Magwitch in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations Research Paper

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¶ … Magwitch in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations

The development of contemporary critical theory has significantly altered the manner in which critics respond to the character of Abel Magwitch in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Earlier critiques and analyses focused on issues related to Magwitch's moral character. As such, critics focused primarily on societal -- and morality-based interpretations of structuralism, post-structuralism and Marxism. More recent assessments however tend to be more interested in the psychological status of the character, and thus seem more likely to employ theories of psychoanalysis and emotional and mental deconstruction.

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Often times, a mode of interpretation reflects the practical embodiment of certain fundamental beliefs about humanity, both in terms of individuals and society as a whole. Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Marxism, Psychoanalysis and Deconstruction, all have a different interpretational scheme because each has a unique set of principles and ideologies that comprise its distinctiveness and define its place within the realm of literary discourse. If, for example, an interpreter adheres to Freud's Psychoanalytical theory, that "identification is a psychological process in which the subject assimilates an aspect of the other and is transformed, wholly or partially, according to the model that the other provides" (Culler 114), he will organize textual information differently than and advocate of Marxist theory, who views humanity as a divisive entity torn apart by the ills of social stratification. To accept a particular brand of interpretation often requires a great deal of faith; faith that stems from embracing one group of presuppositions while rejecting others.

Mid 20th Century Critiques: 1950s-1960s

Research Paper on Magwitch in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations the Assignment

Beginning in the 1950s, the analyses of Magwitch and his criminal behaviors took on a highly moralizing tone, coupled with a penchant for symbolic interpretation. For example, in 1953, Dorothy Van Ghent wrote "The multiplying likenesses in the street as Magwitch draws nearer, coming over the sea, the mysterious warnings of his approach on the night of his reappearance, are moral projections as 'real' as the storm outside the windows and as the crouched form of the vicious Orlick on the dark stairs" (249). Van Ghent views Magwitch as a dark and foreboding force who represents Pip's darker, depraved sensibilities.

The symbolism that Van Ghent equates with Magwitch's 'second coming' (i.e. his return to Pip's life) is, in essence, a reflection of the structuralist tendency to examine the basic structures inherent in all literary works, and then analyze the various pieces that construct the whole. From a poststructuralist's perspective, all symbols have three characteristics in common: absence, arbitrariness and difference (Culler, 2000: 16). The three characteristics denote that symbols can hardly signify the total amount of information of the reality. Plainly, if symbols are not able to represent the absolute truth, it implies that the representationalist belief that knowledge can represent reality seems problematic, at least at an epistemological level.

Structural interpretations examine texts as logical paradigms which seek to resolve specific issues related to understanding. As Culler (2000) elucidates, "it seeks not to produce new interpretations of works, but to understand how they can have the meaning and effects they do" (p. 124). So when attempting to analyze certain passages of text, the focus must not rest on deciphering the meaning of emotion for the protagonist, but rather on what effect that emotion has on his experiences.

In the 1960s, the focus of Magwitch's character analyses remained on his moral character and the implications that a 'criminal with a heart' had for society. However the move toward a more poststructural perspective is evident. Confirmation of this focus can be seen in Christopher Ricks' (1962) observations: "It is not that some people are not wickeder than others; rather that the loose melodrama with which Compeyson is treated exerts an unwanted pressure on Magwitch. It puts the novel in danger of saying, not that Magwitch is a criminal whom we must love, but that he is not really a criminal. Real criminals we are left free to hate as before" (210).

What makes Ricks' argument compelling is that it is difficult to deny that Magwitch is both a criminal and a character with which the reader can genuinely sympathize. This is possible only because his criminal activities are not the only elements that define his character. Dickens allows the reader to go deeper than the mere labels society tends to attach to people. As Ricks elucidates, Dickens takes the reader on a journey both inside and outside Magwitch's existence, thus providing a multi-dimensional understanding of the character as a criminal who is not entirely devoid of moral sensibilities. Ultimately, as Ricks argues, the primary point that Dickens is trying to make is that one should not judge others simply because society has labeled them immoral.

From a poststructuralist perspective, Ricks' arguments further imply that principles should occur at the level of self-reflection, and this requires both deconstruction and reconstruction. Yet in this sense, deconstruction is not only the demolition of established norms, values or ruling ideologies, but also the reconstruction of a 'provisional hegemony' at the level of ethics. Van Ghent and the Ricks may have divergent ideas about text and context, but they do share the common ground of being heavily focused on issues that connect the character and social institutions and the mores and morality of society at large.

Late 20th Century Critiques: 1970s, 1980s, 1990s

Toward the end of the 20th century, interpretations of Magwitch began to reflect the search for self-identity that permeated these decades. For example in 1988 Terence Cave observed "Magwitch is not only a surrogate father but also a double for Pip himself...he is the simulacrum of the dreaded criminal life-story that ends in the hangman's noose. One could propose many other such doubles -- the exercise is dangerously easy - but the point is simply that, if all the plots end by collapsing, that is because 'the self' composed by these plots proves to be an empty place labeled with an empty name and filled only with the endless divertissement of fancy. Identity is a tautology, not the recovery of an inward fullness and satisfaction" (425-426).

This focus on identity is heading toward the inclination of psychoanalytic interpretation, but also contains hints of the Marxist perspective in the sense that it addresses the significance of social and economic class in the formation of one's identity. Marx's focus on estrangement and alienation as being derivative of one's social and economic status is a prominent theme throughout Great Expectations, and one that critics in the 1970s through the 1990s relied heavily upon.

Lyons (1978) for example, writes "The idea of an outer social self and an inner true self is introduced in the first chapter when Pip encounters the convict Magwitch in the churchyard" (225). For Lyons, Dickens uses the characters of Pip and Magwitch as a type of dually reflected mirror that shows each of them how they are viewed by society by providing a glimpse into each other's souls. Lyons asserts that both Pip and Magwitch have 'good' and 'bad' aspects of their identity that shape their actions and values.

Some critics however are not as willing to view Magwitch as anything but a bitter, evil criminal. Some even go as far as to suggest that Magwitch's intentions in acting as Pip's benefactor are not nearly as benevolent as they may appear on the surface, but are merely a ruse for Magwitch to thumb his nose at elite society. For example, according to Stewart Justman (1997), "When Magwitch returns from Australia a rich man, his ferocity has softened somewhat, but he is still the same convict Pip met in a marsh. His passion, also unabated, has gone into enriching Pip, again as a way of getting even. By transforming Pip from a blacksmith's apprentice to a gentleman he will show up the society that wronged him" (81). While this is not a common interpretation of the events or the characters, it does indeed demonstrate the Marxist focus regarding the stark divisions of social class that seem to be a mainstay of late 20th century analyses of Great Expectations.

According to Morgentaler (1998) the novel "bases its demonstration of the inherent kinship between human beings on the interrelationship between the criminal world and its noncriminal counterparts. This interrelationship results in a redefinition of the manner in which Dickens depicts the criminal class in this novel. That class is here presented as more important for the base position it occupies in society than for its anti-social behavior. Magwitch belongs to the underclass of the underworld, but the fortune he makes Down Under will support Pip at the topmost reaches of the social scale. Because its emphasis is on the social position of the convict rather than on his criminality, Great Expectations neutralizes the moral dimension of crime" (711). Such interpretations are an amalgam of the societal and morality based analyses of the mid 20th century, and the psychologically-based critiques of the 21st century.

21st Century Critiques

Graham Ingham (2007) uses Sigmund Freud's theories of psychoanalysis, in particularly, the superego, to… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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