Great Expectations was written during Queen Victoria’s reign. Its author, Charles Dickens, penned the novel around 1860, however it was not immediately published in book format but rather it appeared as weekly episodes in a daily newspaper. From research, we know that Dickens observed a lot of poverty and misery when he moved to London at the age of two. His father was put into a debtor’s prison followed by his wife and five children later on. His experiences can clearly be seen in the themes within Great Expectations. When he died Dickens was buried in Westminster Abbey to be remembered as a superb novelist.
The opening to Great Expectations is a fascinating piece of descriptive writing. It catches the reader’s attention and puts the plot in motion with dramatic action. The story commences in a graveyard where a young orphan, named Pip, stands alongside his parent’s gravestones, staring in deep bewilderment. As the boy makes his way home, we are told that an escaped convict suddenly grabs him. This startles the innocent child tremendously. The fearful man, Abel Magwitch, threatens Pip and promises in a disturbing manner:
“You get me a file, and you get me wittles. You bring them ’em both to me, or I’ll have you heart and liver out.”
The young boy scared and shivering agrees to the task and runs home without stopping. In this way, Magwitch is described menacingly under unusual circumstances. The reader considers him a monster, like an ogre out of a fairy tale, threatening to eat young children.
In this way Dickens creates a superb setting from the outset. The day of Pip’s visit to the deserted graveyard on the moors is described as:
“One memorable raw afternoon”
The rather bleak graveyard gives the story a very tense and exciting start and contributes wholly well to the atmosphere and events that are to follow. Opening in the graveyard, we are succinctly (though also quite humorously) informed of Pips family history during a conversation he has with the fearful Magwitch:
“Where’s your mother?” said the man
“There Sir” said I.
Under different circumstances an author might have taken longer to explain a character’s background. This technique, where we imagine Pip pointing at the gravestones of his parents and five siblings, immediately invites the reader to think and make assumptions. Clearly, this also introduces one of the main recurring themes of the story; that of Pip’s vulnerability, helplessness and innocence. We immediately sympathise with the young boy. Pip in contrast is a small, orphaned boy and his naï¿½ve impression of his parents’ appearance is fascinating. He bases it on the shape of the tombstones and also thinks his mother is called ‘Also Georgina’ because of the inscription.
Though Pip’s fragility is entertaining we are also provided with an unfriendly, harsh atmosphere and gripping tension. This is developed more by descriptions of the scenery surrounding the graveyard, producing a more frightening opening for the reader to digest alongside their feelings towards Pip:
“The dark, flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates . . . was the marshes . . . the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea . . . the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.”
This symbolism adds to the dramatic imagery and again contrasted with Pip’s sense of vulnerability and helplessness.
Dickens chooses his words carefully when he describes the convict man Abel Magwitch:
“A fearful man, all coarse and grey, with a great iron on his leg. . No hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied around his head. A man . . . soaked in water . . . smothered in mud, lamed by stones, cut by flints and stung by nettles . . . torn by briars.”
All adjectives used to describe the escapee are negative, sharp and nasty seen through the eyes of the young boy Pip. Equally, Dickens’ word choices to describe Magwitch’s capture of Pip are frightening:
“A man . . . who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me (Pip) by the chin”
What is interesting her is Dickens’ repeated use of the conjunctive “and”. This formulates a longer, more evil image of the man through Pip’s eyes. Almost comical and exaggerated.
This opening chapter gives insight into the criminal justice system of 1860, possibly because Dickens grew up with an unpleasant view of jail life when his family was arrested for debt? Criminals were often transported to Australia and were kept in hulks off the coast. The hulks were old and disused warships; most criminals were kept on the ships for months often years before people decided to send them to work hard labour on land in Australia.
The warships were renowned for their shoddy conditions and as a result one in three convicts died. Hulks were dirty, overcrowded and very unhealthy. Prisoners like Magwitch were chained to their beds at night after working hard labour with the hot sun and the humid atmosphere. Was Magwitch trying to escape such harsh conditions?
Chapter one creates a special link between Pip and Magwitch dealing with the theme of irony. Dickens reminds us that things may not always be, as they seem. Pip assumes that only a “gentleman” could possess the kindness that eventually provides his generous benefactor. Later on in the novel Pip discovers how wrong he is. It is in fact Abel Magwitch who financially provides for Pip. The lack of gentlemanly ways or possible lack of education, are the main characteristics Dickens provides us with when describing Magwitch for the first time. His use of incorrect language:
“Wittles . . . peccoliar . . . partickler.”
gives the reader some idea of Magwitch’ s low social class, a theme Dickens explores throughout the book. This contrast provides “goodie and baddie” stereotypes, innocence compared with evil. Again this irony becomes obvious when Magwitch leaves Pip with a great amount of money and Pip turns into a conceited arrogant man later in the book.
Pip’s excessive politeness, although comical, gives the reader clues as to which social class he belongs to:
“O, don’t cut my throat sir, pray please don’t do it, sir.”
On the surface the relationship seems to be based on fear, but the chapter does create a special link between Pip and Magwitch. Both are cold, alone and isolated. Pip relates to the man, he feels sympathy for this strange man so he brings food not just out of fear but also out of sympathy. This initial meeting develops into the central relationship of Great Expectations.
Chapter one is extremely Victorian in style. It is considered a characteristic of the time, that many Victorians enjoyed showing emotion, even crying as wrongs were suffered and when people endured misery. 1860 was a time when most people suffered illnesses, poverty and misfortune and they found it cheering to read happy endings in fictional books such as Great Expectations. Writers such as Dickens, during the reign of Queen Victoria, showed that putting up with misery was a sign of good character.
The setting is characteristic of the Victorian era. It is dark, mysterious and melodramatic; to show horror and fear. Horror is used at the end of the chapter when Pip imagines:
“A silhouetted gibbet, chains hanging to it, which had once held a pirate.”
The rest of the novel is full of twists and turns. Pip changes from a young, naï¿½ve boy into a cold selfish man corrupted by great expectations, because of the amount of money given to him. Dickens shows how wealth can bring out the least attractive behaviour in people. Pip, however, learns from his mistakes and changes back in to the gentleman he once was. The story is told in first person by Pip. We can identify and understand him more than any other character because of this. We share his feelings and emotions throughout the book. We are on his journey with him and experience his character undergoing several major changes throughout the story.
Dickens wrote the novel to make a reader think. It allowed him to use his childhood memories of the effects of growing up and also the effects of society on a maturing mind. Above all I think he penned this novel with realism. Victorian Britain was not a pretty place for most people. As a result, Dickens’ graphic opening chapter in Great Expectations is said to be one of the greatest in English Literature.