In Chapter 56 of Great Expectations, Dickens makes some curious choices with respect to tone and dialogue. Almost the entire courtroom scene occurs sans quoted conversation, with Dickens opting to paraphrase the words of the judge instead of writing them out. The lack of actual speech makes the passage feel very clinical, and indeed it seems quite reasonable to assume that Dickens meant to portray the proceedings in exactly this fashion, since their description reads more like the abstract of a legal transcript than a story:

Among the wretched creatures before him whom he must single out for special address was one who almost from his infancy had been an offender against the laws; who, after repeated imprisonments and punishments, had been at length sentenced to exile for a term of years; and who, under circumstances of great violence and daring, had made his escape and been re-sentenced to exile for life. That miserable man would seem for a time to have become convinced of his errors, when far removed from the scenes of his old offences, and to have lived a peaceable and honest life. But in a fatal moment, yielding to those propensities and passions, the indulgence of which had so long rendered him a scourge to society, he had quitted his haven of rest and repentance, and had come back to the country where he was proscribed. Being here presently denounced, he had for a time succeeded in evading the officers of Justice, but being at length seized while in the act of flight, he had resisted them, and had — he best knew whether by express design, or in the blindness of his hardihood — caused the death of his denouncer, to whom his whole career was known. The appointed punishment for his return to the land that had cast him out, being Death, and his case being this aggravated case, he must prepare himself to Die. [Place within the complete text of the novel]

The only line of dialogue comes from Magwitch, who says, “My Lord, I have received my sentence of Death from the Almighty, but I bow to yours." But even this line, however appropriately melodramatic and in line with the schema of a condemned man's last words, comes with a strange catch. Dickens chooses to call Magwitch “the prisoner" instead of referring to him by name, further highlighting the tone shift that precedes the scene.

At the end of the chapter, dialogue makes a comeback with Pip and Magwitch's final conversation, and tone returns to its previous form. But Dickens makes a potentially odd literary decision in this scene as well. Surprisingly, and for no obvious reason, he breaks the two-character oligopoly on dialogue in the chapter by granting the privilege of a voice to a minor, almost inconsequential character:

The allotted time ran out, while we were thus; but, looking round, I found the governor of the prison standing near me, and he whispered, “You needn't go yet." I thanked him gratefully, and asked, “Might I speak to him, if he can hear me?"

The governor stepped aside, and beckoned the officer away.


1. Why might Dickens have allowed the warden to speak directly even after having denied that same right to the judge, the other prisoners, the jury...?

2. Dickens capitalizes “Sessions," “Sentences," “Sentence of Death," and — strangest of all — “Die" in this scene. This decision brings to the trial a feeling of legal formality, but might it have a secondary goal?

3. Dickens's description of the court proceedings opens with the line, “The whole scene starts out again in the vivid colors of the moment, down to the drops of April rain on the windows of the court, glittering in the rays of April sun." How does this set up the tone shift that follows? What effect does the detached tone have on the scene, and does it achieve more or less in the line of evoking emotion than might a sentimental tone? Does Dickens want to evoke emotion at this moment in the story? If Great Expectations were to be filmed, should the courtroom exchange occur aloud, or should it be kept silent, as in the novel?

4. Should analysis of Chapter 56 take into account the real-life history of England's judicial system? Dickens keeps both judge and jury voiceless and largely uncharacterized, but does this mean they should be viewed as perfect arbiters, members of a completely neutral third party? If it were discovered that 1850s England had serious flaws in its legal process, — or conversely, if it had no major problems — how should this information be factored into an overall opinion on the verdict in Magwitch's trial? Should it be?

5. Unlike Great Expectations, which strives for realism, MacDonald's Phantastes takes advantage of its fantasy status by allowing its main character to speak, in some sense, from the grave. Since dying in Fairy Land simply means reawakening on Earth, Anodos has the privilege of being able to describe the aftermath of his own death. Dickens also tangles with the idea of speaking posthumously, he manages to do so without stepping away from realism. How does he accomplish this? How does Tennyson accomplish it in In Memoriam?

Sample from Great Expectations:

He had spoken his last words. He smiled, and I understood his touch to mean that he wished to lift my hand, and lay it on his breast. I laid it there, and he smiled again, and put both his hands upon it. . . .

A gentle pressure on my hand.

"You had a child once, whom you loved and lost."

A stronger pressure on my hand.

"She lived, and found powerful friends. She is living now. She is a lady and very beautiful. And I love her!"

With a last faint effort, which would have been powerless but for my yielding to it and assisting it, he raised my hand to his lips. Then, he gently let it sink upon his breast again, with his own hands lying on it. The placid look at the white ceiling came back, and passed away, and his head dropped quietly on his breast.

Sample from In Memoriam:

In those fall'n leaves which kept their green,
The noble letters of the dead . . .

So word by word, and line by line,
The dead man touch'd me from the past,
And all at once it seem'd at last
The living soul was flash'd on mine

Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 23 February 2008