Great Expectations

by: Charles Dickens

Abel Magwitch

“Hold your noise!” called a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!” A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied around his head.

Here, Pip describes his first encounter with the convict later revealed to be Abel Magwitch. Although the story is narrated by the grown-up Pip, the encounter is described from the point of view of Pip at age seven. Pip knows that the man he meets is an escaped convict and he is terrified. Out of fear for his life, Pip agrees to help the convict by bringing him a file and some food.

“Single-handed I got clear of the prison-ship. I made a dash and I done it. I could ha’ got clear of these death-cold flats likewise—look at my leg: you won’t find much iron on it—if I hadn’t made discovery that he was here. Let him go free? Let him profit by the means as I found out? Let him make a tool of me afresh and again? Once more? No, no, no.”

Magwitch explains that he was recaptured because he did not want the other convict to escape. He was adamant that the other convict needed to be caught even if it meant going back to prison himself. Clearly Magwitch has a history with the other prisoner and considers him an enemy. His words also reveal a belief that some behavior needs to be punished, and he is willing to suffer in order to make sure punishment happens.

“A man can’t starve. At least I can’t. I took some wittles, up at the willage over yonder—where the church stands a’most out on the marshes…. And I’ll tell you where from. From the blacksmith’s.… It was some broken wittles—that’s what it was—and a dram of liquor, and a pie.”

Upon being captured after escaping from prison, Magwitch lies to protect Pip. Pip stole food and a file to help Magwitch escape, and Magwitch doesn’t want him punished for this. Magwitch knows that Pip lives with a blacksmith, so he can tell this lie without anyone suspecting it. Pip was worried that Magwitch assumed he had reported him to the law, but Magwitch’s lie indicates that Magwitch knows Pip isn’t responsible for his recapture.

“And then, dear boy, it was a recompense to me, look’ee here, to know in secret that I was making a gentleman. The blood horses of them colonists might fling up the dust over me as I was walking; what do I say? I says to myself, ‘I’m making a better gentleman nor ever you’ll be! … If I ain’t a gentleman, nor ain’t got no learning, I’m the owner of such. All on you owns stock and land; which on you owns a brought-up London gentleman?’”

Here, Magwitch explains that he knows he would never be considered a gentleman even though he is now wealthy, but he believes that he can “make” someone else into one. That someone who did not start life as a gentleman could become one was a relatively recent development in British society, and one that not everyone would have believed in even at this time.

“[W]hen I was a ragged little creetur as much to be pitied as ever I see … I got the name of being hardened.… Then they looked at me, and I looked at them, and they measured my head, some on ‘em—they had better a measured my stomach—and others on ‘em gave me tracts what I couldn’t read, and made me speeches what I couldn’t understand. They always went on agen me about the Devil. But what the devil was I to do?—I must put something into my stomach, mustn’t I?”

Magwitch describes how he fell into a life of crime purely as a means of feeding himself because he was given no other opportunities. The fact that criminality was often the result of hunger and want, but was punished as a moral failing, is a common theme of Dickens’s stories. After Magwitch was sent to Australia, where he was allowed to work, he was extremely successful.