Social Class and Crime and Punishment in Great Expectations

In this section of Great Expectations, I was shocked to feel badly for Magwitch. While he is a criminal, it seems like Dickens makes readers feel pity for him. We get background information about Magwitch in Chapter 42 after Pip asks him about his history. Magwitch basically was raised poor and uneducated. When he was younger he was caught stealing food because he was starving and was sent to jail and since then he has been, “tramping, begging, thieving, working sometimes” when he could and consistently in and out of jails. Magwitch shares, “‘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,… and others on ’em giv me tracts what I couldn’t read, and made me speeches what I couldn’t understand.” It is clear that Wagwitch’s low social status and lack of education gives him a huge disadvantage in trying to stay out of prison. He is almost punished for being poor. We see this when Compeyson gets significantly less time in prison than Magwitch because he presented himself like a gentleman in court. This backstory on Magwitch on top of the fact that Pip now doesn’t know what will come of his own financial situation is reflective of the difficulty of escaping social class in this society. This reminds me of some of the poetry that we read at the beginning of the semester like “The Chimney Sweeper” and “England in 1819.” In “England in 1819,” the writer critiques the government for their poor treatment of the lower class in England. The poem goes, “Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know, But leech-like to their fainting country cling.” As a result of this negligence toward this class of people, they are left to suffer and with no hope of escaping their poverty. Dickens also seems to be critiquing crime and punishment in England. He does so through his depiction of Magwitch and Pip’s unstable financial situation.

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