article takes an abrupt turn and speaks of crime as a negative side to this growing world of commerce, despite the “increase of employment and the surplus of the public revenue.”

We are passing through a period of almost unparalleled prosperity, and the records of justice show that it is also one almost unequalled for crime. There are dark shades in the otherwise pleasing picture. Like the anxieties and cares which the Roman poet represents as intruding beneath the golden fretted roofs of wealth and power, abating pleasure and poisoning content, the terrible details of crime we have just had forced on our attention, prevent us from believing that our condition is one of perfectly sound and healthy prosperity.

The article distinguishes between the positive and negative aspects of the Industrial Revolution that would come to change Britain’s socio-economic structure permanently. On the one hand, “there is plenty, peace, and employment in the land,” which encourages and allows individual wealth and fortune, raising the living standards of many of the working class. However, society at this time “exhibited a dreadful increase in the amount of crime in the country,” for a number of reasons. First, the “destitution, little short of positive famine” which pressed “heavily on many of our densely-peopled manufacturing towns” gave rise to hunger and starvation. Furthermore, many felt attracted to the opportunity for personal wealth that could be gained in industrial towns, leaving the agricultural industry underworked and therefore underproductive. The dreadful living conditions that resulted from these reasons led to people’s frustration, desperation, and therefore crime.

The ideas in this Illustrated London News article provide an important context for Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-1861), where crime surfaces in multiple places. For example, the character Jaggers is deeply associated with crime because he is the lawyer for the most vicious, dirty kind of criminals, such as the woman who poisoned her father so that she could be married, as mentioned in the article. People like this perpetuate “an amount of evil that can scarcely be estimated.” The recurring imagery of Jaggers’ handcuffs indicates the existence of crime and the need for criminal justice. Furthermore, Great Expectations links to the article through the character of Orlick, who is involved in “conflicts, of a most ferocious kind.”

The worst feature of the numerous trials at the different Assize Towns, is the great proportion of murders and crimes against the person, arising either from passion and revenge, or, still darker, the offspring of cold, calculating treachery, directed to gaining some pecuniary or individual advantage. One wretched woman poisoned her father, because he was an obstacle to her marriage. Not deterred by a failure in her first attempt, she repeated it, with a cool, unrelenting malignity of purpose.

Offences against the Game laws have multiplied to an alarming extent; midnight conflicts, of a most ferocious kind, between man and man, ending sometimes in murder, often in bloodshed.”

Orlick appears inherently evil, committing violent acts, such as those on Mrs. Joe and the attempted assault on Pip, for enjoyment. Aside from the violence, Orlick is an accurate representation of a member of the labor class, working in Joe’s forge, who sits on the sidelines and watches others, such as the central character Pip, make fortunes in industrial London. Along with Orlick’s sickening attraction to seeing other’s pain, this is also a plausible motivation for his violence. Orlick embodies the idea of “ferocious” maliciousness, and bears many similarities to the woman with a “cool, unrelenting malignity of purpose.”

Furthermore, crime surfaces in the very first pages of the book when Pip first comes into contact with an escaped convict, Magwitch. One of Dickens’ central subjects is maturation, which appears in Pip’s transformation from a naïve and narrow-minded boy to a morally alert and socially aware adult. Dickens shows this change through Pip’s changing attitudes toward Magwitch; as a boy, Magwitch’s criminal status frightens Pip, along with the idea that he himself might be labeled a criminal for his actions in helping Magwitch to escape. By the end of the book, Pip can look past Magwitch’s criminal faŤade to his moral interior, and comes to admire and care for him. This idea lessens the severity of crime, suggesting that even criminals should not be discounted as immoral, because they have the ability to remorsefully change.

Hence, this article sets the context for Dickens’ entire novel, by creating a dichotomy between the upper, wealthy industrial class and the hard-working but poorer laboring class, which is more prone to crime. This dichotomy is highlighted by Pip’s internal, moral struggle either to remain behind with his working-class family or move on to the industrial world of wealth, become a gentleman, and thereby associate with people of Estella's social rank. Pip chooses the former in the first parts of the book, but he slowly comes to realize that even though Magwitch is a criminal, the inner moral person counts more than class. Dickens himself was born in the midst of a changing Britain, change brought by the capitalist opportunities of the Industrial Revolution. This article links directly to Great Expectations, then, as it explains the context in which the book was written and the significance of Pip’s final choice of whether to strive for his “great expectations” or live in much lower standards with his family, and touches upon key themes of the novel, such as crime and morality. However, where this article indicates that criminals are a form of “social corruption”, “occurring in the midst of national prosperity,” Dickens suggests that some, like Magwitch, conceal moral good beneath their frustration and violence.

Bibliography

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. The Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. Web. 2 May 2010.

The Winter Assize. The Illustrated London News. Archives: January 18, 1845.


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations Social History

Last modified 19 May 2010