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Great Expectations – Describe the character of Magwitch

Q. Describe the character of Magwitch. What do you think Dickens has to say about crime and punishment in the sections of the novel where he appears?

The following essay and the content of it are about the story of ‘Great Expectations’, its plot and what Charles Dickens was really trying to say.

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“Great Expectations” is the tale about a young man, Phillip Pirrip nicknamed Pip for short, came to build up and have his great expectations dashed. The novel begins with Pip as a young boy out on the marshes and as the novel continues, it follows Pip’s journey to a gentleman and then later on into a businessman. Throughout the novel, Pip is involved in a few rather dramatic events and with some rather colourful characters alongside him.

At the beginning of the story we see the young Pip, an orphan being brought up and looked after by his horrible, hard sister and her husband whose character is defined as being a gentle giant, Joe Gargery, the blacksmith. While upon on the marshes, Pip comes into contact with an escaped convict by the name of Abel Magwitch. As the novel reads on, it proves that Magwitch seems to have a profound effect on Pip’s life. Pip is influenced also by Miss Havisham, an eccentric and reclusive old woman. It turns out o be that there are two young women in Pip’s life: the very understanding and kind and gentle Biddy and the proud and perfectly beautiful Estella.

It comes about one day that Pip has come into a generous fortune. A benefactor, who to Pip is unknown, wishes for Pip to travel to London to become and succeed as a high class gentleman. This is the answer to all of Pip’s dreams, it’s like his Christmases have all come at once but all doesn’t go as well as Pip would have hoped and he becomes involved in quite a few adventures. Also, when he is handed his fortune, Pip becomes a snob and the money changes him totally and it’s all for the worse.

At the beginning of Chapter 1, we meet Magwitch. While Pip is in the graveyard, where his mother is buried, he meets Magwitch. Magwitch puts a great fear into Pip demanding food, drink and a file as he still has chains around his ankles since he has escaped from prison-“You bring me, tomorrow morning early, that file and them wittles”, Magwitch, page 8. Before Magwitch demands these sources, he rummages through Pip’s pockets for food and takes him by his ankles and absurdly shakes Pip upside down. Pip is scared into such a fright by Magwitch firstly telling Pip whether he should live or not-“The question being whether you’re to be let to live”-Magwitch, (page 7.)

Magwitch tells Pip that there is a man a lot worse than him-“There’s a young man hid with me, in comparison with which young man I am a Angel”, Magwitch, page 8. After this, Pip is determined to go home, gather the things Magwitch needs and return to meet him the next day.

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An immediate view of the relationship between Magwitch and Pip is one based completely on fear and power, to which Magwitch has the upper hand so Pip cannot compete with him. It seems though that Magwitch and Pip share unlikely but yet common loneliness. This is such because Pip was alone in the churchyard with the tombstones of his parents, who had passed away many years before and Magwitch has never really had any family around and the very unfair and unjust way Magwitch has been treated and punished, it is like the crime and punishment system in the 1900s was too unjust and was almost like it turned men into beasts and are not treated in an orderly fashion.

Magwitch returns in Chapter 39. It is Pip’s 23rd birthday and he seems to be doing extremely little with his life. He is still on good terms with Mr Pocket, even though Pip is no longer being tutored by him and even though he keeps trying occupations, he isn’t sticking to them long enough to develop further in them but he is finding that he is reading a lot. On a stormy night in London, Magwitch comes to Pip’s home and Pip invites him in and treats him with courteous disdain-“Do you wish to come in”-Pip, page 289. Pip welcomed him in to talk about Magwitch’s “business” and only then does Pip gradually begin to recognize this “visitor” as the convict that he had met and given him a file and some food up on the marshes when Pip was just a young boy.

It is only then that Magwitch reveals himself as being Pip’s mysterious benefactor and that he had been living in Australia all these years previous, working as a sheep farmer and the money he was earning from that would go to Pip-“I lived roughly so you could live smooth”, page 313, Magwitch said this to Pip to prove that everything he had done in Australia, was for Pip. As Pip thought Miss Havisham was his benefactor, he had hopes of marrying Estella and the two of them becoming a lady and gentleman couple but his dreams have been shattered-“Miss Havisham’s intentions towards me, all a mere dream”, Pip, page 317. Pip is repulsed by Magwitch.

He is horrified and appalled but luckily Magwitch didn’t notice it and is upset that he should owe so much to such a person. Furthermore, to Pip’s state of shock, it is only now that he realises it was not Miss Havisham who was his benefactor and that Estella, who Pip adores dearly, had not been intended for him at all.

While Pip is in a state of turmoil, we learn of Magwitch’s past. The reader learns that because Magwitch didn’t dress like a gentleman, his punishment was a lot harsher rather than if you look like a gentleman, the justice system would be a lot more lenient on the more vicious criminal. Even though Magwitch had a minimal choice about whether he could afford to turn to crime or not, he had little choice and could see himself not getting anywhere. Magwitch tells Pip that due to the fact that he committed a crime to “save himself” and he had no choice, it was because he didn’t look or dress like a gentleman that he was given a heavy sentence and shipped to Australia where, only then, he was rehabilitated because he was supposedly no longer a danger to society or anyone around him.

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As Magwitch has come back and risked his life to see him, as much as he feels ashamed and feels as though all his dreams were just that, Pip feels as though in one sense he should still protect him. Pip does have a sense that he doesn’t want Magwitch to risk his life and this shows Pip to still be human by having little conscience by not wanting Magwitch to get caught and hung or taken away, even though Pip is thinking he is the lowest of the low because he is associated with a convict and he feels as though he can’t touch Magwitch’s money anymore.

Magwitch has succeeded in escaping and is still attempting to succeed in not going on trial and being killed. The justice system was never a well-structured plan before, during and after Charles Dickens’ period of life. No matter what you had or hadn’t done wrong or what crime you may have committed, it boiled down to one thing when you were being punished, what class of person you were “listed” under.

It seemed that the higher in class you were, the more lenient the justice system would be towards you but if you were classed as being fairly low, you wouldn’t stand a chance at not getting the worst possible punishment. Some might say the judicial system is often related to the food chain (the higher you are in the food chain, the smaller the chance of you being eaten and this is associated with the court system because the higher you are in society, the smaller the chance of you being punished for a crime), and where you may rank in it.

Also, people were never “disturbed” or “disillusioned” by the fact that if you were to be killed, they would keep you in prison for as long as possible and then when there were enough people to make good entertainment, they would then all be hanged at once at a public hanging. People used to look at this as being a sort of stage show and a form of very good entertainment, many families would make a day out of it and that would be the show/performance.

Abel Magwitch is one of the greatest inventions not only from this novel but from Dickens as an author who proved to be very successful. He is the perfect example of a scary, angry, frightening man turning into a caring and gentleman in my opinion. He went from putting so, much fear into Pip up on the marshes when he was only a little boy to working in Australia, when he was sent there, saving all the money he earned for Pip so that he would be a high class gentleman when he grew older and he was old enough to access it even though Pip wasn’t the slightest bit grateful at first when he found out who the money was from and seemed to be more concerned about his image. This, in my opinion, proves that Magwitch is the best example of how you can turn your life around in this novel, from having nothing and being horrible and having everyone not liking you at all to being happy, having many people starting to like you and having some self worth.

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Dickens’ view on crime and punishment is the main theme for this novel and one of its key themes. He wrote this story because he wanted to make the theme of the book the judicial system. Dickens believed completely that the law was totally biased of the poorer people-corruption and inequality of the court system, as it shows in the book, Magwitch got the blame for everything and that was because he was the poorer one out of all of the accused. Dickens always wanted to punish the bad characters, so that is why and that is the purpose for Compeyson’s death, although I, as the reader, cant help think that that was the easy option because he wouldn’t have to suffer. Maybe Compeyson should have to Newgate Prison as it was renowned for being an appalling “residence” and that place would have given criminals proper suffering. Dickens never agreed with the crime and punishment system displayed in his time and believed that the punishment should always fit the crime.

The conclusion to this essay proves to be that when Charles Dickens wrote ‘Great Expectations’, it is clear throughout the novel that he wrote it based upon the crime and punishment system and how it worked back in Dickens’ day. It is obvious the system related to where and what class you were in and Charles could always see this and he knew how wrong it was that there was never any justification, hence why he wrote the novel, to show everyone the truth.

Chapter 20 paints a very good picture of the legal system as it was, it tells numerous accounts of Jaggers and a few of his personal clients and in Chapter 56, he tells of the trial scene and Dickens is saying through the story of the novel that real justice was very hard to find and the link between the inequalities of society and the crime and punishment system didn’t help. I still believe today though that there is not enough justice in the legal system and there is still a very large difference when it comes to being punished for a crime and what class and status you come under and you are placed under in our society today.

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Great Expectations - Describe the character of Magwitch. (2021, Sep 27). Retrieved January 23, 2022, from