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In Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Mr Jaggers is described repeatedly as biting his forefinger, sometimes biting it "at" someone.

Examples:

Then, and not sooner, I became aware of a strange gentleman leaning over the back of the settle opposite me, looking on. There was an expression of contempt on his face, and he bit the side of a great forefinger as he watched the group of faces.

[...]

"Come!" said the stranger, biting his forefinger at him.

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 1867 edition, Chapter 18. Accessed 18 October 2023 from Project Gutenberg.

I've never heard of this gesture before, and no other character in the story does it. The way he bites his finger "at" someone seems to indicate the gesture has a meaning, but I couldn't find anything on Google. Google ngrams viewer shows a sudden increase in usage for the phrase "bit his forefinger at" in the late 1850s, just before the story was published in 1861.

Is this just a peculiar quirk of Mr. Jaggers' character, or does the gesture have some meaning?

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  • It occurs to me that this might fit better in the English Language Stack Exchange. I'm new here, so if this ought to be removed or migrated let me know. Oct 19, 2023 at 2:46
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    It's fine here!
    – verbose
    Oct 19, 2023 at 5:20
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    I wonder if this is a social modification of biting the thumb, an obscene gesture apparently known as far back as the Elizabethan era.
    – elutionary
    Oct 19, 2023 at 13:29

2 Answers 2

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I see there being two options, but I don't think there is some underlying meaning such as biting the thumb or thumbing one's nose.

  1. It is possible that Mr. Jaggers has some form of Dermatophagia which is now known as a form impulse control or obsessive compulsive disorder generally associated with anxiety. As lawyer it wouldn't be too hard to imagine that Mr. Jaggers would have anxiety derived from his profession.
  2. In context it might also be similar to biting one's tongue in the literal sense that Mr. Jaggers is holding himself back from saying what he actually wants to. This is supported by the "expression of contempt" referenced in the passage.
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    Both of these seem reasonable at a glance, but they don't really fit with Jaggers as a character. He's very outspoken and confident. Oct 24, 2023 at 3:10
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    @Skooba it is apparent from Dickens' account of Mr Jaggers that his obsessive rituals including frequent handwashing with scented soap that he has OCD traits , Dermatophagia seems to be spot on on first glance and indeed after careful thought even more so .
    – schweppz
    Oct 24, 2023 at 11:14
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    @PaulMartin, Yes, but he is professionally a keeper of secrets. Even his clerk "had the same air of knowing something to everybody else’s disadvantage, as his master had." One of his most important roles in the novel's plot is to withhold a key piece of information, viz., who Pip's benefactor is. And in this his first appearance in the novel, he is reproving people who vent an opinion (on somebody's criminal guilt) too unreservedly. Oct 27, 2023 at 13:49
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You ask : ‘Is this just a peculiar quirk of Mr. Jaggers' character, or does the gesture have some meaning?’

The answer I contend is it is a quirk of character, but in addition has specific significance and meaning which I will attempt to demonstrate in what follows when clues taken from within the book are combined with knowledge of psychopathology.

I believe Mr Jaggers has a separate coexisting disorder that relates to his forefinger biting.What is interesting is I think from the descriptions given within this book of fiction that the two disorders taken together would be a good convincing diagnostic fit for present day psychiatric diagnoses. I think that Mr Jaggers has underlying Obssessive Compulsive Disorder ( OCD ) and I will show how he fits current diagnostic criteria for this conditon and furthermore his forefinger biting is a condition called Dermatodaxia by referrence to a case report on pub med which shows close correspondence to the description in the book .

First OCD : We know from multiple instances that Mr. Jaggers has recourse to frequent handwashing ( preferably with scented soap ) as we know from one such example in Chapter 26:

“ My guardian was in his room, washing his hands with his scented soap, when I went into the office… "

“ I embrace this opportunity of remarking that he washed his clients off, as if he were a surgeon or a dentist. He had a closet in his room, fitted up for the purpose, which smelt of the scented soap like a perfumer’s shop. It had an unusually large jack-towel on a roller inside the door, and he would wash his hands, and wipe them and dry them all over this towel, whenever he came in from a police court or dismissed a client from his room.

Great expectations Chapter 18 , pp201-2 We can see that Jaggers is subject to compulsive handwashing rituals and is obsessessed by the thought of contamination by his criminal clients . This would fit with an OCD diagnosis when taken together with the abscence of another disorder to explain his symptoms and in particular we know that he is not substance addicted (as far as we can tell from the novel) , he is if anything a high functioning workaholic and perfectionist ( seemingly always winning his cases and prepared to go to great lengths to do so ) .

Now his multiple episodes of forefinger biting exemplified by the episode at the Three Jolly Bargemen .This really does ressemble a disorder called dermatodaxia :

“ Dermatodaxia refers to skin biting in humans. Individuals who bite their skin may concurrently have other body-focused repetitive behavior-related conditions affecting their hair, nails, and/or skin. Similar to the man in this report, dermatodaxia is usually asymptomatic, unilateral, and affects a solitary site.”

The above case report is particualry telling in its close parallel to the account given in the book . It is worth noting that that dermatodaxia often coexists with OCD .

What is noteworthy is that Dickens appears to have provided a valid clinical description of an individuals symptoms to such full and close extent as to convincngly suggest current valid psychiatric diagnoses.

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  • Thanks for the thorough research. I can accept that it's a personal quirk, but I don't buy the diagnoses because Jaggers is such a confident character. All other characters are deferential to and even intimidated by him. He is decisive, totally unlike several other anxious and officious characters in the story. I find the OCD diagnosis equally unconvincing. He certainly washes his hands of his clients, but I read that as characteristic social commentary by Dickens about how the wealthy benefit from their clients but wash their hands of them. Nov 7, 2023 at 21:20

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