Background.

Great Expectations

Context.

This quotation is a description of the escaped convict Abel Magwitch while he is eating food that the young boy Pip has brought him. In Chapter 1 of Great Expectations, seven-year-old orphan Pip is in a Kent graveyard visiting the graves of his parents when he is startled by Magwitch, an escaped convict. Magwitch orders Pip into bringing him food and a metal file on pain of death if he doesn’t bring them the following morning. Pip is frightened into doing what Magwitch says, stealing food from the pantry at his home and a file from the forge of his step-brother.

In Chapter 3 we see Pip returning to the churchyard to give Magwitch food and a file. Pip (as narrator of the novel) observes how Magwitch eats in a similar way to ‘a large dog of ours‘. Magwitch’s canine-like behaviour includes tilting his head, as if to pinpoint background sounds, and the ravenously eating described in this quotation, taking ‘strong sharp sudden bites‘. Seeing this, Pip begins to develop feelings for the impoverished convict Magwitch, which he describes as ‘pitying his desolation‘.

Later in the story, Pip will again witness Magwitch ravenously eating in a way that he compares to looking ‘terribly like a hungry old dog‘ (Chapter 40).

Magwitch suprises Pip in the churchyard.
The escaped convict Abel Magwitch startles a young Pip during a visit to his family grave in a Kent churchyard.

Literary Technique.

This is an example of the figurative language Charles Dickens uses in his works, here using literary techniques to help the reader to visualise the scene he portrays of Magwitch ravenously eating in the churchyard. This includes alliteration (strong sharp sudden), and the use of a simile (like the dog). Alliteration is a stylistic device in which a number of words, having the same first consonant sound, occur close together in a series. The use of similes helps an author to strengthen a description, and for the reader, it helps to better visualize the scene in their heads. The alliterative strong sharp sudden is also an example of the use of the rule of three, where three descriptive words are put together in succession, making these particular adjectives more memorable.

Canine Imagery in Great Expectations.

Images of animals appear throughout Great Expectations, often forming patterns or associations with particular characters, such as Mr. Pumblechook described as having ‘a mouth like a fish‘ or the evil Bentley Drummle being nicknamed ‘the Spider‘. Two of the central characters in the novel, Abel Magwitch and Pip, have strong associations with canine (dog) imagery.

Early on in the story, when Pip, as a child, stumbles upon the escaped prisoner Abel Magwitch in a churchyard (Chapter 1), Magwitch calls him “you young dog,” whilst ‘licking his lips‘. When Pip returns to bring Magwitch food (Chapter 3) he watches the starving convict eating which reminds him of ‘a large dog of ours‘, going on to describe in more detail that ‘he ate in a ravenous way that was very disagreeable, and all his actions were uncouth, noisy, and greedy … and as he turned his food in his mouth, and turned his head sideways to bring his strongest fangs to bear upon it, he looked terribly like a hungry old dog‘. When Magwitch learns that Compeyson is following him (also Chapter 3) he threatens to ‘pull him down, like a bloodhound‘, and when both escaped convicts are recaptured (Chapter 5), someone in the boat sent to collect them ‘growled as if to dogs‘.

Pip’s initial observation of Magwitch eating like a dog has a connection to himself when the imagery is used to highlight class discrimination. When Pip first visits Satis House, when he is provided food by Estella (Chapter 8), he too feels like a dog, describing the way she presents food to him ‘as insolently as if I were a dog in disgrace‘. When Pip returns home from the disappointing visit he includes dogs in invented stories to Joe Gargery about what he saw there, including a tale of four ‘immense‘ dogs who ‘fought for veal-cutlets out of a silver basket‘ (Chapter 9). Later in the story, as an adult, Pip will again witness Magwitch ravenously eating in a way that he compares to looking ‘terribly like a hungry old dog‘ (Chapter 40).

Source.

Taken from the following passage in Chapter 3 of Great Expectations:

He was gobbling mincemeat, meatbone, bread, cheese, and pork pie, all at once: staring distrustfully while he did so at the mist all round us, and often stopping—even stopping his jaws—to listen. Some real or fancied sound, some clink upon the river or breathing of beast upon the marsh, now gave him a start, and he said, suddenly,—

“You’re not a deceiving imp? You brought no one with you?”

“No, sir! No!”

“Nor giv’ no one the office to follow you?”

“No!”

“Well,” said he, “I believe you. You’d be but a fierce young hound indeed, if at your time of life you could help to hunt a wretched warmint hunted as near death and dunghill as this poor wretched warmint is!”

Something clicked in his throat as if he had works in him like a clock, and was going to strike. And he smeared his ragged rough sleeve over his eyes.

Pitying his desolation, and watching him as he gradually settled down upon the pie, I made bold to say, “I am glad you enjoy it.”

“Did you speak?”

“I said I was glad you enjoyed it.”

“Thankee, my boy. I do.”

I had often watched a large dog of ours eating his food; and I now noticed a decided similarity between the dog’s way of eating, and the man’s. The man took strong sharp sudden bites, just like the dog. He swallowed, or rather snapped up, every mouthful, too soon and too fast; and he looked sideways here and there while he ate, as if he thought there was danger in every direction of somebody’s coming to take the pie away. He was altogether too unsettled in his mind over it, to appreciate it comfortably I thought, or to have anybody to dine with him, without making a chop with his jaws at the visitor. In all of which particulars he was very like the dog.

“I am afraid you won’t leave any of it for him,” said I, timidly; after a silence during which I had hesitated as to the politeness of making the remark. “There’s no more to be got where that came from.” It was the certainty of this fact that impelled me to offer the hint.

  • A warmint is a variant of varmint or varment, which are derived from the word vermin. Dickens also used the word warmint in his earlier novel Oliver Twist.

Characters.

Abel Magwitch.

Like Pip, the convict Abel Magwitch is a character who follows a rags-to-riches story within Great Expectations. Originally incarcerated for his part in a plot to defraud Miss Havisham we first meet Magwitch after he escapes from a prison hulk and terrifies the young Pip whilst visiting the graves of his family in Kent churchyard. Magwitch is pursuing Compeyson, his accomplice in the fraud and who is treated more leniently. Pip aids Magwitch with food and tools, a gesture Magwitch will later handsomely repay. Magwitch is deported to Australia where he makes a fortune as a sheep farmer before returning, secretly, to England under the name Provis. In later life, Magwitch is revealed as a kinder man who has been helping Pip achieve his great expectations.

  • In screen adaptations of Great Expectations, the character of Abel Magwitch has been played by such actors as James Mason (1974 TV movie), Anthony Hopkins (1989 TV mini-series), Bernard Hill (1999 TV movie) and Ralph Fiennes (2012 film).

Philip Pirrip (Pip).

Philip Pirrip, called Pip, is the protagonist and narrator in Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations. He is amongst the most popular characters in English literature. Pip narrates his story many years after the events of the novel take place, starting as a young orphan boy being raised by his sister and brother-in-law in the marshes of north Kent. The novel follows Pip’s progress from childhood innocence to adulthood, where we see a financial and social rise. But these fortunes are offset by an emotional and moral deterioration, which forces Pip to recognise his negative expectations in a new self-awareness.

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

Opening lines of Great Expectations.
  • In screen adaptations of Great Expectations, the character of Pip has been played by such actors as Jack Pickford (1917 film), John Mills (1946 film), Michael York (1974 TV movie), and Ioan Gruffudd (1999 TV movie).

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The man took strong sharp sudden bites, just like the dog.

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