English, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Dickens Quarterly 27:3 (September 2010), pp. 185-208. Copyright 2010 The Dickens Society.


Historicizing hands in the context of contemporary discourse allows us to evaluate how this particular part of the body became a site where scientists and novelists alike could re-imagine “progress” and transformation. In the world of Great Expectations, those who fail to adapt and change never truly make any progress, and Dickens has some fun with this idea as he concludes the novel. While people like Pumblechook conspicuously offer “the same fat five fingers” in the text’s beginning and its end, Joe, over the same course of time, develops not only his laboring hand but his writing one as well (351). Likewise, Pip’s moral development actually becomes manual development; the sensitivity of Pip’s character eventually merges with the sensitivity of his hands as he learns to understand, among other things, the feel of “pretty eloquence” in Biddy’s ringed hand and the exquisite meaning of the “slight pressures” of Magwitch’s hand while his benefactor lay on his deathbed (341). Even his ability to thwart Jaggers’s “powerful pocket handkerchief ” develops concomitantly with his ability to distinguish between criminality and manual labor, between hands that fabricate bank notes and hands that forge iron, between hands that “work” and hands that work (305).