Look carefully at the opening chapter and subsequent chapters connected with the convict, Magwitch in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”. Explore some of the ways in which Dickens introduces and portrays his skills as a writer and relevant themes of his 19th Century times.
The themes which are relevant in “Great Expectations” by Dickens include prisons, the conditions of the poor, the importance of money and class, and oppression of children by adults.
The main character is a small boy called Pip. He is the narrator of the book (i.e. it is in 1st person) so the audience sees events through his approach, and this gives Dickens the opportunity to strongly influence the readers opinions about children, as it does not really give any other point of view.
The book “Great Expectations” starts with the main character, Pip, giving a short description of himself and his brief life.
“So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.” Because the word “Pip” is small, it suggests images of a small, young, lonely boy who is vulnerable.
“I gave Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone…”. This tells the reader immediately that his father was dead, something that was common in the Victorian age, remembering that Dickens wrote for the people.
Pip also never had a mother,
“Also Georgiana wife of the above” (on the tombstone of his father). Those words, “Also Georgiana wife of the above” are not saying a lot about his mother, and Pip does not know a lot about his mother. This is showing Dickens’ skill as a writer to see things from only Pip’s point of view, a child who knew nothing about his mother, hence very little about her on the tombstone.
The idea Dickens creates that Pip is lonely is added to a bit further on,
“To five little stone lozenges…five little brothers of mine.” This sets the story up for the meeting with the convict Magwitch, an already vulnerable boy made even more frightened. Pip has no siblings, which means that many of the activities that he undertakes are likely to be alone.
Pip does have an older sister, but she is married and too busy being a housewife to really be able to support Pip.
“Who brought you up by hand?”
“You did,”. This gives the impression that Mrs. Joe did not really want to bring Pip up, and in a sense she has not done so anyway because she has never really been there for Pip, she has brought him up physically but not mentally.
The fact that Pip has no real nucleus of a family makes the reader feel sympathy for Pip.
Dickens uses pathetic fallacy well to describe Pip’s first meeting with the convict.
“… raw afternoon”, “bleak overgrown place with nettles”, “dark flat wilderness”, “low leaden line” and “savage lair”. These are all phrases used by Dickens to describe the scene in and around the churchyard. It creates or suggests something dark is about to happen. If it were a bright summers day with colourful flowers and the glisten of the sea, it would probably suggest a much happier incident that is about to occur. The word “leaden” is especially good at bringing forward an image of darkness, as lead is a dark, dull colour. Because of the fact there is lots of description about Pip, his family and his surroundings, the pace is fairly slow, this perhaps building up tension for the encounter with Magwitch.
Then of course Pip runs into the convict who threatens him.
“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice,”. This would have come as a shock for Pip as the pathetic fallacy used just previously might have suggested that Pip was alone, something he was used to having lost his siblings apart from his older sister.
Pip describes the appearance of the convict.
“A fearful man, all in coarse grey… and whose teeth chattered in his head”. The description of Magwitch is one of a filthy person, the repeated use of the word “and” used to make the description of Magwitch even more horrid.
The balance of sympathy immediately shifts towards Pip.
“Keep still you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!” This is obviously a very traumatic time for Pip, a small boy being threatened and immediately the reader feels sorry for him.
Then the convict Magwitch commands Pip to tell him his name and also commands Pip to tell him where he lives.
“Pint out the place!” This could possibly be a northern accent that Magwitch speaks. There was a very heavy north/south divide in the Victorian Times and northerners were considered to be the inferior or poorer of the two. This added to Pip’s description of Magwitch gives an image of a very untidy, common person.
Magwitch then threatens Pip with cannibalism.
“Darn Me if I couldn’t eat ’em.” The balance of sympathy slightly shifts towards Magwitch now, and this is because he is so hungry that he has had to threaten a poor vulnerable child by such sickening methods. Dickens has portrayed the convict in such a way from Pip’s point of view that the convict himself almost looks vulnerable and lonely. If it were not for the fact the convict was an adult, he would be as weak as Pip.
The sympathy slightly shifts towards Pip again,
“Where’s your mother?”
“There, sir!” said I.” The reader would feel more sympathetic towards Pip here as Dickens has reminded the reader that Pip’s parents are not alive. This was common in the Victorian Times, a lot of parents had to work to put food on the table, they worked on machines which were unsafe and often claimed the worker’s life. It is quite possible that Georgiana, Pip’s mother, died in childbirth, again, not uncommon for the times.
Dickens then brings back the horridness of the convict.
“Who d’ye live with – supposing you’re kindly let to live, which I han’t made up my mind about?” Magwitch makes Pip feel very helpless again by exposing his throat. A lot of people feel weak when their neck is exposed, and this makes Magwitch is again portrayed as an extremely violent and desperate person, where perhaps jail was the best place for him to spend his life. This is more likely to be a stereotypical view of the convict, which Dickens is creating, rather than one of a convict that he has actually met. Hulks were used at the time to house prisoners and they were big ships that had retired and had no other use. Conditions were damp, cold, cramped and the ships were out to sea slightly. Balls and chains around their legs limited the convict’s movements. They would get up early in the morning, about 4 or 5am, then during the day they would do things like building roads, railways, buildings or farming. They would do a lot of work then get back to the hulks for about 5 or 6 hours sleep. Conditions were not that dissimilar to conditions that the black slaves had when they went off to the America’s, 2 or 3 hundred years before, so not much had changed in that respect.
The idea that Magwitch himself is vulnerable is added to.
“Now I ain’t alone, as you may think I am.” This is suggesting that the convict is vulnerable because he is saying that he has brought someone else along with him, maybe to protect him – he is as good as immobilised with the chain between his legs preventing real movement. With this hindrance, he is probably feeling very defenceless and needs someone with him. This person might not be real, but it might just be Magwitch telling Pip that it is his really nasty side that he is protecting Pip from, not someone else’s. Dickens is implying that the convict is unsafe, but again, Magwitch makes Pip feel like the vulnerable person.
“”You get me a file.” He tilted me again. … “Or I’ll have your heart and liver out.” The words “He tilted me again” appear 4 times in that section of text, to really make Pip feel as though he is at the mercy of the convict. Although perhaps not very intelligent (his northern accent is a Victorian stereotypical view of an unintelligent person) he shows his superiority over Pip by physical strength. The pace is speeding up, as there is a lot of dialogue and not much description. Pip has already described the convict and does not want to relive that because the convict is so foul.
Magwitch is still desperate.
“… your heart and your liver shall be tore out, roasted and ate.” The weather is extremely cold and because Magwitch is chained up, being 20 miles from the sea he would have escaped for a few days now, the food on the Hulks was probably very basic and so the convict is probably verging on starvation.
The pace is again changed when it goes from direct to reported speech.
“I said that I would get him the file”. Dickens imagining he is Pip, wants to speed up, as he wants to part company with Magwitch as soon as possible, he is terrified of the convict as he wonders how he will be able to get food and a file without being caught,
“I fully expected to find a Constable in the kitchen” and imagining the consequences should he not get them,
“Or I’ll have your heart and liver out.” however the boot is on the other foot when the convict reappears.
“Mr. Pip.” This is showing that the convict now respects Pip, Pip now going somewhere with life, is grown up and physically stronger.
The convict again feels vulnerable after Pip’s departure,
“I wish I was a frog. Or a eel!” These animals have skin that protects them from the cold of the water and Magwitch needs the same sort of thing to protect him.
Pathetic fallacy is used again by Dickens to create a sense of awfulness.
“… picking his way among the nettles, and among the brambles” Nettles and brambles are nasty plants if someone gets caught in them, so they help to set the scene here. The pace has slowed down slightly, building up tension perhaps for Pip’s encounter with his sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery in Chapter 2,
“Where have you been, you young monkey.” possibly as daunting for Pip as meeting the convict as Mrs. Joe did not suffer fools gladly. Another idea is that adults dominate children’s lives, and it has to be said not always for the better.
Pathetic fallacy is again used at the end to create a particularly powerful image.
“… the sky was just a row of angry red lines” Red means blood. Could this be a sign of things to come? Or a summing up of what has happened? Pip meets the convict again in Chapter 39,
“There is some one down there, is there not?” so it cannot be a sign of what is to come, or at least for the next day when Pip gives the convict “wittles” and a file.
Magwitch has been portrayed in a way by Dickens as such that on first sighting he looks like a tough middle aged man who is very physically overpowering, especially to a small boy, but shows signs that he is just as vulnerable as the boy himself, because of his lack of food, the chain between his legs and that there might be someone there with him to keep him safe.