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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - Barron's Booknotes
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CHAPTER 54

Action is a relief to Pip, as he, Herbert, and their friend Startop
set out on the river that morning. Pip pauses for a second to
wonder what his future will bring; but as long as he can save
Magwitch, he'll go anywhere.

Dickens' description of the Thames River is accurate and
detailed. The water is crowded with boats, full of life. In the
open air and sunlight, everything looks safe, though Pip keeps
a wary lookout. He's pleased, now, with the way Magwitch
looks when they pick him up, and observes only good things
about him. Has Magwitch changed, or has Pip changed?
Probably both. Magwitch seems more contented and peaceful
than before-perhaps because he has found his "son." He faces
danger philosophically, though he loves freedom. Trailing his
hand in the water, he profoundly compares the river to life:
mysterious and swiftly flowing. He, like Jaggers, has acquired
wisdom from life.

Like life, the river is changeable. After the tide turns, the mood
shifts from hope to tragedy. The landscape becomes flat, like
the marshes; the river's sluggish, there are no other boats
around. They can't see above the muddy banks, and Herbert
and Startop have to row hard. Suspicion, dread, and silence
settle upon them. They stop for the night at a dirty, disreputable
inn. The Jack (odd-job man), a slimy scavenger who robs
drowned corpses, makes them uneasy with his talk about a boat
with four men in it that has been hanging around. To the Jack,
the boat is ominous because it could belong to Customs
Officers, hunting smugglers. But Pip's scared of the law, too-
as well as of the outlaw Compeyson. Legal and illegal are
blurred in his mind; so are right and wrong.

The sense of danger deepens when Pip sees two men looking at
his boat in the middle of the night. But Pip meets this danger
briskly, with a plan where he and Magwitch will meet the boat
down shore, to avoid being seen. Pip rushed into danger with
Orlick, but now that Magwitch is in his care, he's cautious. His
language is clear and businesslike as he follows each step of
the action next morning.



Orlick's attack was dark, sudden, and melodramatic, but this
daytime scene is underplayed, in a sort of numb, silent, slow
motion. The German ship steams head on towards the little
boat. Another rowboat appears out of nowhere. There's no
dialogue, except for the police officer's inevitable call of arrest.
No one seems to control the rowboats, and the steamer's too
big to maneuver. Collision is unavoidable. Imagine Pip sitting
in the boat, watching two kinds of calamity approach, helpless
to prevent either one.

Magwitch rises to action, though. Immediately recognizing the
cloaked figure in the other boat, he ignores danger and goes
after his enemy. Only Magwitch understands what's going on:
Compeyson turned the police onto their trail, using the law for
his own unlawful ends. (Good and evil are mixed again.)

What happens next is confusing. Both Magwitch and
Compeyson go overboard and under the steamer; only
Magwitch surfaces. Did he drown Compeyson? Magwitch says
he didn't, though he would have liked to. Pip tells us
Magwitch's account was never doubted, leaving us to wonder.

But though this mystery remains forever unsolved, Pip's
uncertainty about his relationship to Magwitch is settled.
Especially now, with Magwitch injured and in handcuffs, Pip
sees him in the most sympathetic light, valuing his loyalty and
love. Even Magwitch sees that it would be better for Pip not to
be associated with him, but Pip won't desert him. Holding
Magwitch's hand on his way back to jail, Pip puts himself
publicly on the line for the old convict.

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