What does the description of the first convict tell us about him in Great Expectations?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In the opening chapter of Great Expectations, Charles Dickens employs pathetic fallacy, whereby the description of Pip's surroundings are ascribed human qualities. Thus, in the description of the graveyard in the marshes there is a sympathy with the feelings of little Pip. Similarly, the appearance of the man all in grey is also "sympathetic" to the atmosphere and the emotions of the scene: ambiguous and foreboding.

Into this bleak place and

the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea and...the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all...was Pip....

enters [A] fearful man, all in coarse grey. So much like the environment is he as he is "soaked by the sea and smothered in mud." Also, like the land on which the rushing sea strikes with fury, the man in grey "with no hat and..broken shoes, and with a rag tied around his head" is lamed by his struggles from having been cut by rocks and stung by thorns. He limps and shivers into the clearing, terrifying little Pip. Wearing a leg iron, he approaches Pip, shivering and growling and then seizing the frightened boy by the throat. As his teeth clatter, he demands that Pip tell him his name and where he lives. Then, he up-ends Pip, shaking him to empty his pockets and remarking that he could eat Pip's plump cheeks.

From this description, the reader can deduce several things:

  • The man is a convict escaped from the prison ship on the sea.
  • He appears animalistic as he has made his way over craggy rocks and through briars and the marsh.
  • He is a desperate man who cruelly speaks of being so hungry that he could eat Pip's "fat cheeks."
  • He is nervous as he starts, making "a short run," when Pip says his mother is "over here," believing she is alive and may alert the authorities if she sees him.
  • He is, indeed, frightening to little Pip as he murderously orders Pip to procure a file or he will "have your heart and liver out."
  • He appears to have the "ague," or flu, as he trembles from being subjected to the elements of such an inclement day.
  • He is starved as he eats "ravenously" the bread which Pip has in his pocket. This condition indicates that the prisoner has escaped at least day or so ago.
  • He is contumacious; obviously a defiant man as he speaks with cruelty and anger and threats. 
  • He is also confused as he is not familiar with the area where Pip lives and asks him several questions, probably in order to reason where he will flee.
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