Author logo Studying relationships in Great Expectations

Pip's relationship with Joe
Pip's relationship with Magwitch
A summary of Great Expectations
More about Joe Gargery
More about Abel Magwitch
Comparing texts for GCSE Wide Reading
Joe in Chapter 7
Joe in Chapter 27
Joe in Chapter 58
Joe in Chapter 59
GCSE criteria for Wide Reading


For students of literature, Great Expectations is important for its themes (especially its exploration of snobbery and the class system and its narrative method). Characters and relationships are very important, too, and this tutorial focuses on these mainly (some themes will be mentioned). Of the many characters in the novel, the most important, in their relationship with Pip (the narrator and central character) are Joe Gargery, Abel Magwitch, Miss Havisham and Estella. Although you will understand them best by reading the whole novel, this tutorial allows you to focus, in each case, on a few pivotal chapters.

This is a basic guide. I have written a more advanced and detailed guide for this site. Click on the link below to open it:


In preparing this page for the Web, I have looked in detail at two characters only (Joe Gargery and Abel Magwitch). Students who need a lot of support may find this helpful. But you are strongly encouraged to look at other relationships in this text, and in other works of literature.

Exploring Pip's relationship with Joe

(Read chapters 7, 27, 58 and 59; if you want to know more about Joe, click here.)

Chapter 7: This episode occurs about a year after Pip's adventure with the convict. He discovers that Joe is illiterate, and why. The reader notes how part of Joe's agreeing to marry Mrs. Joe was in order to look after Pip. Joe and Mrs. Joe have no children, but when Joe marries Biddy (Chapter 58) a child soon arrives (Chapter 59).

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Things to comment on or questions to answer:

Subject/implications/moral and philosophical context

  • What is odd about Joe's love of reading? What does he really like about his "reading"?
  • What do we learn of Joe's childhood here? Why did he never complete his education?
  • Comment on Joe's belief that his father "were...good in his hart".
  • Why does Joe put up with his wife's aggressive behaviour?
  • Comment on how Pip, at this point in the narrative, admires Joe.
Style/structure/narrative craft
  • Comment on the use of dialogue to show character (especially Joe's).
  • Explain the contrast between Pip's (adult) commentary and the child's viewpoint here.
Effects of language/emotive, ironic, figurative effect/patterns and details
  • Explain Joe's play on the two meanings of "hammering".
  • Comment on the contrast between Pip's letter and the narrative before and after it.

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Chapter 27:

This episode occurs after Pip has gone to London to be brought up as a gentleman. Pip is embarrassed by Joe, who senses this and leaves. He promises never to return to London. Pip knows he is patronizing Joe, but cannot help it.

Things to comment on or questions to answer:

Subject/implications/moral and philosophical context

  • Comment on what this chapter shows of Pip's snobbery and vanity.
  • How and why does Pip feel embarrassed by Joe?
  • What does Pip realize about Joe only when it is too late? (Read the final paragraph of Chapter 27.)
Style/structure/narrative craft

  • Explain the contrast between Joe as he really is, and Pip's attitude to him during his visit.
  • Comment on Herbert's natural courtesy towards Joe.
  • Explain how Dickens shows Joe's unease in the description of his hat and clothes.
Effects of language/emotive, ironic, figurative effect/patterns and details

  • Comment on Joe's addressing Pip as "sir".
  • The final paragraph of this chapter is among the most moving in the whole novel. Explain the simile (comparison) here. What is the emotive effect of this conclusion to the chapter?

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Chapters 58 and 59: This is the conclusion of the novel. Pip has lost his fortune and been arrested for debt. He catches a fever but is nursed back to health by Joe. Joe pays off his debt. Despairing of Estella Pip thinks of proposing to Biddy. He returns to the forge, but before he can speak, Biddy explains that she is married to Joe. Pip asks Joe to forgive him, and their reconciliation is complete. In the final chapter of the novel, Pip returns after many years, to find that Joe and Biddy have a son, whom they have named after him.

Things to comment on or questions to answer:

Subject/implications/moral and philosophical context

  • In Chapter 27 Joe says he will not return to London. But now he does. Comment on this.
  • Explain how Pip's relationship with Joe is restored in this part of the novel.
  • What is the meaning of Pip's speech at the end of the chapter (in several sections)?
Style/structure/narrative craft

  • Explore the relationship between Pip's intentions for Biddy and what she and Joe choose for themselves.
Effects of language/emotive, ironic, figurative effect/patterns and details

  • In Chapter 7, Pip's "letter" contains the phrase "wot larx". What is the effect of this phrase being written by Biddy in her letter in Chapter 27, and again in Joe's note to Pip in this chapter? Explain how "what larks" becomes a catchphrase, almost, for Joe's and Pip's friendship.
  • Comment on the similarity between the earlier description of Pip (at the start of the novel) and the description of his younger namesake here.

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Pip's relationship with Joe in all these passages:

  • Show how Pip and Joe begin as the best of friends, how this relationship is affected by Pip's wealth, and how it is restored when he loses his money.
  • Pip, early in the novel, decides Joe is not very intelligent, as he cannot teach him to read. Later, though, Biddy does teach him. What does this show the reader.
  • Some readers think the portrayal of Joe is over-sentimental. What is your view of him?

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Some background on Joe

Read this if you need help; ignore it if you don't!

While it suits the plot for Pip's protector to be a blacksmith (he has the means to remove the convict's leg-iron) it also seems a fitting occupation for the man Dickens depicts. The job is hard and requires skill, yet no formal learning, so Joe seems a fool to those around him. We forgive the child, Pip, for doing this. But others - Mrs. Joe and Pumblechook - both patronize Joe and ignore him. Miss Havisham, a shrewder judge, seems to see what Joe is really like, in spite of his awkwardness, when she signs Pip's indentures (i.e. when Pip is apprenticed).

Joe becomes self-conscious and tongue-tied in unfamiliar surroundings, yet can speak well. This does not appear in the clumsy rhyme of his intended epitaph for his father ("Whatsume'er the failings on his part, Remember reader he were that good in his hart"). Joe is more eloquent when he says of his blacksmith father: "he hammered at me with a wigour (vigour) only to be equalled by the wigour with which he didn't hammer at his anvil". Joe's plain speaking often exposes others' false standards, as when he says of Pip's house in London, that he "wouldn't keep a pig in it", at least not if he wanted "a meller (mellow) flavour" in the pork.

Joe appears to be a poor scholar, but Biddy's patience succeeds where Pip has failed, and he learns to read and write. The physical strength of blacksmiths is proverbial and Joe illustrates this well. Orlick, himself a big man, is knocked down by Joe "as if he had been of no more account than the pale young gentleman" (Herbert, when younger), and Pip knows of no-one who could stand up long against Joe, although Joe is not at all aggressive. Joe is typically a gentle giant. He does what he can to protect Pip from "Tickler" (Mrs. Joe's stick), but sees that too much interference will lead to more trouble later.

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The reader is amused by the picture of Mrs. Joe's constant assaults upon this great man, who never retaliates, for fear of becoming like his bullying father. Joe's great size is almost a metaphor for his moral stature. He knows what he can do well in life (his job) and sees what is wrong with Pip's fantasy existence in London long before Pip does. Though Joe tells Pip he will never see him again out of his forge and his working-clothes, he is man enough to go once more to London when Pip is ill and in danger of prison. His money, earned by honest toil, pays off the immediate debt. Joe wants no thanks and is embarrassed when Pip refers to it: he does not give the matter a second thought, just as there is no question whether he will take time off from his business (and so lose income) to look after his friend.

Both the older Pip who tells the story and Biddy, at the time of the events narrated, point the reader to Joe's virtues. There are touches of sentimentality in the depiction of this honest, simple but deep character; but they are only touches, and Pip, aware of his earlier ingratitude to Joe, can be excused for indulging them. The portrayal of Joe is convincing and very moving. We are not sure about his father, but Joe is certainly "good in his hart".

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Exploring Pip's relationship with Magwitch

(Read chapters 1-4, 39, and 56; if you want to know more about Magwitch, click here).
Subject/implications/moral and philosophical context

  • Comment on how Pip thinks about the convict at different points in the novel.
  • Comment on how caring for the convict helps cure Pip of his snobbery.
  • Does Dickens think all criminals are bad? Comment on Dickens' view of those convicted of crime and of the legal system and powerful people who pass judgement on them.
Style/structure/narrative craft

  • Explain how the reader's changing attitude to Magwitch is influenced by Pip's feelings.
  • Comment on the effect of Pip's discovery of the source of his wealth. Note that this comes at the end of the second of the novel's three parts - very late in the narrative.
  • Comment on the ways in which Dickens gains the reader's sympathy for those on trial.
Effects of language/emotive, ironic, figurative effect/patterns and details

  • Comment on references to Pip's holding Magwitch's hand in Chapter 56.
  • Comment on Dickens' use of dialogue in the chapters in which Magwitch appears.
  • Explain the ironic effect of Pip's quoting (without speech marks) the judge's exact words in his passing sentence - does Dickens want the reader really to accept the judge's views?
  • Explain Magwitch's sense of irony in his words to the judge (Chapter 56: "I have received my sentence from the Almighty...").
  • Comment on the symbolism (Chapter 56) of the "broad shaft of light" dividing the judge from those being sentenced.
  • Explain how Dickens uses biblical language and allusion (reference) in Chapter 56, to suggest that man's judgement is not the same as God's.

Pip refers to a parable in St. Luke's gospel (Luke 18. 10 - 14) about two men who went to pray: the Pharisee thanks God for making him so good, while the sinner humbly asks for forgiveness - it is the sinner of whom God approves.

Magwitch's Christian name (mentioned only six times in the novel) is Abel. In the book of Genesis Adam has two sons, Cain and Abel. Like the biblical Abel, Magwitch keeps sheep; like Abel, whom Cain murders, Magwitch is the victim of someone close to him.

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Some background on Magwitch

Read this if you need help; ignore it if you don't!

Abel Magwitch is one of Dickens' greatest inventions in this novel - he leaps out at the reader at the start, haunts Pip as he grows up, and returns to explode his illusions. He is intimately linked with other characters in the novel, and does not realize this himself. Dickens uses Magwitch and his daughter, Estella, to show that social class is an artificial creation of man, and that we are all equal in truth and in the sight of God.

Magwitch is thematically linked with Estella from the start. Pip's horror of Magwitch is often expressed as a fear of what Estella would think if he knew Pip had helped him. Repeatedly, convicts, the courts or reminders of Magwitch appear in scenes in which Estella is present. Magwitch is also contrasted with Miss Havisham. Pip supposes her to be his benefactress and hopes that she is (since Estella may also be included in her design) when in reality his money comes from Magwitch.

The connections among the characters begin before the start of the narrative. Compeyson, a "gentleman" (in terms of social class) befriends Miss Havisham's brother, Arthur, and later takes on Magwitch as his helper. When the Havishams disinherit Arthur, Compeyson helps him be revenged - although married, he poses as a suitor, and jilts Miss Havisham on her wedding day. Soon after, he is arrested for his various frauds, along with Magwitch, whom he blames for allegedly leading him into crime. The reverse is the truth, but Compeyson is believed because of his smooth manners. When Magwitch's common-law wife, Molly, kills a rival and is acquitted through the skill of her lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, she is persuaded to give up her child for adoption, as another client of his, Miss Havisham, wants to adopt a baby girl. Magwitch, now convicted, is told that the child was born dead.

At the start of the novel, Magwitch escapes from the hulks (old warships used as prisons) but finds that Compeyson has escaped, too. He lets himself be caught in order to return his enemy to prison. He threatens Pip, he does him no harm; when recaptured he saves Pip from trouble by admitting to the theft of some food from the forge. As soon as he has any money to give, he sends it to Pip in the village - years later Pip overhears a convict (on the roof of a coach) tell how he delivered this money.

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For attempting escape, Magwitch is transported to Australia. When he has served his time he can make a new life there, but if he returns to England, he faces the death sentence. (In fact, this did not happen at the time in which the novel is set - the offence [returning from transport] was on the statute books until 1835, but the last hanging of a returned transport took place in 1810.) The reader learns this later from Magwitch himself (Chapter 39). He farms sheep, lives cheaply and saves his money. When he has saved a fair amount he communicates with Mr. Jaggers, who acts as his agent and becomes Pip's guardian and adviser. Pip assumes that Miss Havisham is the source of his wealth. Jaggers sees this but will not tell Pip the truth, as it helps him conceal Jaggers' real identity.

In time, Magwitch returns, as he is desperate to see how his "boy" has done. He likes what he sees and does not notice Pip's initial disgust. He rather admires Pip's snobbery. In England, Magwitch goes under the alias of Provis, posing as Pip's uncle - Jaggers insists that Pip does not tell him the truth, as to know this would make him, a lawyer, an accessory to Magwitch's crime of returning.

Pip gradually becomes fond of Magwitch, as he tries to smuggle him out of London. They are being watched by Compeyson who is terrified of Magwitch, and betrayed as they are about to board a steamer for Hamburg. In the struggle that follows Compeyson is drowned. Magwitch is found guilty of returning, and sentenced to death, but is dying anyway. Pip nurses him and comes to love him; before he dies, Pip tells Magwitch that his daughter is alive, a great lady and that he (Pip) loves her.

Magwitch is a criminal but he is led into crime by Compeyson. The snobbish Pip would rather his fortune came from Miss Havisham's (unearned) inheritance than Magwitch's hard work in Australia. Dickens shows, in the character of Magwitch, how many so-called criminals are basically good people, how the crimes of a "gentleman" like Compeyson (a swindler) are far more harmful in their consequences, and how the legal system enables the rich to oppress the poor.

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Summary of Great Expectations

Read this if you need help; ignore it if you don't!

WARNING:This section contains an outline of the plot of Great Expectations. If you read the novel this may help you recall or revise its content. If you have not yet read the novel, this summary may spoil your pleasure by revealing what the author hides until the end - do not read it unless you are ready for this!

Great Expectations is written in three parts of nineteen or twenty chapters each (59 chapters in all). In the first part, the narrator and chief character Pip (Philip Pirrip) meets an escaped convict who terrifies him into stealing food and a file, to remove his leg iron. Pip, an orphan lives in the Kent marshes with his bullying sister and her husband, Joe Gargery a gentle giant of a blacksmith. Pip takes food to the convict, but when he learns of another convict who has escaped, the first convict makes sure both are recaptured. We learn much later that the convict was transported to Australia.

Later Pip is invited to the house of Miss Havisham, heiress to a brewery. She was jilted on her wedding day, but still wears her wedding dress, while the wedding feast has been left in her house. She lives with her ward, Estella, whose background is a mystery, but who has been brought up as a member of high society, and taught by Miss Havisham to be cruel to men. Pip loves Estella and is ashamed at his common origin. Pip's sister hopes that Miss Havisham will favour Pip with some of her fortune, but when he is fourteen Pip learns that he is to be Joe's apprentice. Pip is unhappy at Joe's forge and asks for time off to visit Miss Havisham on her birthday. Mrs. Joe is attacked while Pip is out: the weapon is the convict's leg-iron. A village girl, Biddy, becomes Mrs. Joe's nurse and housekeeper at the forge. Meanwhile Pip receives astonishing news from a lawyer, Mr. Jaggers: he has a secret benefactor who is to pay for him to be brought up as a gentleman in London.

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Pip thinks Miss Havisham is the source of his fortune. She allows him to think so. In London, Pip becomes a snob. He comes to know Estella better and becomes her closest friend. She marries a wealthy but stupid man called Bentley Drummle. She aims to make Drummle miserable, but he is too brutal for this, and it is she who suffers more. In London, Pip befriends Herbert, with whom he shares rooms (and whom he met years before at Miss Havisham's house). When Joe visits Pip in London, Pip is embarrassed and patronizes Joe, who promises he will not come to London again. One day Pip receives a visit from the convict he met years before, Abel Magwitch, who has prospered in sheep farming but has returned (illegally) from Australia. He is the source of Pip's Great Expectations.

The last part of the novel is like a thriller. Pip tries to get Magwitch out of England. He discovers that a man called Compeyson led Magwitch into crime originally. Compeyson was also the friend of Miss Havisham's brother, disinherited by his parents for his way of life. Compeyson, already married, posed as Miss Havisham's fiancé as an act of revenge. When Magwitch and Compeyson were on trial for various crimes Compeyson claimed to have been led astray by Magwitch who received a much harsher sentence. Later, though, Compeyson was jailed, and it was him whom Magwitch stopped from escaping years before on the marshes. Compeyson betrays Magwitch to the authorities. He is caught boarding a steamer for Hamburg, but jumps into the Thames, taking with him Compeyson, who is drowned. Magwitch is sentenced to death but dies first. Pip who was at first revolted by Magwitch grows to love him. With Herbert's help, Pip completes Magwitch's story. Mr. Jaggers' housekeeper, Molly, was once Magwitch's lover, and pregnant with his child. She had a rival, whom she murdered, was defended by Jaggers, and acquitted. She gave up her child to Miss Havisham, who had asked Jaggers to find her a baby girl, and Magwitch was led to believe the child was dead. Now Pip tells him that the child lived, grew up to be beautiful and loved by him - it is Estella.

The authorities seize Magwitch's fortune. Pip is arrested for debt and catches fever. Joe comes to London, pays off his debts and nurses him back to health. Pip thinks of marrying Biddy and going back to the forge - but he finds she is already married, to Joe. Miss Havisham has died, but before her death Pip has asked her to help set up Herbert in business. Now he becomes a partner in the business and goes abroad. Years later, he returns to Miss Havisham's house and meets Estella once more. The novel ends ambiguously with a hint that Pip and Estella will never be parted again.

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Comparing texts

This is a very important part of your work. You cannot really expect a grade in the A* - C range unless you make comparisons in writing (or speaking) about the texts you have studied. Try to make comparisons within texts (compare one part with another) and between texts (compare one text with another).

Don't be confused by compare and contrast. The problem is that the first word is used in two senses - first, to make a comparison (put two things together to see similarity or difference or anything) and, second, to show similarity. This second sense is opposed to contrast, which implies showing the difference between things. In a way, therefore, contrast is redundant - if you make a comparison this includes bringing out contrasts where these are to be found!

Comparing texts does not mean finding lots of statements that are exactly true of both - you will go mad trying and/or will write rubbish. It does mean looking broadly at things (themes, relationships, techniques) in both and seeing how far they are similar or different. It also does not mean stating the obvious (say that one was written in the 20th century while the other is older). A good comparison will show how two authors have something in common (a theme such as personal independence, say) but develop it in different ways. For example Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, Doris Lessing's stories Flight and Through the Tunnel and poems such as Sylvia Plath's Daddy or Seamus Heaney's Follower - all these are (among other things) about the struggle to find happiness in independence. Or, if you prefer, they are also about being in some way dependent, and trying to change this.

The headings below are taken from the NEAB's criteria for Wide Reading. The bullet points are to help you meet the criteria in comparing texts which you have studied in order to look at relationships.

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Subject/implications/moral and philosophical context

  • Explain the relationship(s), depicted in these texts, which you have studied. What is the nature of each relationship and its importance to the text?
  • Make comparisons among the various relationships - for example look for relationships which change, or which the author wants the reader to approve or disapprove.
  • Which of these accounts or depictions of relationships do you like most and why?

Style/structure/narrative craft

  • Comment on the ways in which the structure of a text helps the author present the relationship. Note that a novel will allow a more complex structure (including, say, change over time) than may be possible in a poem or short story.
  • Comment on how the form of the writing affects the reader's or audience's viewpoint.
  • How does the author (if at all) lead the reader to a particular judgement of a relationship?

Effects of language/emotive, ironic, figurative effect/patterns and details

  • Comment on how the authors use particular devices to present relationships - this is likely to include use of dialogue or some other way of giving the speech and/or thoughts of those in the relationship.
  • Often a powerful image or symbol expresses a relationship - try to find examples of this in the texts you have studied.
  • Comment on any poetic or figurative effects which you find interesting or which you like.

Finally - make a judgement

Say if, how far and why, you liked the texts you have studied.

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GCSE criteria and the National Curriculum

These are the NEAB's criteria for assessment of Wide Reading coursework for particular grades at GCSE. This assessment is marked for reading only, but may be carried out by a speaking and listening task.

Grade G:

Candidates show response to

  • the texts' explicit meaning and purpose
  • particular episodes
  • main characters
Grade F:

Candidates show awareness when describing

  • similarities and differences in subject matter
  • main features of character and plot
  • how the stories are told
Grade E:

Candidates show familiarity when describing

  • similarities and differences in purposes of texts
  • variety of character/situation/narration
  • impact on readers
Grade D:

Candidates show understanding when discussing

  • similarities and differences in writers' attitudes and meanings
  • narrative sequence and structure
  • the writers' language
Grade C:

Candidates show insight when discussing

  • similarities and differences in implications and relevance of texts
  • style, structure and characters
  • writers' characteristic uses of language
Grade B:

Candidates show analytical skill when exploring

  • implications, contemporary relevance and historical context of texts
  • style, structure and characterisation
  • language as characteristic of writer and period
Grade A:

Candidates show analytical and interpretative skill when evaluating

  • moral and philosophical context of texts
  • significant achievements within prose fiction genre
  • writers' inventiveness with language for emotive, ironic or figurative effect
Grade A*:

Candidates show originality of analysis and interpretation when evaluating

  • moral, philosophical and social significance of texts
  • writers' narrative craft and appeal to reader
  • patterns and details of language exploited for implication or suggestion

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All pages in this tutorial have hyperlinks for navigation, at frequent intervals. These will allow you to move more quickly than scrolling, and you will know where you are going (I hope) in many cases. I have tried to ensure that there are no very long passages of text without navigation aids.

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I would like (this is not a promise) to produce simpler alternative versions of the tutorials. I have tried not to patronize users (that means talking down to you, like this) but these guides will probably be too difficult for many students to use.

When I have road-tested the tutorials on real students, I may be able to produce a more adequate help screen than this.

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