In Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, no one is who they seem to be. Identities that appear self-explanatory, fixed, and even predetermined change frequently and reveal hidden layers and obfuscated past incarnations. Dickens toys with this kind of reverse history-making, through which characters learn more about their pasts as they move forward on the temporal slope of the novel and because of which they are able to form (at least temporary) present self-concepts. Yet these identities do not remain constant and are clearly susceptible to change. Names in particular become whimsical signs that seem to shift, mask-like, in front of their signifying bodies, disclosing to the characters (and reader) new and unexpected personas. In this regard, the relationship between name and identity is one each character grapples with, albeit some more than others, on their path to self-awareness.
In the case of Abel Magwitch, this path is rocky yet ultimately becomes redemptive. In the passage below, Magwitch recounts his life story to Pip and Herbert and focuses in particular on the evolution of his self-awareness, beginning with his early days as a young criminal. He places great emphasis on what he claims to be his innate knowledge of his name, and he seems to link his sense of a natural, determined name to an essential, determined identity. Yet we see in the rest of the novel, his name undergoes numerous incarnations, from “Magwitch" to “Provis" to “Mr. Campbell," and moreover he himself changes from hardened criminal to repentant sinner by the end of his life. In short, Magwitch's idea of a fixed name and identity is challenged by the personas he continually adopts or constructs.
"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 to you short and handy, 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-kettle. 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, 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.
"I know'd my name to be Magwitch, chris'end 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.
"So fur as I could find, there warn't a soul that see young Abel Magwitch, with as little on him as in him, but wot caught fright at him, and either drove him off, or took him up. 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 see (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." [258-259 in the Norton; place within the complete text of the novel]
How does Magwitch account for his fallen state? To what events, people, or forces does he attribute his prison-bound life? In describing his fate, does he feel at all responsible for his criminality or does he relinquish all personal accountability by representing himself as a victim of cruel fate? How might Dickens position Magwitch's story against that of Estella's or Pip's? Are they all just victims of circumstance (see page 338 in Chapter 56 where Magwitch “pondered over the question whether he might have been a better man under better circumstances")?
What does Magwitch mean when he says, “I first become aware of myself"? Why does he feel it important to explain his self-awareness to Pip and Herbert? Given that self-awareness can be achieved through the recognition of oneself in a mirror, why is it significant that Magwitch did not ever look in a mirror as a young child yet insists he knew he “was a ragged little creetur"?
Why does Magwitch go to such lengths to explain his innate knowledge of his own name (i.e. when he explains that since the birds' names are all true, his name must also be true)? What link is he creating between his name and his identity? Why might Magwitch's emphasis on his name be important to him, considering the various disguises and aliases he adopts in the ensuing chapters of the novel?
Does Magwitch's account of his childhood affect Pip's perception of him at the end of the novel? Does Pip's understanding of identity (in general and in terms of his own self-image) change because of Magwitch's transformation from a hardened criminal to repentant sinner?
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Ed. Edgar Rosenberg. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.
Last modified 25 February 2004