Old Orlick

Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Discussion | Title: Great Expectations (in Context) | Author: Charles Dickens | Ch: Chapter LIII

"Old Harry" was a common name for Satan, and Old Orlick is a principle of evil in the novel, the embodiment of unrestrained resentment. He belongs more with Heathcliff in Wuthering Heioghts than with Magwitch and Compeyson, neither of whom is a murderer. Great Expectations is very nearly perfect, yet if one were to ask for something more from Dickens it would be his endowing Orlick with a past, an event or situation such as that governing Pip, Magwitch, and Miss Havisham, which would explain Orlick's hatred.    

One of Dickens' most influential commentators, Humphry House, argues that Orlick "is less a criminal than a turbulent, discontented underdog...." House's point is that Orlick's criminality is less endemic than shaped by social conditions and the class system. He begins as an "underdog" and then through repeated insults becomes a criminal. This is, I think, a far more generous interpretation than Dickens aims for. 

Nearly every Dickens novel after Pickwick has a figure who is unconditionally evil, one who can only partly be explained conditions. From Monks in Oliver Twist to Blandois/Rigaud in Little Dorrit and Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities such figures represent a radical, incorrigible evil. Such a person cannot be salvaged, because he or she is not entirely a product of social conditions, however much he or she may use them to justify his hate. 

"Old Orlick" is indeed old, as old as the Creation. For people like him, arbitrary power and injustice, such as Lucifer claimed in Paradise Lost he suffered and which caused him to rebel against God, is merely an excuse to, in another sense, "reverse the appointed order of things." They hate the world as it is and seek to introduce mayhem. They are sociopaths, unsusceptible to kindness or reason. Their savagery precedes any injustice done them and far exceeds any that follows. We can't say for a certainty that they were born evil, because we don't know the conditions and moment of their forging, but we may say of Old Orlick what Lionel Trilling in his essay on Little Dorrit does of Blandois: "Because Blandois exists, prisons are necessary." 

return to text