Abel Magwitch is a fictional character from Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations.
In the story, Magwitch doesn’t know where or when he was born. However, Pip estimates him to be around 60 when they meet in around 1829, which would place his date of birth at about 1769.
His first memory was stealing turnips in Essex for a living, having been abandoned by a tinker. Magwitch had been imprisoned since his early childhood, never given the chance to lead an honest life. Prison visitors were told he was a hardened one; they pitied him "and they measured my head – they had better measured my stomach – and others on ‘em give me tracks what I couldn’t read, and made me speeches what I couldn’t unnerstand." Magwitch worked in every honest job he could find. He was taught to read and write by a deserting soldier and a "travelling giant".
Around 1805, Magwitch met a man by the name of Compeyson at the Epsom Races. Compeyson had been brought up in a boarding school and was a good-looking and set up gentleman. He is a proficient con-man and uses his upbringing as an asset in their partnership by swindling, forging and passing stolen banknotes. Compeyson had a partner called Arthur, with whom, he "had been in a bad thing with a rich lady some years afore and they’d made a pot of money by it". Arthur goes insane, driven to madness by the remembrance of this story, always seeing the rich lady coming to kill him. He eventually dies, but Compeyson doesn’t show any regret. Magwitch said in the story that he should have taken Arthur as a warning.
Magwitch married a woman named Molly and was married to her for about five years. Molly was tried for the murder of a rival for Magwitch's affections (an older, stronger woman). Mr. Jaggers, Molly's attorney, managed to persuade the jury that she was too weak to have strangled the woman. Jaggers did well, Molly was acquitted and became (unknown to Magwitch) Jaggers’ maidservant. Molly had given birth to Magwitch's female child who was about two or three years old at the time of Molly's trial. Molly told Magwitch that she'd destroyed the child and as far as Magwitch knew, his daughter had indeed died.
Magwitch and Compeyson were accused of a felony (charged with putting stolen notes in circulation). Compeyson said they would have separate defences and no communication. At the trial, Compeyson appeared as a gentleman. Magwitch had to sell his clothes to be able to pay for Jaggers. The prosecution placed most of the guilt on Magwitch, who realized that Compeyson had always intended to scapegoat him should they be caught.
Compeyson's attorney hammers the point home:
"My lord and gentleman, here you has afore you, side by side, two persons as your eyes can separate wide; one, the younger, well brought up, who will be spoke to as such; one, the older, ill brought up, who will be spoke to as such; one, the younger, seldom if ever seen in these here transactions, and only suspected; t’other, the elder, always seen in ‘em and always with his guilt brought home. Can you doubt, if there is but one in it, which is the one, and if there is two in it, which is much the worst one?"
In the end, Magwitch is condemned to fourteen years imprisonment, while Compeyson receives seven. Magwitch and Compeyson are imprisoned on the same prison-ship. Magwitch attempts to kill Compeyson. He is taken to the black-hole (a solitary confinement cell) after landing his first punch, but he manages to escape sometime around Christmas of 1812.
In the marshes ashore, he meets young Pip at a graveyard. He tricks the seven-year-old boy into believing that he has an accomplice who is a terrible young man who would tear out and eat Pip's heart and liver if Pip didn’t help them. Pip, terrified, steals a savory pork pie, brandy and a file from his house and brings them to Magwitch the next morning. On his way he encounters another convict, bruised in the face, who he initially thought was Magwitch and then believes to be the young man Magwitch had told him about. Magwitch, upon hearing about the other escapee, realises that Compeyson has also escaped and, after having eaten, drunk, and filed his leg iron off, he sets off to search for him. He finds him and decides, not caring for his own fate, to take him back to the Hulks. The pair are still struggling when soldiers find and seize them.
Compeyson argued that his escape was due to being terrorized by Magwitch. Consequently, his punishment was light, whereas Magwitch was put in irons, retried, and deported to New South Wales for life. Magwitch had a number of jobs in Australia, including that of a sheep farmer and stock breeder. He never forgot Pip’s kindness to him and decided to do something for the boy, in part because he reminded him of his lost daughter, who would have been about the same age as Pip. Magwitch sent money to Mr. Jaggers, who passed it to Pip and sought to make the boy a gentleman. Jaggers is not permitted to let Pip know whom his benefactor is.
In about 1829, when Pip is around 23 years of age, Magwitch secretly returns to England under the name of Provis. When he reveals himself to Pip, both have disappointment. Pip doesn’t feel gratitude towards Provis but rather disgust and repulsion as he discovers where his money came from (partly because he had thought Miss Havisham had been assisting him in wooing her protegee Estella) and his feelings are thinly veiled. However, Pip’s feelings towards Magwitch improve as he learns the convict's history. He decides nonetheless that he doesn’t want to accept more money from Provis.
The situation grows dangerous: Magwitch, as a deported criminal, would be without doubt sentenced to death if recognized by the authorities. Wemmick and Herbert (during one of Pip’s stays at the country) discover that they are being watched and lodge Magwitch (who is to go by the name of Mr. Campbell) in the house of Herbert’s fiancée. An escape for Magwitch from England is prepared. Magwitch is to be put aboard a steamer bound for Hamburg. As it is not possible to board at a port due to Magwitch's wanted status, they try to row to the steamer from the banks of the Thames in Essex after the steamer has left the port of London. Unusually, a well manned boat comes out to intercept them as they aim for the steamer. Magwitch recognizes Compeyson on this boat and goes for him. They both end up in the water where Compeyson is drowned. Magwitch is immediately arrested and clapped in irons, having suffered a bad chest wound during these events.
Pip now considers Magwitch a friend. He makes frequent visits to the ailing Magwitch and holds his hand throughout Magwitch's new trial, where Magwitch receives a death sentence. Magwitch is declining in health and is being held in the infirmary when Pip at last tells him that his child, Estella, is alive. Pip goes on to tell him that she’s a beautiful lady and that he, Pip, was in love with her. Pip has found this information out, as Wemmick told him Molly’s story and he recognized her to be Estella’s mother. With a last pressure on Pip’s hand, Magwitch dies a good and very content man.