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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens - Barron's Booknotes
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CHAPTERS 55 & 56

Pip fills us in on the details of Magwitch's case. Jaggers says
it's open-and-shut. Even Magwitch's money will be lost, since a
felon's property is usually turned over to the state. Pip,
however, won't let himself get caught up in chasing after
money anymore.

Pip quietly accepts responsibility for Magwitch, just as he
accepts Herbert's news that he must go to his new job in the
East. Now that we're reaching the final chapters, loose ends of
the plot are being tied up. Herbert's going to marry Clara soon
(and she now approves of Pip-a good sign). Herbert also offers
Pip a job, which proves that good deeds do eventually pay off.
But Pip won't take the job yet. Why not? Pip's changed, but
maybe he doesn't feel ready yet to start a new life. More
suffering and repentance lie ahead for him. As you read,
consider: Is this Pip's own hangup, that he must pay for his
sins? Or does Dickens himself believe that people have to
suffer before they can be happy?

Wemmick stops by to clear up the last facts of the case for Pip
and, personally of course, to say he's sorry Magwitch was
caught.

NOTE: Wemmick, like Jaggers, still regrets that Pip lost
Magwitch's money. This obsession tells us something about
these particular men's values. But they may have a point;
money can be useful. Dickens may be reminding us that money
is important, and, in our world, it would be naive to pretend
otherwise.



We shift into exaggerated comedy again for Wemmick's
wedding-day. Wemmick pretends that he's doing all this on the
spur of the moment, that he just happened to pass a church and
Miss Skiffins and the Aged P just happened to be there. This
isn't a very romantic wedding, and though we may laugh at
Wemmick's light-hearted attitude, it seems overdone. This
wedding shows that love doesn't have to be as serious as Pip
thinks. But on the other hand, when you see Miss Skiffins
sitting primly in her chair, allowing Wemmick's arm to stay
around her waist at last, can you imagine Pip ever being
content with this kind of love, either?

The next chapter shifts back into melodrama. Lying ill in
prison, Magwitch seems transformed into a humble angel-in
ironic contrast to his reputation as a desperate criminal. Again,
we realize that it's not so easy to sum up any human being as
good or bad.

Sentimental and melodramatic as this chapter is, we must
remember that Dickens takes it absolutely seriously. He sets
the scene where Magwitch is sentenced to death as if he were
painting a huge, historical painting, full of characters. The shaft
of sunlight slants effectively across the courtroom, linking
judge and prisoners. Like a formal painting, it gives a special
dignity to the focal figure, Magwitch. Other people are
glimpsed in still poses, not in action; we hear no dialogue,
except for Magwitch's moving speech to the judge.

Dickens is serious in putting God above mortal authority. He
says God sends death to Magwitch as a merciful sign of
forgiveness, in contrast to society's harsh execution. After the
sentence, Pip never gives up, remaining active in Magwitch's
behalf until the bitter end. Magwitch, in contrast, seems at
peace, far from the troubles of this world (another sign that
God has forgiven him).

Magwitch's death scene is moving, drawn out to full tear-
wrenching effect. Yet it isn't emotional; Pip and Magwitch
scarcely move, and they speak to each other in brief, simple
speeches. There's not much left to say-except for one thing. In
spite of Jaggers' shrewd advice, Pip tells Magwitch about
Estella, kindly setting the old man's heart at rest. The chapter
ends with a Biblical reference to the parable of the pious
Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:10-14.), a story which
illustrates God's forgiveness of repentant sinners like
Magwitch.

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