First published in 1861 as a weekly serial that gripped and exhilarated readers, “Great Expectations,” (written by Charles Dickens) follows the life of Pip, a young orphan, boy living with his sister and her husband near the ‘overgrown’ and ‘bleak’ Kent marshes. The story follows Pip’s rise into society as he becomes ‘a well to do gentleman.’ Aided by a mysterious benefactor, the tale tells a ‘rags to riches’ story of how Pip fulfils his ‘Great Expectations’ and begins a new life, in London’s high society.
Written and set in Victorian Britain, Dickens considers the workings of British society and subtly makes his feelings toward the injustices of the class system clear through Pip and his changing attitudes and behaviours, and the harsh crime and punishment system through Magwitch. “Great Expectations,” often reminisces on Dickens’ personal experiences, himself as a child deprived of a sufficient education, similar to Pip; Dickens rose up through society to become a wealthy man. Money and wealth play a major part in Dickens’ work, possibly because, as a child his father was imprisoned for various debts, forcing the young Charles Dickens into early employment in a blacking warehouse. His father incarcerated and himself forced to work instead of being educated Dickens resented his parents; which may explain why he chose to make his child characters, such as Pip, orphans living an unhappy childhood.
In this essay, I will compare Chapters 1 and 39, these chapters focusing on Pip’s first and second meetings with the convict Able Magwitch, later to be revealed as his mysterious benefactor. I will discuss how Magwitch and Pip are represented in each chapter in relation to their different circumstances; the settings and language used by Dickens and Nineteenth Century life. I will further discuss my opinions on why Dickens wrote the novel, and the importance of chapters 1 and 39 as part of the overall narrative as well as how these chapters contribute to the important message Dickens was trying to convey about Victorian British society.
Only a young boy, Phillip Pirrip, or Pip, is introduced to the reader in the first chapter immediately as a small orphan child, lost amongst his curiosities as he struggles to find some sort of identity from the vague past of his parents and their graves. Pip is a poor country child, living with his sister and her husband Joe Gargery the Blacksmith. In the opening chapter, Pip is trying to find isolation, and chooses to take refuge on the Kent Marshes.
He finds himself surrounded by what Dickens describes and personifies as the ‘savage’ sea and vast areas of the ‘bleak’ landscape of the churchyard. This clearly illustrates that Pip has become terrified as he is described as a “small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all…” As a result, Dickens immediately outlines his intentions for the audience to empathise with the young Pip by clearly defining his fear and tragic history. This allows the audience to create an immediate bond with the main protagonist before they begin a turbulent journey through a mixture of emotions, a process that Dickens makes a personal and exciting for the reader through the use of descriptive language to convey: setting, mood and character.
In chapter one it could be inferred that there is two Pip’s: the one as described by the narrative, and the one of the dialogue, older and much more mature and educated a far cry from the poor country orphan boy from that of the narrative. This could be attributed to the fact that the story is written in first-person retrospective.
Upon meeting Magwitch, Pip’s fear is further emphasised, one example is in the way Pip continuously uses the word ‘and’ when narrating to produce a vivid image for the reader;
“Soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints and stung by nettles and torn by briars…and shivered, and glared and growled.”
This use of ‘and’ is representative of Pip’s young age where he would struggle to articulate, but also creates a sort of snowball effect of more and more awful terrors that seem infinite, to form a terrifying character description full of these never-ending dreadful characteristics and attributes.
In both chapters 1 and 39 Magwitch is described in a similar fashion to create a recognisable character, shrouded by mystery to create an immediate tension between the two characters Pip and Magwitch. Firstly he is always heard before he is seen, a “terrible voice” from the “darkness beneath.” By making Magwitch the unknown both Pip and the reader are subject to similar feelings of anxiety and resentment toward Magwitch. By causing immediate friction between Magwitch and the reader/Pip, it is an immediate reaction to deem Magwitch the stereotypical villain of the story, enforced by the violent and volatile behaviour, Magwitch displays as he attacks Pip in chapter one. The riddle of who the identity of Pip’s mysterious benefactor runs through the majority of the story until chapter 39, where it is revealed to be Magwitch himself. Yet, Magwitch is thought of as the villain from chapter 1, preventing the reader from presuming Magwitch’s true role, making chapter 39’s revelations all the more shocking.
Described similarly in both chapters using colourless imagery such as “grey” for the iron on his leg (chapter 1) and for his hair (chapter 39); Magwitch is given a harsh and unforgiving, cruel exterior. This is a theme that runs through his character in chapter 1 as he attacks Pip. Written in a local dialect, possibly that of London, to really enforce Magwitch’s overpowering, high status over Pip, Dickens repeatedly uses exclamation marks at the end of Magwitch’s dialogues, giving his voice the effect of being booming and overpowering, to show how truly terrifying Magwitch is to small fragile Pip. Yet it also shows Magwitch’s desperation and nervousness as he is an escaped criminal on the run, and in fact, Pip’s downfall is his youth and innocence as Magwitch in reality has very little status, and very little ground to be making demands but Pip does not utilise this weakness of Magwitch’s.
The representations of both characters in chapter 1 are reversed in chapter 39. Pip, similarly to chapter 1 still chooses to isolate himself, alone at home taking refuge, this time in his books. However, with his wealth he has gained an education and taken to a life of leisure, a gentleman in his grand home with the time to read in comfort. Very different from the generous young Pip whom is weak and fragile, Pip has in fact become snobbish. This is evident in his reaction when he recognises Magwitch and says to him “I hope you have shown your gratitude by mending your way of life.” It is clear that at this point Pip believes he is obviously of higher class than Magwitch, he has the right to judge him and look down upon him as if he is inferior. His snobbery continues as upon finding out it was Magwitch that funded his rise to becoming a gentleman, his reaction is not one of gratitude but of great resentment and distaste. Although Pip seems to have lost all of his desirable characteristics from his youth, when Magwitch asks for lodgings, he begrudgingly shows some of the generosity evident from chapter 1as he produces his “gentlemen’s linens” and serves rum and water before giving Magwitch shelter.
Magwitch, although again initially described using empty colourless imagery of the “grey,” and “out of the darkness,” in chapter 39, is presented as a character full of love for Pip, a father figure with open arms, a huge contrast to the aggressive and violent bully portrayed in chapter 1. Although still very venerable, a wanted criminal in England facing the death penalty, it becomes apparent that Magwitch is now the generous character. Shown when he reveals that he has given his finances in order to fund Pip’s rise to become a gentlemen, according to Magwitch, because he wished to show his gratitude for what Pip did when he gave him “wittles” in chapter one. Magwitch’s respect and love for Pip is displayed throughout the dialogue and description in chapter 39, he addresses Pip as “Master,” and Pip describes Magwitch as “holding out both his hands to me” as if he wanted to hug Pip, as would a father to a child.
There is also a great change in status between the two chapters. Magwitch, with his overpowering voice and violent manner, held highest status as he bullied young Pip. Whereas, in chapter 39 it is Magwitch who yields his status to Pip or “master.” The fact Pip has become higher class, if only in context of the class system of Victorian Britain, gives Pip a much-elevated status over Magwitch. That high status is further emphasised in the vulnerability of Magwitch and his situation, and Magwitch’s huge respect and love for Pip, and although Pip states he was inhospitable, it is affection that Pip obviously does not share or return.
Dickens uses language to create vivid imagery in his settings to dictate atmosphere and mood. He uses his settings to subtly suggest imminent twists in the plot, for example, in chapter 39, Pip, when describing the weather outside says; “the high buildings in the town had had the lead stripped off their roofs.” It could be understood that this is representative of the fact that something, close to him, (due to the fact the houses are in the town near to him), is soon to be revealed, for example, the identity of his benefactor.
In Great Expectations, Dickens uses setting to create mood and atmosphere. The settings are often reflective of the character’s situations or feelings at a certain point during the story. Dickens also uses the settings to suggest to the audience that there is to be a plot twist in the forthcoming chapter. Setting is described at the start of most chapters, and this is evident in both chapters 1and 39. In both chapters, Dickens creates a dark and sinister atmosphere shrouded in mystery in order to create tension around the entrance of Magwitch.
In chapter 1, this is achieved in one example through the use of personification to describe, “The distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea…” This idea of the sea being ‘savage,’ firstly emphasises Pip’s anxiety, by presenting the idea that Pip is almost surrounded by the violent and aggressive sea. It could also be suggested that the volatile nature of the sea is reflective of Magwitch’s personality, and as mentioned previous, the sea is used to suggest the presence of a violent character in the form of Magwitch before there is any actual obvious presentation of Magwitch’s character.
By creating an eerie, foreboding atmosphere, Dickens creates a great amount of tension as the reader, already empathetic of Pip, fears for him as he is engulfed by these ominous horrors that seem to obscure the true evils that will be exposed in the remainder of the chapter. This would have been very effective in gripping readers of Great Expectations as a serial, as it makes the reader build a relationship with the characters as they feel their emotions through the suggestions and excitement outlined in the settings. In addition, it is my opinion the desolate, despondent and dismal atmosphere formed through the setting is reminiscent of both Pip and Magwitch’s dire and desperate situations, isolated and impoverished by society.
Chapter 39 similarly uses water as a major theme in the setting to create tension, but in the form of the weather. “It was wretched weather; stormy and wet; stormy and wet…” The use of onomatopoeic alliteration has connotations of menacing undertones to establish a sinister ambiance through the ‘W’ in ‘wretched weather…wet…wet.’ The onomatopoeic values of the W in water or raindrops allow the reader to almost hear the rain outside. The fact it is repeated suggests an echo that is surrounding him, and if the echoes of the rain is the only sound to be heard then this implies there is an eerie silence to be broken, creating tension by installing fear within the reader. Also similarly, to the first chapter, the setting is reflective of Pip’s isolation, again using the wind to describe how he is lonely and surrounded by problems.
Dickens in chapter 1, as previously discussed uses setting to hint at the plot that will unveil during the chapter, and in chapter, one the sea is representative of Magwitch and his character’s arrival. This is also used again in chapter 39, but not only to suggest the arrival of a character, but also to establish tension at the very beginning of the chapter by indicating a major plot twist is imminent. Dickens achieves this response in the line “the buildings in town had had the lead stripped of their roofs…” This line could be interpreted as being representative of something close to Pip being revealed to him. In the context of chapter 39, Pip discovers Magwitch to be his benefactor and could be considered as what is revealed to him or “stripped of their roofs.”
Dickens throughout the narrative considers Victorian society and its workings, especially in relation to two major themes in crime and punishment and social class, and it could be said that ‘Great Expectations’ is an exploration of his opinions and beliefs in relation to these matters. Dickens explores the crime and punishment element through Magwitch, a convicted criminal. Introduced in the opening chapter, only as Magwitch the convict, the reader immediately feel hostile and antipathy toward Magwitch based upon his situation and title branded upon him by society. However, in chapter 39, when Dickens presents Magwitch, the person. Warm, benign and generous. Immediately the reader’s opinion of Magwitch reverses from one of distaste to that of being empathetic and affectionate.
Nonetheless, Magwitch is still a criminal, his branding has not altered and this is where Dickens makes his point. The Victorian legal system generalised criminals, and a ‘criminal’ was either transported or hung, and even petty criminals were sentenced similarly to more serious offenders. Dickens, I feel, was trying to show how Victorian society labelled a criminal and not a person, they did not explore personal circumstance or motive, but only saw a criminal and punished a criminal. References to ‘the great iron on his leg’ and a ‘Gibbet’ (hangman’s post) in chapter 1 also show how Dickens’ message is not only in relation to the criminals themselves but also the methods of punishments used. In my opinion, he feels that the punishments are a method of removing ones identity, to deprive someone the right to a sense of self, to control and inhibit people, which also relevant to the use of greys when describing Magwitch, and therefore shows Dickens feels Victorian punishment methods are too harsh and inhumane.
Dickens also explores the Victorian class hierarchy, through Pip and his rise from peasant to gentleman. Dickens uses Pip as a narrator of his opinions. Deprived as a child of an adequate education and standard of living, Dickens reminisces on his past to model Pip, to illustrate how he is disgusted at the injustices of the class system and how he feels great anger at the unequal distribution of the wealth, nearly of which went to the higher class. Dickens rebels against the ideals and morals of the ‘gentleman.’ As he joins London’s high society Pip turns snobbish and swiftly loses family values and his generosity, evident in both his meetings with Joe Gargery and Magwitch, where he snubs them and looks down upon them as Pip feels as if he is a more worthy person and should be distant from the ‘peasants.’ This rebellion against the class system could be described as an early idea of Utilitarianism (John Stuart Mill 1861). Where it is believed that what is useful and good for society is what is good and useful for the greatest number. Unlike Victorian society, where what was useful and good for society was what was useful and good for the highest classes.
In conclusion, it is my belief that Dickens wrote ‘Great Expectations’ to highlight and voice a rebellion or possibly supply commentary against the ideals of Victorian society. How they detracted from the many to give to the few, Dickens wished for the reader to consider the injustices of the class and legal systems. Chapters 1 and 39 formulate a major basis for this outcry as they prove most revealing in it how Dickens felt gentlemen were not so well mannered and ‘gentle, but were snobbish and exploited their position and wealth. In addition, the two chapters highlight how Dickens felt towards the harshness and impersonal inquests into criminal prosecution and sentencing.
Similarly, chapters 1 and 39 are invaluable to the narrative as they accentuate the different situations and the changes in personalities, morals and values affected by money, time and social status. The chapters allow the reader to gain the most rounded view of both Magwitch’s and Pip’s characters. I believe that ‘Great Expectations’ was a hugely enjoyable and gripping novel that entertains as well as forces the reader to contemplate society and its ideals, and although written and set in Victorian Britain many of the views expressed by Dickens are just as relevant in Modern British society as they were in the context of the time they were written.