In Robert Browning’s "The Bishop Orders his Tomb at St. Praxed's. Rome. 15-“ (1845), a dying bishop instructs his children on the grand and elaborate tomb he wishes to be built for him. Though one would imagine that a bishop would be more focused on the religious afterlife, this bishop seems to be entirely focused on what his reputation will be in the material world after his death. As he lies dying, he only thinks about the final resting place for his physical body, imagining how his body will look and what he shall “hear” and “see” as his body lies dead in his tomb:

And then how I shall lie through centuries,
And hear the blessed mutter of the mass,
And see God made and eaten all day long,
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke!
For as I lie here, hours of the dead night,
Dying in state and by such slow degrees,
I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook,
And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point,
And let the bedclothes, for a mortcloth, drop
Into great laps and folds of sculptor's-work.

Both the bishop and Magwitch in Dickens’s Great Expectations are characterized by the way they act on their deathbeds. This description of the bishop makes him seem rather hypocritical, as one would believe, as an adherent of the Christian faith, he above most others would accept death and find comfort in the promise of a blessed afterlife in Heaven. He appears very egotistical and seems more concerned with the building of a beautiful tomb than leaving his illegitimate sons behind. For Magwitch, the kindness and gratitude he shows toward Pip continue through his dying day, and in his last words, he speaks only kindly to Pip, his consolation amid all of the turmoil in his later years:

Dear boy,” he said, as I sat down by his bed: “I thought you was late. But I knowed you couldn’t be that."

“It is just the time,” said I. “I waited for it at the gate."

“You always waits at the gate; don’t you, dear boy?"

“Yes. Not to lose a moment of the time."

“Thank'ee dear boy, thank'ee. God bless you! You've never deserted me, dear boy."

I pressed his hand in silence, for I could not forget that I had once meant to desert him.

“And what’s the best of all,” he said, “you've been more comfortable alonger me, since I was under a dark cloud, than when the sun shone. That’s best of all."

He lay on his back, breathing with great difficulty. Do what he would, and love me though he did, the light left his face ever and again, and a film came over the placid look at the white ceiling.

“Are you in much pain to-day?"

“I don’t complain of none, dear boy."

“You never do complain."

In his final moments, Magwitch is comforted by the presence of Pip and the knowledge that his daughter is alive and well. The Bishop, on the other hand, does not focus on the presence of his sons (which a bishop should not have according to the rules of Catholicism that prevent bishops from marrying), but focuses instead on how his physical presence will live on through his tomb in the church. It is ironic that of these two characters the bishop is the one who appears more materialistic and selfish, whereas Magwitch, the convict, is comforted by the love he has for Pip and doesn’t complain at all about his coming death.

Both these works emphasize the relative unimportance of material objects in one’s life. Browning seems to be suggesting that focusing so much on the material value of one’s life as opposed to its spiritual value is not only foolish and selfish, but is also anti-religious. Instead of embracing one’s faith and thinking about reconnecting with God, the Bishop clings to anything that will keep him anchored and well-repected in the world of the living. Magwitch, however, dies peacefully, happy at the knowledge that his daughter is alive and successful and of Pip’s unwavering devotion. Thus both pieces emphasize the theme that one’s emotional and spiritual experiences in life are much more important than any material goods.

Perhaps the difference in attitudes regarding death could be explained by the different eras the two characters are supposed to be living in. The date of Magwitch’s death would have been somewhere around the 1830s (but Dickens was writing the novel in 1860). An antricle from Harper’s Bazaar from the 1880s discusses what is and what is not appropriate during mourning, and there is an emphasis on simplicity:

As for the coffin, it is simpler than formerly; and while lined with satin and made with care, it is plain on the outside - black cloth, with silver plate for the name and silver handles, being in the most modern taste. There are but few of the “trappings of woe.” At the funeral of General Grant, twice a President, and regarded as the savior of his country, there was a gorgeous catafalque of purple velvet, but at the ordinary funeral there are none of these trappings. If our richest citizen were to die to-morrow, he would probably be buried plainly.

However, during the Rennaissance era, which is the era that the Bishop is supposed to have lived in, much more elaborate ways were used to memorialize the dead. According to Phillip V. Allingham, a contributing editor to the Victorian Web, “The Bishop's programme for his tomb is typical of Renaissance artistic taste (similar to Julius II's for his projected tomb, and Sigismundo Malatesta's for his Tempio in Rimini).” Perhaps because of the different expectations in the times in which the characters lived, Magwitch and the Bishop had different concerns regarding their deaths.

Sources

Allingham, Philip V. “Robert Browning's "The Bishop Orders His Tomb" (1845): Another Renaissance Portrait — The Sensual, The Profane, and the Sacerdotal.” Web. 10 May 2010.

Browning, Robert. “The Bishop Order his Tomb at St. Praxed’s. Rome. 15-.” The Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. Web. 10 May 2010.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. The Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. Web. 2 May 2010.

"Mourning and Funeral Usages." Harper's Bazaar. 17 Apr. 1886. Web. 10 May 2010.


Victorian Overview R. Browning Leading Questions

Modified 11 May 2010