Large-scale production of inexpensive, quality soap was achieved by the 1850s. The invention of soap and a feasible process of producing it drastically improved Victorian health and hygiene. Charles Dickens explores the societal effects of soap in Great Expectationsthrough the lawyer Mr. Jaggers. After each of this cases, he “wash[es] his hands with his scented soap" (p. 240), cleaning himself of much more than the dirt on his fingers. Pip notices this habit of Jaggers's time and again:
I embrace this opportunity of remarking that [Mr. Jaggers] washed his clients off, as if he were a surgeon or a dentist. He had a closet in his room, fitted up for the purpose, which smelt of the scented soap like a perfumer's shop. It had an usually large jack-towel on a roller inside the door, and he would wash his hands, wipe them and dry them all over this towel, whenever he came in from a police court or dismissed a client from his room. When I and my friends repaired to him at six o'clock the next day, he seemed to have been engaged on a case of a darker complexion than usual, for, we found him with his head butted into this closet, not only washing his hands, but laving his face and gargling his throat. And even when he had done all that, and had gone all round the jack-towel, he took out his penknife and scraped the case out of his nails before he put his coat on. [p. 241; this passage's location in the novel]
Here, soap has the ability to clean Mr. Jaggers not only physically, but also mentally, emotionally, and spiritually after a morally trying case. It is as though the soap purifies and absolves Jaggers for, say, defending the case of a murderer (as he did for his servant Molly). The reader can tell that soap provides this service beyond physical hygiene when Jaggers “not only wash[es] his hands, but lav[es] his face and gargl[es] his throat" after his “case of darker complexion than usual." Even this extension of his common ritual is not enough to wash off that particular case. He finds it necessary to “scrap[e] the case out of his nails" before leaving the office, the realm of his professional life, to join Pip and company for dinner, a personal and private occasion. The seemingly inhuman requirements of his job make some form of forgiveness and release necessary. For someone like Jaggers, for whom the only truth is evidence, soap replaces religion in this role.
Some other mentions of Jaggers and soap
- “he released me—which I was glad of, for his hand hand smelt of scented soap” (ch. XI)
- “I recognized him as the gentleman I had met on the stairs” (ch. XVIII)
1. What might Mr. Jaggers's use of soap to purify himself after his cases rdo with the emerging secularization of Victorian society?
2. How does Jaggers's use of soap in this passage reveal some human qualities about him? What might Dickens be saying about lawyers, doctors, and dentists, some of the emerging professions during the Victorian Age, whose jobs seemed to require the suspension of their consciences?
3. To which of Shakespeare's play and which scene in it could Dickens be alluding?
4. In what ways does Jaggers's “closet” relate to Wemmick's castle? What might swuch a parallel suggest about modern urban life?
Last modified 5 March 2010