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Great Expectations: Magwitch Quotes

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
Abel Magwitch is a compelling character. ''Great Expectations'' opens with his introduction into Pip's life, and Magwitch's actions both shape the course of the narrative and illustrate its themes.

The Convict

Charles Dickens' Great Expectations opens in a churchyard, in fine Gothic style that adds an element of horror to the scene. Pip, the young protagonist, is surrounded by memories of ghosts. The mysterious escaped convict - whom we learn later is Magwitch - appears from among the gravestones, terrifying the boy. Magwitch's desperation is shown obliquely, through his actions. To Pip, he presents himself as fearsome, claiming that he is accompanied by a demon-like 'young man.'

The starving Magwitch and his breakfast
marshes

When Pip returns to Magwitch with the requested food and file, we see more of Magwitch's character. Soldiers are already out hunting for him, but he defiantly declares 'I'll eat my breakfast afore they're the death of me' (Chapter 3). And he does; he thanks Pip repeatedly for the help, but otherwise says little.

The same evening, Pip and his guardian Joe follow along as the escaped convicts are hunted down. Magwitch is only recaptured after a long search over the marshes. Remarkably, he has been found fighting his fellow escaped convict: obviously, he has decided that the other man's imprisonment is more important than his own safety. Magwitch remarks to the guards: 'He's a gentleman, if you please, this villain' (Chapter 5). This scornful comment, highlighting the difference between social class and moral worth, illustrates a theme of the novel. Before being returned to the ship, Magwitch confesses to stealing food, in order to protect Pip from punishment.

The Convict Returns

We (and Pip) don't see Magwitch again for almost twenty years. Magwitch gives Pip a surprise - and a disagreeable one - by turning up unexpectedly at his lodgings. Magwitch has been prospering in Australia, and has returned. In response to Pip's curt declaration that he's come into some property, Magwitch replies, with ironic self-deprecation: 'Might a mere warmint ask what property? Might a mere warmint ask whose property?' (Chapter 39). To Pip's dismay, Magwitch reveals that he himself has been responsible for Pip's good fortune.

Pip gets a shock
return

Magwitch rejoices in Pip's success, which raises again the question of what makes a true gentleman. He examines Pip's possessions with delight: 'A diamond all set round with rubies - that's a gentleman's, I hope! Look at your linen - fine and beautiful! Look at your clothes - better ain't to be got! And your books, too' (Chapter 39). There is some irony in this. Pip's preoccupation with appearances is contrasted with Magwitch's selfless conduct in returning, at the risk of his life, to see the young man whose fortune he has made. Magwitch addresses Pip as 'dear boy'; Pip describes him as 'my dreadful burden.'

Magwitch Tells His Story

Although Magwitch is ordinarily taciturn, Chapter 42 sees him rise to poignant eloquence. He tells Pip: 'I'll put it at once into a mouthful of English. In jail and out of jail, in jail and out of jail, in jail and out of jail. That's my life pretty much.' Dickens' critique of the English penal system is never more vivid than in Magwitch's own words.

Magwitch says that he knows his name 'as I know'd the birds' names in the hedges to be chaffinch, sparrow, thrush.' He describes his childhood self as a pitiable creature, 'with as little on him as in him.' Necessity drove him to crime, which Magwitch acknowledges straightforwardly. In narrating how he was exploited by the man whom we first met as his fellow-convict, he rejects self-pity, saying 'I ain't a-going to be low, dear boy.' This rather pathetic assertion - for surely Magwitch has much to be low about! - is repeated several times.

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