One of the prevailing motifs of certain works of Charles Dickens such as Oliver Twist and Great Expectations was that his Victorian society was itself a prison as the supercilious aristocrats of his time paid no heed to the growing number of homeless and impoverished that filled the streets of London after the Industrial Revolution. With crime rising in London as the desperate found it a means to sustain themselves as they had no hope of rising above their stations in life,Dickens was himself instrumental in effecting some reforms such as the repeal of the Poor Laws of 1834 that placed the impoverishedin workhouses where they were doled pitiful meals while their children were mere gamins of the streets.
Pip's convict, as the reader later learns, has been one of these gamins who has had to live by thievery. From what is stated in Chapter V of Great Expectations, the reader can infer that there is some connection in the past between the first and second convicts. For, when the soldiers hear the two convicts, rush to them, and apprehend them, the second convict screams that the first convict has been trying to kill him; this claim the first convict adamantly denies,
Try, and not do it? I took him, and giv' him up; that's what I done. I not only prevented him getting off the marshes, but I dragged him here—dragged him this far on his way back. He's a gentleman, if you please, this villain. Now, the Hulks has got its gentleman again, through me. Murder him? Worth my while, too, to murder him, when I could do worse and drag him back!”
The emphasis upon telling the sergeant that the second convict is a "gentleman" is suggestive, too, of Dickens's motif that there was in England a justice for the rich and a different justice for the poor, a fact that the reader will learn later in the narrative. The fist convict continues his explanation,
“Single-handed I got clear of the prison-ship; I made a dash and I done it. I could ha' got clear of these death-cold flats likewise—look at my leg: you won't find much iron on it—if I hadn't made the discovery that he was here. Let him go free? Let him profit by the means as I found out? Let him make a tool of me afresh and again? Once more? No, no, no. If I had died at the bottom there;” and he made an emphatic swing at the ditch with his manacled hands; “I'd have held to him with that grip, that you should have been safe to find him in my hold.”
Evidently, the gentleman has exploited the first convict in some terrible manner. And, probably the gentleman has received less of a sentence that the first convict even though he is the one responsible for the crime. At any rate, there much animosity between the two convicts, and the first convict would rather return to prison himself than see the second one get away with his, the greater crime.