Great Expectations

What further information does Provis give about his past, particularly concerning his wife and daughter? What epiphany does Pip have about his convict’s connection to other characters in the story?

Chapter 35/43

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Magwitch tells them the story of his life. From a very young age, he was alone and got into trouble. Mostly, he stole out of hunger and cold. At that same young age, he was impressed with the fact that others referred to him as hard, as a criminal, and predicted that he would spend his life in and out of jail. Indeed, his life ran along this very path.

In one of his brief stints actually out of jail, Magwitch met a young well-to-do gentleman named Compeyson who "had the head of the devil." Compeyson had his hand in everything illegal: swindling, forgery, and other white collar crime. When Magwitch met him, Compeyson was working with a half-crazed man called Arthur, who saw visions of a woman dressed all in white, with a broken heart, who came to haunt him. On one of these haunts, Arthur gave up his own ghost and died.

Compeyson then recruits Magwitch to do his dirty work and soon gets Magwitch into trouble with the law. Both standing before the judge, Compeyson, being a gentleman, is given a lesser sentence than Magwitch, a career criminal. Magwitch hates the man.

Herbert passes a note to Pip: "Young Havisham's name was Arthur. Compeyson is the man who professed to be Miss Havisham's lover."


Previously non related story lines now come together and into focus. Magwitch worked with the man who had jilted Miss Havisham on her wedding day. And Compeyson's work horse Arthur turns out to be Miss Havisham's half brother who worked against her, haunted by her until the end.

Magwitch hates Compeyson with a self-sacrificing vengeance, and yet the reason for his hatred -- that Compeyson was the mastermind behind the crimes yet received less of a sentence -- is tied to his sacrifice for Pip. Compeyson got a lighter sentence because he was considered by society to be a gentleman. So Magwitch sets out on a life of sacrifice to provide the same advantages for Pip. Magwitch both hates this societal label and accepts it, as is demonstrated by his constant reference to himself as "low." Indeed, Dickens seems to hint that Magwitch may have been a much different man if people had not told him since a young age that he would come to no good. And yet he wants to exploit the societal labeling by promoting Young Pip into gentlemanhood.

Magwitch, a sympathetic character, is a reflection of what Pip, or any of us, could become if we take societal labels to heart.