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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - Barron's Booknotes
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PART III
CHAPTER 40

As Part III begins, the novel shifts into a new mode, like a
mystery. The need for action keeps Pip too busy to brood.

The plot thickens when, in the morning, Pip stumbles over
someone sleeping on the staircase; he must run to fetch the
watchman, search for the vanished intruder, question the
watchman. Like a good detective, Pip gathers clues about the
mysterious man who followed his visitor through the courtyard
gate last night.

Next, Pip invents an alias for the convict-Uncle Provis-in case
the servants ask questions. It's hard to get a grip on this
character's identity. In daylight, let's take a better look at Abel
Magwitch.

NOTE: In the Bible, Abel was Adam and Eve's good son,
murdered by his brother Cain. If Magwitch were simply a
criminal, Dickens would have named him Cain. Since he names
him Abel instead, we should look for the man's goodness, and
we should expect to see that he has been wronged by someone
close to him. Keep this in mind as you learn his full story.

Last night Magwitch was a tragic, powerful figure; today he's a
social embarrassment, with his bad table manners, his hoarse
voice, his furrowed skull, his greasy black Bible. Yet whereas
Pip's rooms intimidated Joe, Magwitch acts as if he owns them
(he does, in fact). He wolfs down his food, smokes his pipe,
flings his wallet onto the table, snaps his fingers. Try to see
him in two lights at once: 1) as an uncouth figure that you'd be
embarrassed to be seen with; and 2) as a self-confident survivor
who has come to claim his due. He has enough dignity to sense
when he's being "low"- not in Pip's sense ("coarse") but in his
own sense ("less than noble"). Notice his calm courage about
getting caught. He understands the danger, but he has lived
through too much to cringe now.



Pip helps "Provis" work up a disguise; then he runs around the
block to rent some rooms for him. Next he goes to Jaggers to
verify what he has learned; isn't it natural to ask for extra proof
before you can believe bad news? Jaggers is, as usual, cautious
and verbally slippery; but for the first time Pip demands
answers. Jaggers doesn't react to Pip's bitter disappointment,
yet he's anxious for Pip not to blame him: he says he never led
Pip to believe anything one way or another. Jaggers' intent look
as Pip walks out suggests that he might, deep down, feel sorry
for Pip-but that there's nothing he can do.

Magwitch's disguise, like Joe's Sunday clothes, only
emphasizes the man's real nature. Dickens may be saying that
what we wear outside isn't as important as who we are inside.
Pip feels that Magwitch's dragging leg and savage air scream
out his criminal identity, though he's so nervous that he
probably imagines Magwitch looks worse than he does. Yet
what is Magwitch really like inside? He seems ignorant and out
of touch. His idea of a disguise-powdered hair and short
breeches-was the style when he left England, but it looks
ridiculous now. His manners are gross (worse than Joe's, for
instance). He handles his jack-knife menacingly, and his
slouching posture reminds us of bad men like Orlick or
Drummle. Magwitch's crime is still a vague, horrible reality,
too (typically, Pip can't bring himself to ask what it was, yet he
tortures himself imagining it). But though Pip is physically
scared of the man, he's also worried that Magwitch will be
caught and killed just because he came home to see Pip. Again,
a confused mixture of fear, conscience, and kindness join
together in Pip's mind.

For five days, Pip is holed up with this man, feeling as if he has
created a Frankenstein monster (this is a turnabout-Magwitch
believes he "created" Pip). Finally Herbert comes home.
Magwitch's threatening behavior towards Herbert, and
Herbert's shocked reaction, prove to us that Pip isn't so wrong.
Magwitch really poses a horrible problem.

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