Illustration of Pip visiting a graveyard

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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How does Dickens create sympathy for Pip, Miss Havisham and Magwitch in Great Expectations?

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Dickens is a master of creating dynamic, well-rounded characters that seem real because they have flaws as well as strengths, weaknesses as well as virture.  Pip is one of those characters; we sympathize with him because he goes through things that we can relate to.  We are introduced to him when he is a young boy who is constantly teased and mocked by unfriendly relatives--who can't relate to that?  We've all been embarrassed and infuriated by family members at one point or another.  We feel his terror at the Magwitch encounter, and his succeeding paranoia afterwards.  We feel bad for him when his sister dies.  Our hearts go out to him at his unrequited love for Estella; we've all had that feeling, and it's rough.  Because Pip is so very real, and experiences common human foes, we can relate to him.

Sympathizing with Miss Havisham is a bit more difficult, because she is such an extreme character, living on the fringes of normal human experiences.  Her tragedy in the past is the biggest tool for sympathy that Dickens uses.  She was used, jilted, scammed and betrayed.  That makes her more bizarre nature more relatable, and we sympathize with that plight.  She is a victim; Dickens makes her so in order to win our emotions.

On the surface, Magwitch is a cruel, vicious criminal who terrorizes people for his own gain.  But near the end of the book, we too can sympathize with him, for several reasons.  The first reason is that he reformed himself and spent years making money for Pip's success.  The second is that he is so pathetically alone and vulnerable; all he wants is for Pip to be happy, and we can't help but feel bad for him.  Then, his sad death, and Pip's softened heart towards him helps us to sympathize even with the surly, rough Magwitch.

I hope that those thoughts helped; good luck!

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How does Charles Dickens want his readers to feel about Magwitch in Great Expectations?

Dickens wants people to sympathize with Magwitch and see him as a mostly innocent victim.

From the beginning, Dickens presents Magwitch in a sympathetic light.  Although the convict terrifies young Pip and threatens to kill him, it is very clear that Magwitch is cold, hungry, hurt and afraid.

When Magwitch asks Pip where his mother is and he points, Magwitch starts to run away before realizing that Pip is pointing to a tombstone.  Pip tells him good night before leaving, and Magwitch wishes he were a frog or an eel.  It is a peculiar thing to say to someone you are trying to make fear you.  It is a moment of weakness.

At the same time, he hugged his shuddering body in both his arms—clasping himself, as if to hold himself together—and limped towards the low church wall. (ch 1, p. 6)

The reader’s first impression is of pity, not fear.  Even though young Pip is afraid, he clearly pities Magwitch too.  When Pip returns to give Magwitch the food, he says the marshes are a bad place to lay, and...

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cause rheumatism.  Magwitch becomes almost conversational, and thanks Pip. 

When Pip says he saw another man, the one he thought was Magwitch’s accomplice, Magwitch is excited.  He even forgets to pretend that the man Pip saw was the imaginary “young man” who was going to eat him.

Later, when Magwitch confesses to taking the food in order to save Pip from punishment, we see that he is actually kind-hearted.  He shows this side of him when he returns to visit Pip in London, to see the gentleman he has become.

Magwitch made his fortune in Australia, but he sent it home to Pip.  He wanted to show his appreciation, and he thought Pip was a good person for helping him.  He also wanted to show that anyone could become a gentleman, because the jury blamed him and not Compeyson at his trial.  Compeyson looked and spoke like the upper classes, and Magwitch did not.

Thematically, there are several elements connected to Magwitch.  First of all, there is the concept of class distinction.  Magwitch is clearly a member of the lower class, but that does not make him less of a good person.  He demonstrates compassion.  He also shows the importance of love in all of its forms, because Magwitch loves Pip as a son. Through his relationship with Magwitch at the end, before Magwitch dies, Pip becomes a better person.

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How does Dickens portray Magwitch in Great Expectations in a way that creates compassion in the reader?

Dickens accomplishes his goal of eliciting sympathy from his readers for Magwitch in several ways.

First, when young Pip meets Magwitch, the escaped convict is pitiful.  He is hungry, exhausted, shackled, and cold. While Pip is afraid of Magwitch, something about him still inspires a normally timid boy to help him.  When Pip does help Magwitch, obviously, Magwitch does not forget it, and it is difficult as a reader not to be compassionate toward someone who offers undying gratitude.

Secondly, when Pip and Magwitch meet again after so many years, Pip's snobbishness toward the ex-convict cause the reader to side with Magwitch much as they do when Pip treats Joe poorly.  Readers tend to cheer for the underdog, and Magwitch is definitely one.

As Pip begins to reach his full maturation, his attitude toward Magwitch changes, and he recognizes how much he is indebted to the older man.  The reader wants Magwitch to feel that his money was was invested in Pip and that somehow his daughter Estella will love her long-lost father.

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