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Great Expectations – Summary

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‘Great Expectations’ was written by Charles Dickens in 1861. ‘Great Expectations’ is a coming of age story that revolves around the life of one man Pip. From the time he was seven years old until he was in the mid thirties, Pip shows us the important events in his life that shaped who he became. Along the way, he enquires many different acquaintances and friends that influence him in his decisions and goals in his life. ‘Great Expectations’ is a story that the public can relate to because at some point, everyone goes through the struggles that Pip must battle. It shows that possessions and wealth do not change who people are inside, and that finding one’s self can be a long process until finally everything becomes clear.

‘Great Expectations’ discusses various themes on crime, law and the criminal justice system. Through the novel Dickens displays his point of view of criminality and punishment. This is shown in his portraits of all pieces of system: the lawyer, the clerk, the judge, the prison authorities and the convicts. He uses characters such as Mrs Joe Gargery and Magwitch to define people’s common views about crime and punishment and how it is explored through the character Magwitch.

The prison system in England may have had a significant effect on the life and writing of Charles Dickens due to his father’s imprisonment John Dickens worked as a clerk at the Navy Pay Office. Having seven children, John Dickens found it difficult to provide for his growing family on his meagre income. In 1822 the family moved to Camden Town in London. John Dickens debts had become so severe that all the household goods were sold. Still unable to satisfy his creditors, he was arrested and sent to Marshalsea Prison. These kind of prisons came to be workhouses for people who had lost all their belongings. This painful experience would have stayed in Charles’s mind for the rest of his life. ‘Great Expectations’ is a harsh criticism on the British Legal and Penal system as well as on the Victorian Society. By reading the novel the reader becomes aware of the Victorian unfair Justice regarding poor people but advantageous towards the rich and educated middle class.

Crime and Punishment is an important theme in Great Expectations and Dickens uses the character of Magwitch to highlight his concerns with the criminal Justice system. Magwitch, frightens Pip at first because he is a convict and Pip feels guilty for helping him because he is afraid of the police. By the end of the novel, however Pip has discovered Magwitch’s inner nobility, and is able to disregard his external status as a criminal. Prompted by his conscience, he helps Magwitch to evade the law and the police. As Pip has learned to trust his conscience and to value Magwitch’s inner character, he has replaced an external standard of value with an internal value. The character Magwitch is not only powerful in itself but it shows us what Dickens thought about crime. Dickens was trying to find the good in even the darkest of characters.

In chapter one, Dickens uses metaphors and similes to describe the setting and atmosphere. Pip describes it as a ‘memorable raw afternoon’ the use of raw gives us a sense of cold and harsh. He goes on to describe it, as ‘this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard.’ The use of bleak shows a dull, dark place and nettles gives an impression of sharp and stinging. He describes the marshes as ‘the dark flat wilderness’ giving an idea of it being wild and harsh. He describes the river as a ‘low leaden line.’ It’s grey looking, and he describes the sea as ‘the distant savage lair’ he’s describing it as if its frightening and horrible. He describes himself as a ‘small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all.’ He’s cold and lonely and he’s getting more and more frightened. Dickens also creates pathetic fallacy using weather to show emotions- the dark, bleak, dull looking place all adds to the tension of the atmosphere and prepares the reader for Magwitch.

When Magwitch appears the reader is taken a back as he appears suddenly. The first thing is we hear his voice ‘Hold your noise! It’s sharp and aggressive and described as a ‘terrible voice.’ It goes on to say ‘as a man started up from among the grave.’ This gives an impression like he’s arising from the dead. ‘Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!’ He uses imperatives and barks orders he is violent and aggressive. Dickens describes his appearance as a ‘fearful man, all in coarse grey.’ He’s rough and dark looking. ‘A man with no hat, and with broken shoes.’ He is no gentleman, he’s shabby looking. Dickens uses many verbs to show what has happened to Magwitch like ‘soaked in water’ ‘smothered in mud’ ‘lamed by stones’ ‘cut by flints’ ‘stung by nettles.’ It says he’s hurting ‘limped and shivered.’ So although he is aggressive and violent we are made to feel pity on Magwitch as he has suffered great hardship and cruel conditions.

Magwitch’s wickedness is emphasised through the presentation of Pip as being vulnerable and frightened. Pip is very scared and at one point Pip ‘held tighter to the tombstone on which he had put me on; partly, to keep myself from crying.’ Although Pip is scared of Magwitch he shows great bravery when he says ‘If you would kindly please to let me keep upright, sir perhaps I shouldn’t be sick, and perhaps I could attend more.’ This shows a contrast between Pip and the horror of the man.

The significance of the ‘gibbet…that once held a pirate’ at the end of chapter one is that it shows you what happens to Magwitch and how cruel the Victorian Law was.

In chapter three, Dickens creates a change in atmosphere between Pip and Magwitch. In chapter three Pip returns to Magwitch with the food and file he has stolen from Mrs Joe Gargery.

We are made to have sympathy for Magwitch, we see he is hurt and cold. ‘He was awfully cold to be sure.’ ‘I half expected to see him drop down before my face and die of deadly cold.’ Dickens goes on to describe his eyes as looking ‘so awfully hungry.’

Magwitch is patient and shows a gentle side ‘He did not turn me upside down, this time, to get at what I had, but left me right side upwards while I opened the bundle and emptied my pockets.’ He uses no violence and is patient and waits for Pip.

We see again how hungry Magwitch is ‘He was already handing mincemeat down his throat in the most curious manner.’ And we see how cold he is ‘He shivered all the while so violently.’

Pip notices that Magwitch is not very well and says to him ‘I think you have got the ague.’ And Magwitch agrees with Pip and says ‘I’m much of your opinion boy.’

Magwitch shows trust in Pip he asks Pip if he has brought anyone with him and Pip tells him no. Magwitch replies to this saying ‘I believe you.’ He shows trust in Pip. He describes himself to Pip as a ‘wretched warmint.’ Making us feel sorry for him, as he does not have a high opinion of himself. Pip also feels sympathy for Magwitch ‘pitying his desolation.’

Pip tells Magwitch he is glad he enjoyed the pie in which Magwitch replies ‘Thankee, my boy. I do.’ The use of calling Pip ‘my boy’ showing more warmth between them, this also shows he may see Pip as the kind of son he would love. It’s showing a more gentle side to Magwitch. Pip also describes Magwitch as a friend. ‘Leave any for him? Who’s him? Said my friend.’

Dickens creates a warmer atmosphere between Pip and Magwitch showing a softer side to Magwitch making the reader feel sorry for him and begin to like him more.

At the end of chapter 5 Magwitch saves Pip from getting into any trouble by confessing to the sergeant and to Joe that he had stole some food, liquor and a pie from Joe’s house. ‘I wish to say something respecting this escape. It may prevent some persons laying under suspicion a longer me.’ Magwitch knew Pip was there and knew he may get in trouble so here Magwitch is showing his gratitude towards Pip and his thanks by making sure Pip doesn’t get into any trouble for helping him. This shows Magwitch is thoughtful and grateful to Pip.

When Magwitch tells Joe he has eaten his pie, Joe responds saying ‘God knows you’re welcome to it- so far as it was ever mine.’ Joe is showing compassion to Magwitch, showing his gentle, caring side. He says to him ‘we don’t know what you have done, but we wouldn’t have you starved to death for it, poor miserable creature.’ He sees him in a different light, calling him a ‘poor miserable fellow creature.’ He has great compassion for him; no matter what he’s done wrong Joe knows he shouldn’t be badly treated he sees good in him. The reader also will see this good and feel quite sorry for the convict.

When Magwitch is taken back to the hulks, the audience is made to feel deeply sorry for him, as the hulks were horrible. The convicts were treated like animals ‘somebody in the boat growled as if to dogs, Give way you!’ Pip describes it as ‘like a wicked Noah’s Ark.’ The horror of the convicts as if they were animals locked up. ‘Cribbed and barred and moored by massive rusty chains.’ They were restrained in chains, locked up and overcrowded, a horrible place to be. Hulks were full of diseases and would have been a very frightening and horrific experience. Dickens is trying to show the cruel conditions that convicts had to go through and how they were treated like animals he’s trying to put his feelings about the way convicts were treated across.

The reader is given a horrible feeling making them feel sympathy for Magwitch and anxious as to what will happen to him.

The reader does not see Magwitch again until chapter 39, when it is many years later and Pip is living as a gentleman in London, as a result of funds from a mystery benefactor.

When Magwitch returns, we are reminded of the weather conditions of the stormy marshes on their first meeting. Dickens creates pathetic fallacy. ‘It was wretched weather; stormy and wet, stormy and wet; mud, mud, mud, deep in all the streets.’ He uses metaphors such as ‘a vast heavy veil’ and uses personification such as ‘so furious had been the gusts.’ And ‘violent blasts of rain’ ‘these rages of wind.’ The use of the pathetic fallacy creates a dark atmosphere showing Pip’s terror and fears. It creates suspense for the reader to show that something is about to happen.

When Magwitch and Pip meet again, Pip describes the sight of Magwitch’s face as ‘looking up with an incomprehensible air of being touched and pleased by the sight of me.’ He was extremely pleased to see Pip again. Pip, however is quite taken aback and describes it as ‘stupid kind of amazement that he was holding out both of his hands to me.’ Magwitch wants to touch him and Pip is surprised by this and says ‘I resented the sort of bright and gratified recognition that still shone in his face.’ Magwitch shows great warmth towards Pip and he is described as looking toward Pip with ‘an air of wondering pleasure.’ He is looking at Pip with admiration and great pleasure.

Although Magwitch is pleased to see Pip he is disappointed by the reception he gets ‘It’s disappointing to a man; he said, in a coarse broken voice, ‘arter having looked for’ard so distant, and come to fur; but you’re not to blame for that.’ He’s disappointed and expected a warmer reception. Pip even says he ‘recoiled a little from him.’ He’s quite horrified by Magwitch.

Magwitch shows great affection to Pip and wants to touch and hold his hands and he kisses his hands. However, Pip is taken aback by this and doesn’t want him to be there. ‘I laid a hand upon his breast and put him away.’ He pushes him away from him. Pip speaks unkindly to Magwitch saying ‘stay’ said I ‘keep off!’ he doesn’t want him to touch him and wants him to leave. ‘Will you drink something before you go?’ Pip is quite ungrateful and snobbish towards Magwitch.

Magwitch tells Pip that everything he has done has been for him. ‘I’m your second father. You’re my son, more to me nor any son.’ He really does admire and love Pip and goes on to say, ‘I’ve put away money, only for you to spend.’ He has done everything to fulfil his one task of making Pip a gentleman. ‘I’ll make that boy a gentleman!’ ‘And I done it.’

Magwitch shows Pip how much he means to him because he has risked his life to see him. ‘I was sent for life. It’s death to come back, there’s been overmuch coming back of late years and I should have of a certainty be hanged if took.’ He has risked his life to come and see Pip.

The readers’ reaction to Pip is that he is being very cold, harsh and cruel to Magwitch however we can understand the fear he has and Dickens is showing the common, general view that people had to convicts. People thought all convicts were bad people no matter what crimes they had committed even to the small crimes. People never saw the good in the convicts. The reader feels sympathetic towards Magwitch after everything he has done for Pip he is being rejected and treated harshly by Pip. We feel sorry when we see how disappointed Magwitch is by the cold reception he receives.

Chapter 39 is a climax to the novel. When it was originally published in 3 volumes, Magwitch’s reappearance marked the end of the second volume and readers had to wait for the third volume to find out what happened next.

In the following chapters, Magwitch reveals more to Pip about himself, including his name. The significance of giving him the Christian name ‘Abel’ is because in the Old Testament Abel is the victim in the story of Cain and Abel. This suggests that Magwitch may also be a victim.

In chapter 42, we are told about Magwitch’s unfortunate beginnings. We are told of how he was forced into crime to earn himself a living. ‘Thieving turnips for my living.’ He doesn’t really know his real name; he says he guessed it. ‘I might have thought it was all lies together, only as the birds names came out true, I suppose mine did.’ We also learn that Magwitch has no education, he only learnt to read and write by a deserting soldier in a Traveller’s rest.

We are told that most of his life he has been in and out of jail. He says that he was tested to see what was wrong with him. ‘They measured my head, some on ’em- they had better a measured my stomach.’ He says they should have seen the reason he had become a criminal is simply because he was poor and hungry and needed to get food to keep living. This shows and reflects the problems with crime during the Victorian period, due to poverty. Many people were faced with poverty and stole food to survive and if caught were badly treated although such a small crime compared to that of murder. Magwitch’s story reflects the harsh punishment children had to face, even though they may have turned to crime to survive and avoid starvation.

‘This is the way it was, that when I was a ragged little creetur as much to be pitied as ever I see…I get the name of being hardened.’ Children were treated badly as well; Dickens also has been through his own experience of these when his father was imprisoned. He is using the character of Magwitch to show his strong views over the cruelty of the Justice system. He is also making the reader feel sorry for Magwitch and see the harsh punishment he had to face.

Dickens exemplifies the unfairness of the judicial system and the social prejudice of the courts, through the trial and punishment of Magwitch and Compeyson for the same crime. Compeyson is a gentleman. He has the financial aspects of a gentleman, fine clothes and material possessions, but none of the moral aspects. Magwitch describes him; ‘He has a watch and a chain and a breast pin and a handsome suit of clothes.’ He looks like a gentleman but has none of the moral aspects that a gentleman must have. He was a businessman; ‘Compeyson’s business was the swindling, hand – writing forging, stolen banknote passing, and such like.’ He was dishonest and a cheat. He got Magwitch involved in his schemes and Magwitch tells Pip; ‘That man got me in such nets as made me his black slave.”

Magwitch and Compeyson were tried for their crimes. At the trial Magwitch says; ‘I noticed first of all what a gentleman Compeyson looked . . . and what a common wretch I looked’ the jury was more likely to believe a gentleman like Compeyson and he knew this. Magwitch goes on to tell Pip; ‘When the evidence was put short, a forehand, I noticed how heavy it all bore on me, and how light on him.’ Compeyson made Magwitch look like the one who had arranged it all and hence the one who was most guilty of the crime. Inevitably, Magwitch received the heavier punishment of fourteen years, whereas Compeyson got off with seven years. Dickens shows, in the character of Magwitch, how many so-called criminals are basically good people, how the crimes of a “gentleman” like Compeyson are far more harmful in their consequences, and how the legal system enables the rich to oppress the poor. In chapter 54, Dickens shows how Pip’s attitude towards Magwitch changes. Pip tries to help him escape on board a steamer. At the end of the chapter after Magwitch has been caught, we see how Pip’s feelings for Magwitch have changed.

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