Charles Dickens, Great Expectations: Ch. 42

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Chapter XLII

"Dear boy and Pip's comrade. I am not a going fur to tell you my life like a song, or a story-book. But to give it you short and handy,w I'll put it at once into a mouthful of English. In jail and out of jail, in jail and out of jail, in jail and out of jail. There, you've got it. That's my life pretty much, down to such times as I got shipped off, arter Pip stood my friend.

"I've been done everything to, pretty well—except hanged. I've been locked up as much as a silver tea-kittle. I've been carted here and carted there, and put out of this town, and put out of that town, and stuck in the stocks,h and whipped and worried and drove. I've no more notion where I was born than you have—if so much. I first become aware of myself down in Essex, a thieving turnips for my living. Summun had run away from me—a man—a tinker—and he'd took the fire with him, and left me wery cold.d

"I know'd my name to be Magwitch, chrisen'd Abel. How did I know it? Much as I know'd the birds' names in the hedges to be chaffinch, sparrer, thrush. I might have thought it was all lies together, only as the birds' names come out true, I supposed mine did.d

"So fur as I could find, there warn't a soul that see young Abel Magwitch, with us little on him as in him, but wot caught fright at him, and either drove him off, or took him up.w I was took up, took up, took up, to that extent that I reg'larly grow'd up took up.

"This is the way it was, that when I was a ragged little creetur as much to be pitied as ever I seed (not that I looked in the glass, for there warn't many insides of furnished houses known to me), I got the name of being hardened. "This is a terrible hardened one," they says to prison wisitors, picking out me. "May be said to live in jails, this boy. "Then they looked at me, and I looked at them, and they measured my head, some on 'em,d—they had better a measured my stomach,—and others on 'em giv me tracts what I couldn't read,d and made me speeches what I couldn't understand. They always went on agen me about the Devil. But what the Devil was I to do? I must put something into my stomach, mustn't I?—Howsomever, I'm a getting low,w and I know what's due. Dear boy and Pip's comrade, don't you be afeerd of me being low.

"Tramping, begging, thieving, working sometimes when I could,—though that warn't as often as you may think, till you put the question whether you would ha' been over-ready to give me work yourselves,—a bit of a poacher, a bit of a laborer, a bit of a wagoner, a bit of a haymaker, a bit of a hawker,w a bit of most things that don't pay and lead to trouble, I got to be a man. A deserting soldier in a Traveller's Rest,w what lay hid up to the chin under a lot of taturs, learnt me to read; and a travelling Giant what signed his name at a penny a time learnt me to write. I warn't locked up as often now as formerly, but I wore out my good share of key-metal still.

"At Epsomh races, a matter of over twenty years ago, I got acquainted wi' a man whose skull I'd crack wi' this poker, like the claw of a lobster, if I'd got it on this hob. His right name was Compeyson; and that's the man, dear boy, what you see me a pounding in the ditch, according to what you truly told your comrade arter I was gone last night.

"He set up fur a gentleman, this Compeyson, and he'd been to a public boarding-school and had learning.h He was a smooth one to talk, and was a dab at the ways of gentlefolks. He was good-looking too. It was the night afore the great race, when I found him on the heath, in a boothw that I know'd on. Him and some more was a sitting among the tables when I went in, and the landlord (which had a knowledge of me, and was a sportingw one) called him out, and said, 'I think this is a man that might suit you,'—meaning I was.

"Compeyson, he looks at me very noticing, and I look at him. He has a watch and a chain and a ring and a breast-pin and a handsome suit of clothes.

"'To judge from appearances, you're out of luck,' says Compeyson to me.

X [w] handy,

Readily accessible.

X [h] the stocks,

Things

The stocks were a less harsh punishment than the pillory, in which people died. It was largely abolished in 1816 and then formally terminated in 1837. The last person to be pilloried occurred seven years before. Although the stocks were rarely employed after the first quarter of the century, they survived legally until 1872. 

X [d] I first become aware of myself down in Essex,…

Writing & Reading

These two sentences are among the most poignant in the novel. Magwitch's sad history gathers added force because it is the third in the sequence of arrivals at self-awareness, following Pip's and Joe's.

Tinkers were common figures on the roads in those days. They fixed metal pans, pots, and utensils (they were itinerant, lesser blacksmiths), and hence the mention of the fire that was employed to heat the metals.

X [d] I might have thought it was all lies together…

Writing & Reading

Magwitch's history parallels Pip's in that both begin with variations of desertion (Pip's dead parents and siblings), with having to come to terms with their names, which is to say who they are, with naming things, and with in retrospect the recognition that this moment was the first link in the chain of iron, not gold.

X [w] took him up.

Detained or arrested.

X [d] as much to be pitied as ever I see

Writing & Reading

Pity for Pip motivated Joe to marry Mrs. Joe.

X [d] they measured my head, some on 'em,

Mind

The science of phrenology (Search) was enormously popular and appears not only in Dickens but in other novelists such as Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot. Phrenologists claimed to derive information about the nature of the mind, its psychological, emotional, moral, intellectual, and creative capacities, from the contours of regions of the skul,l and, depending on the practitioner,…

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X [d] giv me tracts what I couldn't read,

Daily Life

The tracts were religious and moral, their purpose being to inculcate beliefs and values that presumably would help the poor improve or at least accept docilely their lot. 

Dickens often assails the self-righteous philanthropy that distributes moral and religious homilies about how to live while ignoring the dreadful conditions determining the lives of the poor, for whom religion i…

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X [w] low,

Writing & Reading

As before, descending to the lowest regions of social life. Magwitch is aware that "gentlemen" avoid such matter. Yet Dickens did not avoid it, an express purpose being to educate his audience about what they wished not to know. He is the first English novelist to explore in detail the lives of the urban poor and the slums they inhabited, which he viewed as a disgrace to the nation. 

X [w] hawker,

People

An itinerant seller or simply someone who hawks his wares in the streets of a town by crying out what he has to sell.

X [w] Traveller's Rest,

Places

The sort of cheap lodging or doss-house that, for instance, catered to sailors in port and to other transients. 

X [h] Epsom

Places

Epsom in Surrey is famous since the late 18th c. for its racecourse, which, being "the sport of kings," attracted much of the cream of English society along with more raffish characters, such as Compeyson, who could pass as gentlemen and yet who sought to swindle and steal from the affluent. Lesser thieves such as pickpockets were also drawn to the annual race days.

X [h] a public boarding-school and had learning.

Education

One of the great and exclusive schools in England (our private preparatory schools), such as Eton, Westminster, Harrow, Rugby, etc. These schools educated the entirety of England's male aristocracy and most of its political leadership. The bonds and associations formed in the public schools persisted into adult life.

X [w] booth

Things

A temporary dwelling, roofed by canvas or perhaps boughs, in this instance large enough to house several people for the night.

X [w] sporting

Given to pleasure (he appears to be hosting some gambling); perhaps relaxed in his morality.