Today is the next round of Book Bingo hosted by Theresa, Amanda and Ashleigh, and I am marking off the Crime and Justice category with Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, although perhaps crime and injustice might be more accurate.
Great Expectations is set in nineteenth century England, a time of great poverty, misery, inequality and injustice. This was a time when a child could be condemned to the workhouse for no other reason than an accident of birth; when even children were “imprisoned, whipped, transported, neglected, cast out, qualified in all ways for the hangman and growing up to be hanged.” For anyone imprisoned or transported, though, there was no chance of redemption. No matter how hard they worked or attempted to change their ways, the stain of criminality would mark them to the end of their days .
The story opens with Pip, the main character and narrator, relating his first meeting with Magwitch out on the marshes. Magwitch is a fearsome character, a convict on the run who threatens to cut Pip’s throat and remove his heart and liver but who will go on to play a major role in Pip’s life. In terror of his life, Pip assists the convict with the provision of food and an iron file to remove the leg irons. Magwitch is eventually captured and transported to Australia for his crimes, but he never forgets Pip. Many years later he enters Pip’s life again as an anonymous benefactor who has provided generous funds for Pip’s education and his debut as a gentleman.
Pip is horrified. Magwitch is “uncouth, noisy and greedy,” repugnant and abhorrent, however when he eventually tells Pip the story of his life, Pip comes to realise that Magwitch never really had a chance.
Abandoned as a child, Magwitch’s earliest memories were of thieving for turnips. In the years that followed he was in and out of jail, “carted here and carted there… stuck in the stocks…whipped and worried and drove.”
This is the way it was, that when I was a ragged little creetur as much to be pitied as ever I see, I got the name of being hardened…But what the Devil was I to do? I must put something into my stomach…”
Tramping, begging, thieving, working sometimes when I could…a bit of a poacher, a bit of a labourer, a bit of a waggoner, a bit of a haymaker, a bit of a hawker, a bit of most things that don’t pay and lead to trouble…
Eventually Magwitch finds himself hooked up with a man named Compeyson, “a smooth one to talk,” with the appearance of a gentleman but whose real business was “swindling, handwriting forging, stolen bank-note passing, and such-like.”
When they are both charged with felony Magwitch sees how justice favours those with a gentlemanly appearance. Feeling sorry for Compeyson, the judge recommends mercy and a lighter sentence of seven years. In contrast, Magwitch is seen as “a common sort of wretch” and an “old offender of violent passion.” Burdened with all the blame, Magwitch is sentenced to fourteen years.
But Pip grows to love Magwitch and the final days of Magwitch’s life are filled with more tenderness than he had probably ever experienced in his whole life. In better circumstances, could Magwitch have been a better man?
Bearing a “coarse mangy ungainly outer surface” and looked down upon with abhorrence, scorn and contempt, convicts were treated as little more than animals. One wonders though, who the real animals were.