Abel Magwitch, like Pip, follows his own rags to riches story and has his own 'Great Expectations'. He has quite a dramatic change in personality between the earlier and later parts of the book. In the first part of the novel, Magwitch is an escaped convict who meets the young Pip while he is on the run. Pip supplies Magwitch with food and a file to help him in his escape. At this point in the story Magwitch is a frightening figure often compared to a hunted animal. Magwitch is recaptured and is transported to Australia so he disappears from the novel for quite a while.

He reappears (under the name of 'Provis') many years later when Pip has grown up and is living in London after coming into money from a mysterious benefactor. By this time Magwitch is a much older and somewhat kinder figure – though he is still tough and determined to achieve his goals. It eventually becomes clear that Magwitch:

  • is the source of Pip's good fortune
  • made the money as a sheep farmer while in Australia
  • was involved in the plot to swindle Miss Havisham
  • is Estella's father (Mr Jaggers' housekeeper, Molly, is her natural mother)

Magwitch also acts as one of the father figures to Pip (along with Joe Gargery and Mr Jaggers). Although he terrifies Pip when he is a boy, Magwitch grows to love Pip as his own son and tries to help him to become a gentleman later in life. Pip also comes to love and respect the older Magwitch.

How is Magwitch like this?EvidenceAnalysis
ThreateningMagwitch has had a brutal life and had to fight for everything. He threatens Pip on the marshes and Herbert when he returns to London unexpectedly. He physically attacks Compeyson to prevent his escape."Hold your noise!" cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. "Keep still, you little devil, or I'll cut your throat!"To the young Pip, Magwitch appears to be a terrifying monster. He is an escaped convict, desperate to avoid capture and will say and do anything to keep his freedom. Magwitch’s first words to Pip are a deadly threat. The scene takes place in a graveyard which adds to the sinister feeling.
Seeks revengeMagwitch wants revenge on Compeyson, his partner in crime who betrayed him. He also seeks revenge on society in general for treating him harshly and unfairly."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."Magwitch wants to make sure that Compeyson pays for what he has done – even if it means further punishment for himself.
HonourableAlthough he is a criminal, Magwitch helps those who help him and tries to avoid getting innocent people into trouble. He also admits to the crimes he has committed."I took some wittles, up at the village over yonder." "You mean stole" said the sergeant. "And I’ll tell you where from. From the blacksmith's." Although, technically, it is Pip who does the stealing, Magwitch does not want the boy who has helped him getting into trouble. So he nobly takes the blame upon himself.
DeterminedMagwitch shows that given the right opportunities in life, he could be a productive and useful member of society. He also carries through any plans which he makes."It warn't easy, Pip, for me to leave them parts, nor yet it warn't safe. But I held to it, and the harder it was, the stronger I held, for I was determined, and my mind firm made up. At last I done it. Dear boy, I done it!"Magwitch knows that returning from Australia will mean certain death if he is caught. Magwitch's greatest wish is to see Pip as a gentleman and he will let nothing stand in the way of that.
FatherlyAlthough he is a hardened criminal, Magwitch has a tender heart and becomes increasingly affectionate towards Pip. The loss of his daughter (Estella) at an early age obviously hurt him deeply."Look'ee here, Pip. I'm your second father. You're my son – more to me nor any son."Pip has lost his real parents and Magwitch has lost his only child. As the only person to show him an act of kindness, Magwitch naturally finds a deep affection for Pip. Though this is not at first returned, Pip also comes to love and respect Magwitch equally.

Social and historical context

Marshalsea Prison
Marshalsea Prison

John Dickens, the father of Charles Dickens, was imprisoned in the Marshalsea Debtors' Prison for unpaid debt in 1824 when Charles was just 12 years old. A person in a prison of this kind would have had to stay until they had worked off their debt through labour, or secured enough money from outside funds in order to pay off the balance. So crime and punishment is a subject that the writer had strong opinions on.

Dickens felt that treating convicted criminals badly might only lead them into even more criminal activity and that given a chance in life, a person's natural goodness would often win through. He demonstrates this with Magwitch who, given a fresh start in Australia, is able to use his talents more fully, make his fortune and then return to Britain a better person.

Analysing the evidence

A man who has been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered and glared and growled.Magwitch, as described in the novel

Does Dickens ask his readers to sympathise with Magwitch?

How to analyse the quote:

'A man who has been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered and glared and growled.'

  • 'soaked' / 'smothered' / 'lamed' / 'cut' / 'stung' – strong, forceful verbs demonstrating how badly Magwitch is suffering
  • 'limped, and shivered and glared and growled' – more strong, forceful verbs but this time indicating the effects of Magwitch's suffering - The two words are direct opposites
  • 'man' – a timely reminder that Magwitch is a human being

How to use this in an essay:

At first, just like Pip, we regard Magwitch as a threat and possibly dangerous though Dickens places the word 'man' at the start of the passage to remind us that he is a human being. Dickens also reminds us that Magwitch is like a hunted animal and has been through physical pain in a string of strong, forceful verbs: 'soaked' / 'smothered' / 'lamed' / 'cut' / 'stung'. A further group of intense verbs follows to indicate the extent of the convicts suffering: 'limped, and shivered and glared and growled'. Our sympathy is therefore invited. As the novel progresses, the reader learns even more about Magwitch’s personal history and the injustices done to him and so we feel increasing sympathy and understanding. As Pip's attitude towards Magwitch changes, so does ours.