Great Expectations

by: Charles Dickens

Chapters 53–56

Summary Chapters 53–56

Summary: Chapter 56

Pip visits Magwitch, who is sick and imprisoned, and works to free the stricken convict. But when the old man is found guilty and sentenced to death, as Jaggers had predicted, Magwitch tells the judge that he believes God has decreed his death as an act of forgiveness. On the day of his death, he is too ill to speak. Pip eases his final moments by telling him that Estella—the child he believed to be lost—is alive, well, and a beautiful lady. Magwitch dies in peace, and Pip prays over his body, pleading with God to forgive his lost benefactor.

Analysis: Chapters 53–56

While the complex ambiguities of character have filled the previous chapters of Great Expectations, Orlick’s untimely reappearance reintroduces an element of pure evil. Orlick has no redeeming qualities; he is malicious and cunning and hurts people simply because he enjoys it. He blames Pip for many things (for having ruined his chances with Biddy, causing him to be fired by Miss Havisham, and having always been favored by Joe), but his hatred for Pip is largely irrational: he simply wants to destroy him. “I won’t have a rag of you, I won’t have a bone of you, left on earth,” he says in Chapter 53. Orlick seems to have no self-awareness and repeatedly refers to himself in the third person as “Old Orlick.” In this way, Orlick contrasts powerfully with Pip, whose every action is subject to relentless self-scrutiny. If Pip, so aware of justice, punishment, and guilt everywhere he goes, represents an excess of reflection and self-judgment, Orlick represents a total lack of those qualities. He is a perfect tool for the manipulative Compeyson, who has no doubt orchestrated the entire attack.

In the world of Great Expectations, the brilliant sunrise that lights up the river the day of the escape attempt seems like a good omen. The trip down the Thames with Magwitch highlights the extent to which Pip has grown throughout the novel. The nervous, ambivalent child is now an adult confident in his actions, shepherding the once-terrifying Magwitch toward freedom.

Public and private morality are no longer one and the same for Pip and his friends. When they stop at the inn and learn of the ominous boat lingering outside, Pip’s group is uncertain whom they should fear: the police or Compeyson—that is, the law or an outlaw. Ironically, they are captured by both, since Compeyson had gone to the police; when Magwitch discovers what he had done, the gentleman criminal’s face is distorted by “white terror.” Magwitch gets his revenge on Compeyson, even though he is not directly responsible for Compeyson’s drowning. Unlike Pip’s other former antagonists, such as Miss Havisham and Magwitch, Compeyson ends his life with an act of betrayal. The strict sense of justice that guides the novel demands that any sinful character will either be redeemed or come to a bad end. Pip is redeemed by his newfound love for his secret benefactor; Magwitch is redeemed by his inner nobility and love for Pip; and Miss Havisham is redeemed by her repentance. Though Magwitch and Miss Havisham die, they die at peace, while Compeyson simply disappears, and Orlick will be dragged to prison (see Chapter 57).

“You had a child once, whom you loved and lost.”

(See Important Quotations Explained)

The way in which Magwitch dies in Chapter 56 is a testament to his own inner strength, and Pip’s behavior immediately before Magwitch’s death is a sign of his newfound love for the convict. Though Wemmick’s comical wedding and Herbert’s joyous engagement lighten the mood of tragedy in these concluding chapters, it is the manner of Magwitch’s death—uncomplaining, believing death to be the reward of God’s forgiveness—that renders his life a victory. The sunrise the morning of the escape attempt did not foretell a successful ending to Magwitch’s escape attempt, but, instead, foreshadows his redemption in death. Pip has now completely accepted Magwitch as his “second father.” As he says in Chapter 54: “For now my repugnance to him had all melted away, and in the hunted wounded shackled creature who held my hand in his, I only saw a man who had . . . felt affectionately, gratefully, and generously toward me with great constancy through a series of years.” Pip is no longer concerned with social class: he simply sees that Magwitch has been better to him than he himself has been to Joe, signaling that Pip has at last learned the novel’s greatest moral lesson. Loyalty, love, and human affection are more important than social class and material grandeur, and are the only goals worth striving for.