Chains, files and prisons

Chains and the idea of imprisonment appear in the novel in both a literal and a metaphorical sense and affect even those characters who are not actually criminals.

Chains and files in the literal sense occur at some crucial points in the plot:

  • in the opening scenes Pip steals a file for Magwitch's leg-iron (Ch. 1; Vol. 1, Ch. 1);
  • the stranger who brings Pip two pound notes stirs his drink with a file (Ch. 10; Vol. 1, Ch. 10)
  • Mrs. Joe is attacked with a leg-iron which has been filed off some time before
  • these three incidents are linked together in Pip's mind and he sees them as part of a chain of events for which he is responsible and for which he feels a sense of guilt.
  • later in the novel, when Pip travels from London to his home town, there are two convicts on the same coach, who are handcuffed together and wear leg-irons, one of whom is the man who brought Pip the two pound notes (Ch. 28; Vol. 2, Ch. 9).

Imprisonment in the real sense is evident in the frequent references to Newgate, but other characters are locked into a kind of psychological imprisonment:

  • Miss Havisham is an obvious example: she has voluntarily locked herself into a world of obsession and perpetual resentment
  • Pip is bound an apprentice but also feels frustratingly trapped in the limited life of his village
  • Mrs. Matthew Pocket is trapped in her fantasies of social aspiration:
  • Herbert's fiancée, Clara, is trapped by her father, who exercises a tyrannical control over her, from which she is freed only when he dies.

Pip also uses the image of the chain to describe the progress of his own life. At the end of Ch. 9; Vol. 1, Ch. 9), in which Pip makes his first visit to Satis House, Pip reflects:

‘That was a memorable day for me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.'


When Magwitch reappears, Pip perceives him as a burden and reflects:

‘What I was chained to, and how heavily, became intelligible to me, as I heard his coarse voice, and sat looking up at his furrowed bald head with its iron grey hair at the sides' (Ch. 40; Vol. 3, Ch. 1):

    • Pip feels that he and Magwitch are shackled together, like the convicts he sees on the coach
    • But by the end of the novel he is glad to accept their inevitable connection, signified now by the joining of hands rather than by the chain linking them together.
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