9 of Fire - Abel Magwitch

Character:

Abel Magwitch

aka 'The Convict'.

Book:

Great Expectations

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      Abel Magwitch is one of the strongest and most memorable characters in all of Dickens. Certainly Pip cannot forget him, as much as he would like to. Like Pip, Magwitch was an orphan. Growing up in poverty, he later fell in with Meriwether Compeyson, a well-educated gentleman with sinister ambitions. When the two men are arrested for acts of felony, Compeyson - dressed and comporting himself like a gentleman – scapegoats the poverty-stricken Magwitch. As a result, Magwitch is sentenced to fourteen years hard labour to Compeyson's seven – an example of the prejudiced mistreatment the poor and disenfranchised face in society and which Magwitch will go on to face throughout Great Expectations.

 

 When we first meet Magwitch, it is through the frightened eyes of the 7-year-old Pip. The burly convict has escaped from a galley ship and, starving, compels the boy to steal food and drink for him. Hearing that another convict has escaped and realizing it to be his erstwhile partner in crime, Magwitch disregards his own fate, finds Compeyson, and struggles to return him to the Hulks. Before this can happen, however, they are discovered by the authorities. Compeyson, claiming he only escaped in terror of Magwitch, gets off with a light reprimand, whereas Magwitch is put in chains and transported to a penal colony in New South Wales.

 

 Despite Joe Gargery's kind words for the convict, the reader's attitude to Magwitch is rather shaped and shared with Pip and society's own rush to judgment on such unfortunate men. Pip's conviction that Magwitch is a bad man is hand in glove with his conviction that Miss Havisham provides for his great expectations. Pip's existential crisis over his own nature - the fear he is, like Magwitch , “not good” - leads him into temptation and makes him do bad. In this way, Pip is the personification of society. By expecting to be great, he made himself small. His social ascent, marking society's claim as the apogee of civilization, is actually built on the back of Magwitch – that is, the hard labour of the working classes, transported criminals, mistreated outcasts, or, in short: the Magwitches of the world. The recognition in Pip of his unexplained sense of guilt is nothing more mysterious than the unacknowledged mass guilt of the Victorian era.

 

 The “gentlemanly” Meriwether Compeyson, like Cain his brother, must kill Abel Magwitch to cover up his own culpability. Pip's realization and conscience, like society's, is feeble and comes too late. When Pip refuses to accept Magwitch's final gift, it is acknowledgement that he does not deserve it. This can be seen as noble, or more of the snobbery Pip has been corrupted by, since he refuses to consciously accept the convict's generosity, goes against his dying wish, and forfeits a small fortune to the very society that subjected him to a witch hunt.

 

 It may be worth noting that Magwitch was in no way obliged to return to England. He did it gladly, and thereby jeopardized and finally lost his life, in order to look as a proud father upon the fine young gentleman he had made of Pip. This vulnerability in Magwitch can be seen as his fatal weakness, or the very thing which made him more than some burly uneducated brute and, counter to Pip and society's prejudice, a man of true integrity and strength.

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Shorthand : brute strength - stability which cannot be overthrown - the projection of one's own fear and cowardice - unforeseen probity - the provision of safety - strength of character - obstinacy - obdurate - obtuse - suspicion - fortitude - mistreatment - conviction - foul weather friend - scapegoat.