In The Age of Reform, E.L. Woodward describes the flawed English legal system of the nineteenth century:

No attempt was made to simplify the language of the laws, or to compile a civil code, and the English Legal System in 1870, though far less of an anomaly and a hindrance to a reasonable social order than it had been in 1815, was still very far from an ideal code in which rights and remedies were clearly stated. [454]

The King's utterance to the Hatter reflects this similarly flawed legal system according to which the King can execute the Hatter if he fails to prove that he did not steal his hat. In Great Expectations, the legal system likewise appears far from perfect. Magwitch describes his unfair trial where the court penalizes him for not appearing as gentlemanly as Compeyson:

At last, me and Compeyson was both committed for felony...I noticed first of all what a gentleman Compeyson looked...When the prosecution opened and the evidence was put short, aforehand, I noticed how heavy it all bore on me, and how light on him...And when we're sentenced, ain't it him as gets seven year, and me fourteen, and ain't it him as the Judge is sorry for, because he might have done so well, and ain't it me as the Judge perceives to be a old offender of wiolent passion, likely to come to worse? (365; ch.42)

Both works mock the British legal system. In Alice in Wonderland, the law seems not only arbitrary but also ineffective. Every time the Queen commands an execution, nothing happens. In fact, soon after the episode with the Hatter, Alice starts growing, signaling her frustration with the event. Great Expectations does not equate the judicial process with justice. The contrast between Compeyson's and Magwitch's sentences suggests that the law favors wealthier and more elevated members of society. Moreover, the text often depicts Jaggers in the act of washing his hands: “My guardian was in his room, washing his hands with his scented soap" (232; ch.26), suggesting that law is a dirty business.

Related Material


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 1996

Last modified 8 June 2007