Great Expectations opens among the gravestones of the marshes. Pip imputes onto those slate headstones and little stone lozenges the flesh and dress of his parents and brothers, who “gave up trying to get a living exceedingly early in that universal struggle." Even in his earliest musings life is, for Pip, a kind of occupation, a lawful employment to be earned. At the same moment, and fundamentally opposed to this vision of duty, appears Magwitch the convict. A fearful man “with an iron on his leg," Magwitch thieves and steals, he preys on the earnings of others to live. Magwitch compels Pip to steal vittles and a file from Joe and Mrs. Gargery; in so doing he inaugurates Pip into a deviant world of criminality. This, writes Pip, was “my first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things." For Pip the moment of consciousness and the moment of criminal guilt are one in the same. His theft of Gargery's pie is relatively immaterial; it is his transgression of that imperative to honestly “try to get a living" that is so damning. Pip's guilty conscience anticipates its own judgment, its own punishment (2): death, a place next to the five little tokens of his brothers.
This anticipatory death sentence infused into Pip's conscience creates a worldview that id decidedly paranoid. While rummaging through the kitchen for Magwitch “every board called after me, stop thief! And get up Mrs. Joe!" As he runs towards the church graveyard the birds themselves seem to shout, “A boy with someone else's pork pie! Stop him!" To compound his sense of guilt Pip is treated as if “insisted on being born in opposition to the dictates of reason, religion, and morality." Pip is “brought up by hand," with all the violence implicit in that phrase, as a miniature convict. Indeed, as Pip puts it, “I felt fearfully sensible of the great convenience that the hulks were handy for me. I was clearly on my way there. I had begun by asking questions, and I was going to rob Mrs. Joe." Even normal childish acts like asking questions or being ill are given a criminal aspect by Pip's “remorseful conscience" and the punitive threat of Mrs. Joe.
Later on, this pervasive feeling of guilt opens a great gulf in Pip's mind between the “savage and dismal marshes" and Satis House with its ethereal occupants: Estella and Miss Havisham. While waiting for Estella to arrive in London after a visit to Newgate Prison, Pip, now a young man, remarks:
I was consumed . . . in thinking how strange it was that I should be encompassed by all this taint of prison and crime; that, in my childhood out on our lonely marshes. . . . I should have first encountered it; that, it should have reappeared on two occasions, starting out like a stain that was faded but not gone; that, it should in this new way pervade my fortune and advancement . . . I thought of the beautiful young Estella proud and refined, coming towards me, and I thought of the absolute abhorrence of the contrast between the jail and her.
I beat the prison dust off my feet as I sauntered to and fro, and I shook it out of my dress, and I exhaled its air from my lungs. So contaminated did I feel, remembering who was coming, that the coach came quickly after all, and I was not yet free from the soiling consciousness of Mr. Wemmick's conservatory, when I saw her face at the coach window and her hand waving to me.
What was the nameless shadow, which again in that one instant had passed? 
Can Pip ever remove the stench of the prison from his clothes? To what extent can the “contrast between the jail and her" be said to derive from Pip's view of himself, the gulf between Estella and him?
If Magwitch introduces guilt into Pip's consciousness, what role does Estella play — particularly during their first encounter at Satis House — in Pip's imaginative formation?
Pip may stink of criminality but what about Estella: can her exalted form be removed from the macabre world of the criminal, the institution of the prison?
Satis House, like its inhabitants, appears to exist ethereally, apart from the rest of the novel. In light of the traffic and rapport between Satis House and Little Britain, Miss Havisham and Mr. Jaggers, Magwitch and Estella, can one separate the world of criminality and legality? If not, if these terms are somehow collapsible for Dickens, how are we meant to evaluate the characters and conclusion of Great Expectations.
How does the role and journey of the literal convict, Magwitch (and others), differ from Pip, a figurative convict, ensnared in a mental net of guilt, remorse and prohibition? Does Pip ever overcome these ensnaring emotions? What role does Magwitch play in his struggle to do this, to grapple with his “great expectations"?
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Ed. Edgar Rosenberg. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.
Last modified 16 February 2004
Last modified 8 June 2007