Shame in Great Expectations

In both of today’s readings shame is shown to be a result of the Victorian criminal justice system. In particular, “Ballad of Reading Gaol” reflects the huge role of shame in crime and punishment during this time period. The prison is said to be “built with bricks of shame,” the noose is described as “the rope of shame,” and the grave is the “pit of shame.” The poem describes the shameful way criminals are buried. The people are “eaten by teeth of flame” and then put in nameless graves. The poem reflects the inner turmoil of these prisoners in the lines, “And down the iron stair we tramped, Each from his separate Hell.” This poem makes it clear that Victorian society can be very toxic. Specifically, the justice system cripples people with shame leaving them unable to grow as people. Wilde writes, “and by all forgot, we rot and rot, with soul and body marred.” Shame is also a recurring theme in Great Expectations. We see Pip feel ashamed many times throughout the novel. Estella makes Pip feel shameful of his upbringing and social status by criticizing his rough hands and unrefined manners. This haunts Pip causing him to obsessively think about improving his social status. Pip also grapples with feeling ashamed of Joe. For example, when Joe visits Pip in London, Pip dreads Joes arrival and mentions that he is relieved that he won’t be meeting Drummel. Pip even feels ashamed when he thinks he will be killed by Orlick; he worries that his friends will think that he ditched them for his own sake. This shame keeps Pip stagnant; he is held back from developing as a person. For example, when he realizes that he must not feel shame for Joe by the end of the novel, Pip is set free, now able to evolve into a better person. It is well-known that Dickens did not approve of many aspects of Victorian society, including it’s brutal criminal justice system. “Ballad of Reading Gaol” depicts the justice system in a way that sheds light on the tendency of Victorian society to demonize, humiliate and degrade its citizens. Dickens uses shame in Great Expectations to reflect the harmful effects that society can have on its people. While society does this institutionally through the criminal justice system you see guilt and shame seep into daily life in these examples of Pip’s shame in Great Expectations. Whether in prison or not, people become stuck by their shame.

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