Conscience is a Dreadful [and Slippery] Thing

January 11, 2021

Summer Star, Associate Professor of English at San Francisco State University, shares a passage from Great Expectations about moral consciousness. She describes it as "one of the most brilliant, humorous, and physical allegories for moral discomfort I have ever encountered: having a slice of buttered bread down one's pant leg."



Hello: I’m Summer Star, Associate Professor of English at San Francisco State University, and an affiliated faculty member with the Dickens Universe. I’m happy to make my contribution to the “Dickens-to-go” series and thank Renée Fox and John Jordon, Courtney Mahany, and the Friends of the Dickens Universe for helping to keep us all together and to keep this program going even in times like these.

Today I’m going to share one of my favorite passages – “to go”-- from my favorite novel by Charles Dickens, Great Expectations. There is a lot to love about Great Expectations, but I think the thing that draws me to it the most, as an academic and a human, is the way Dickens makes moral feelings and situations so material and bodily throughout – the way Pip’s feelings of class shame are concretized in his “thick boots,”; or the way he feels of the breath of the go-between convict on his neck and spine when they ride on the same coach, “like some pungent and searching acid,” or the greasy shoulder smudges the walls of Jaggers’ office that tell you everything you need to know about his moral relation to his clients … all of these suggest how moral consciousness lives in this novel in the way objects speak, sometimes to our nerve endings and stomachs as conduits to memory, even before we’re aware of it.

To me, this is what makes the first chapters of Great Expectations most captivating, since we live through the experience of a child – a child undergoing his first moral crisis, as his fidelity becomes split between the convict who accosts him in the churchyard, and his beloved step-father and best/only friend, the blacksmith Joe. John Jordon has already offered his “to-go” installment on Pip’s absconding with the goods from the Christmas larder, but my passage of choice is a prequel, and I choose it because it is one of the most brilliant, humorous, and physical allegories for moral discomfort I have ever encountered: having a slice of buttered bread down one’s pantleg. Before this passage, of course, comes the great description of Mrs. Joe’s sadistical-apothecary way of buttering the loaf against her pin-ridden apron before offering the hewn pieces to Pip and Joe. Here is what follows, from Chapter Two:

On the present occasion, though I was hungry, I dared not eat my slice. I felt that I must have something in reserve for my dreadful acquaintance, and his ally the still more dreadful young man. I knew Mrs. Joe’s housekeeping to be of the strictest kind, and that my larcenous researches might find nothing available in the safe. Therefore I resolved to put my hunk of bread and butter down the leg of my trousers.

The effort of resolution necessary to the achievement of this purpose I found to be quite awful. It was as if I had to make up my mind to leap from the top of a high house, or plunge into a great depth of water. And it was made the more difficult by the unconscious Joe. In our already-mentioned freemasonry as fellow-sufferers, and in his good-natured companionship with me, it was our evening habit to compare the way we bit through our slices, by silently holding them up to each other’s admiration now and then,—which stimulated us to new exertions. To-night, Joe several times invited me, by the display of his fast diminishing slice, to enter upon our usual friendly competition; but he found me, each time, with my yellow mug of tea on one knee, and my untouched bread and butter on the other. At last, I desperately considered that the thing I contemplated must be done, and that it had best be done in the least improbable manner consistent with the circumstances. I took advantage of a moment when Joe had just looked at me, and got my bread and butter down my leg.

Joe was evidently made uncomfortable by what he supposed to be my loss of appetite, and took a thoughtful bite out of his slice, which he didn’t seem to enjoy. He turned it about in his mouth much longer than usual, pondering over it a good deal, and after all gulped it down like a pill. He was about to take another bite, and had just got his head on one side for a good purchase on it, when his eye fell on me, and he saw that my bread and butter was gone.

The wonder and consternation with which Joe stopped on the threshold of his bite and stared at me, were too evident to escape my sister’s observation.


Conscience is a dreadful thing when it accuses man or boy; but when, in the case of a boy, that secret burden co-operates with another secret burden down the leg of his trousers, it is (as I can testify) a great punishment. The guilty knowledge that I was going to rob Mrs. Joe—I never thought I was going to rob Joe, for I never thought of any of the housekeeping property as his— united to the necessity of always keeping one hand on my bread and butter as I sat, or when I was ordered about the kitchen on any small errand, almost drove me out of my mind.


It was Christmas Eve, and I had to stir the pudding for next day, with a copper-stick, from seven to eight by the Dutch clock. I tried it with the load upon my leg (and that made me think afresh of the man with the load on his leg), and found the tendency of exercise to bring the bread and butter out at my ankle, quite unmanageable. Happily I slipped away, and deposited that part of my conscience in my garret bedroom.

Now, Dickens is not always light-handed in his moralizing, but what’s remarkable here is how Pip’s betrayal of Joe – a wrong that will ride Pip through the novel – begins with such a slight thing: not simply hiding the bread from his friend, but not participating in the game of comparing bitten slices. And yet, the passage gets at the way in which having a conscience, from the beginning, involves the realization of a secret self – the word’s roots meaning literally being “with” a private knowledge. With his usual humor and aptness, it’s as though Dickens is giving us an object and everyday definition of conscience – and taking us back to those unlooked for moments when that sense of a private knowledge of the self – that will be with so so long – begins.

Moral consciousness breeds in a highly imaginative mind, this passage, along with all the child chapters of the novel, tell us: it is what makes guilt work, what can make dead rabbits in the larder seem to wink at one in complicity, or cows in the marsh seem to say “halloo young thief!” as Pip finally takes his provisions to the convict. In this passage, though, it’s the combination of a sudden, boyish gesture, combined with the weight of the moral meaning of betrayal that is so Dickensian to me, and important for the way it binds us, as readers, to Pip so early. We have to imagine how he gets the bread down is pants; we have to imagine how he keeps it stuck to his leg while stirring the Christmas pudding; we have to imagine the feeling of the bread and butter on his leg; in a way incomparably odd, Dickens takes us off guard with how close we are imaginatively brought to him as readers.


Summer Star

 Summer Star is an associate professor of English Literature at San Francisco State University where she researches and teaches both poetry and prose from the 19th century. She has published articles on Jane Austen, George Eliot, Alfred Tennyson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and is completing a monograph entitled Mother of Invention: The Aesthetics of Necessity in Mid-Victorian Literature. During the pandemic, she has missed her colleagues -- near and far -- dearly, eminent Dickensians especially. She has also thoroughly mastered how to walk a dog in Golden Gate Park while reading and drinking coffee.


Dickens-to-Go is a weekly program of short videos designed to whet the viewers' appetite for "more" of their favorite author. You can join Dickens Project faculty, friends, and students as they share a favorite passage from Dickens and say a few words about why they selected it.

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