How does Dickens Create an Effective Opening in “Great Expectations”? Essay Sample

How does Dickens Create an Effective Opening in “Great Expectations”? Pages
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Dickens wrote “Great Expectations” in 1860-61 and it was originally serialised in the magazine “All Year Round” – one chapter being released weekly. Consequently, it was important for the novel to have an effective opening to hook the readers’ attention and it was constructed in a way which would sell Dickens’ magazine to make a profit.

This meant that many of the chapters ended on a “mini cliff-hanger”, although in the first chapter the focus would be more on creating suitably likeable characters and setting an interesting and readable scene. However, not only do we get a clear impression of the main characters – Pip and Magwitch through vivid description such as “a fearful man in all course grey”, but the chapter also ends on a note leaving the reader wondering what will happen next. Will Pip bring the convict what he wants – will he tell anyone. This persuades readers to buy the next instalment. Dickens uses every technique deliberately and for a reason – to create something which will capture the readers’ imagination.

In the first chapter a memorable and imaginative scene is created by the author. First of all we are told the time in which it is set – late in the day – “a memorable raw afternoon towards evening”. This description suggests that it is definitely getting dark as the word “raw” implies that it was cold and probably during winter. The reader can then begin to imagine the slightly eerie setting unfolding around a young boy, who really should be on his way home for the night.

Not only is Pip outside when it is nearing the evening but he is also in the graveyard on the marshes. The surroundings are described as “a bleak place overgrown with nettles”. Both the graveyard and the marshes, especially in the dark, would be very frightening for a child, and the reader knows this and so therefore can empathise with Pip and feel his fear. Dickens also uses an example of personification in “the wind was rushing” describing the wind as if it were actually moving and hurrying deliberately fast. This imagery helps the reader to picture the scene and also makes it seem that even the weather is against Pip.

The fact that it is set in the barren marshes and graveyard does not only appear terrifying but they also have close links to death. Obviously the graveyard houses most of Pip’s family and the reader fears it may also become home to him, especially when Dickens cleverly describes the tombstone on which Pip is sitting, “he came closer to my tombstone” as if Pip may die just there in that exact spot. When the marshes are described as “overgrown with nettles” this triggers anxiety felt by the reader for Pip, or at least they can see how terrible a place it is if the only thing alive other than the characters is a plant whose leaves are surfaced by tiny, piercing, harmful hairs. This again would help the reader to imagine how Pip feels by drawing on their own childhood experiences and remembering their own fears of nettles, when they were younger. And of course, if the reader can make comparisons between themselves and Pip they are more likely to read on to find out more.

The atmosphere relies upon tension created by Dickens which changes dramatically throughout the scenes of the first chapter. Tension begins to rise at the point where the strange surroundings are depicted, but escalates dramatically upon Pip meeting the convict where the terrible attributes of Magwitch are described. Verbs such as “glared” and “growled” would usually relate to a monstrous animal not a fellow man, so the reader can sense the distress which would be felt by Pip when meeting this awful figure.

The highest point of tension in my opinion is when Pip is physically in danger. Dickens uses repetition of the word “tilted” when Magwitch is threatening Pip. This raises the tension by signifying the force used, and causes the reader to worry for Pip’s life when seeing the graphic description in his account. The contrast between control is also effective when the two characters’ eyes are locked – this is apparent when the novel reads “his eyes looked most powerfully down into mine, and mine looked most helplessly into his”. The fact that Magwitch is above Pip also physically shows the control and demonstrates his greater power in comparison to Pip – aswell as concerning the reader, making them uncertain as to what may happen. It is also interesting the way that Magwitch is portrayed as being above Pip, as in terms of social class the opposite is true, but he is proving himself in terms of strength to persuade Pip to help him. Pip is forced to see him as greater than himself.

Pip is depicted in the mind of the reader as being very vulnerable from the beginning of the text, where it says, “the small bundle or shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry was Pip”. This metaphor describing him as “a small bundle of shivers” immediately makes the reader feel sorry and afraid for him. So many of the readers would be able to identify with Pip, especially at that time in history and how his childhood is spent without most of his family and can understand how he feels, as well as actually care about what happens to him.

Pip’s isolation is shown by the way he lives in his imagination. His imaginative stories are illustrated in the way he builds up a picture of his family from their tombstones,

“I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trouser pockets, and had never taken them out of this state of existence”. His imagination shelters him from the harsh reality that surrounds his life by drawing humour and pleasant thoughts from something as terrible as the death of almost his entire family. The reader knows this, and admires his mere existence and ability to cope, as many at that time were forced to do.

Through all the torment around Pip’s childhood he is a very polite and kind boy which perhaps makes him more gullible, especially for believing Magwitch’s exaggerated threats to be true. Even as Magwitch hurts him he replies “yes sir” to every question that he is asked – and not just to stop the violence. At this point in his life he does not completely comply with the rules about social classes as he calls a rough convict “sir”. Pip, at this time, is the perfect gentleman, without actually being “a gentleman” and indeed this reverses in his adulthood when he finds fortune.

The appearance of Magwitch is key to how both the reader and Pip react to him. He is a rugged, scruffy escaped convict who has survived the chase of the police for many days. His appearance is extensively described in the following paragraph:

“A fearful man in all coarse grey with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied around his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles and torn by briars, who limped and shivered, and glared and growled, and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin” This description is full of techniques to engage the reader. Dickens uses a long list, separating most of the items with “and”. This repetition is very effective as it suggests the sheer amount of things which have happened to Magwitch – to give every detail of his appearance. The reader is almost able to build up a story of events he must have been through to look like this.

Alliteration is one of the techniques used when describing the convict’s appearance. An example of this is “soaked in water and smothered in mud”. The alliteration of the letter “s” makes the two words “soaked” and “smothered” more noticeable which is important as they are crucial to how the reader feels about Magwitch. These two words force the reader to see how bad his life must be. As a result – they feel sorry for him.

Magwitch’s personality is shown in the way he acts when meeting Pip, along with what the reader can divulge about his past and the language he uses Magwitch could be described as “common” and uneducated from the was he speaks. Use of dialect such as “Who d’ye live with – supposin’ you’re kindly let to live”, giving a clue to his background, perhaps offers a reason to his crime. If he was uneducated he would find it difficult to get a well paying job and would therefore not have enough money to live on – forcing him to turn to crime to obtain the money. This makes the reader understand the reasons behind him being a convict and feel more lenient towards them.

Magwitch also demonstrates a determined and hardened personality as he has shown the will to escape from prison and stay on the run for several days. This suffering has made him tough and frightening to Pip, who can see him as a crazed animal noticeably through his bursts of violence, where he grabs Pip round the chin for example. Magwitch also appears very desperate where he speaks about Pip’s cheeks and says “Dam me if I couldn’t eat ’em” with “a threatening shake of his head”. This would be absolutely mortifying to Pip – a young sensitive boy to whom it is directed in the middle of a graveyard in the dark, but the reader can also see how terrible Magwitch’s life must be to drive him to such thoughts..

Although he has been drive to a certain amount of madness, Magwitch still holds his morals – he could have killed Pip and eaten his flesh to keep him alive for a few more days and said he would “if I hadn’t half a mind to ‘t” showing that through everything he has encountered he has still remained human. The sheer desperation and determination of Magwitch is also demonstrated in the threats contained in his speech. In order to make sure that Pip brings him what he needs to survive, he intimidates and scares him with a horror filled story of what would happen to him were he not to come back with the file etc. Magwitch describes an accomplice and says:

“A boy may lock his door, may be warm in bed, may tuck himself in, may draw the clothes over his head, may think himself comfortable and safe, but that young man will softly creep and creep his way to him and tear him open”, implying that Pip will be killed and his organs removed – terrifying for a young boy. Once again this threat contains techniques to scare Pip and the reader. Dickens raises the tension and suspense as he grows the list in the story ever longer before bluntly ending it with “tear him open”. Pip is stunned.

However, the speech may seem genuine to Pip as he is easily scared but Dickens uses the technique of dramatic irony. We as the reader know that there is not another man with Magwitch and can see that he is not planning on killing Pip as he has already had the chance. But Pip does not realise this as the combination of events have left him shocked and frightened. This dramatic irony means the reader knows Pip is probably safe but does not know what he will do – forcing us to empathise with Pip and put ourselves in his shoes to try and gain insight into what may happen. Now the reader does not want Magwitch to be caught as they can see reasoning behind his behaviour but they also want Pip to do the right thing.

We are reminded of the hopelessness of Magwitch when he says “I wish I was a frog or an eel”, enabling him to escape easily. This shows the reader how he wishes to be free. Towards the end of the chapter the reader is shown how weak Magwitch is and feels truly sorry for him. “He hugged his shuddering body in both arms, clasping himself, as if to hold himself together”. The simile used here to suggest he may just fall apart highlights how much he has been through – the prospect of him falling apart makes him seem pathetic and the reader pities him. There are then two more examples of similes describing his weakness; “he looked into my young eyes as of he were eluding the hands of the dead people stretching out cautiously out of their graves, to get a twist upon his ankle and pull him in” and “like a man whose legs were numbed and stiff”. Both of thee evoke the reader’s emotions for this poor man still fighting for survival. Pip however still sees him as frightening, but can also see his pain when describing him as “the pirate come to life” who is about to kill himself again – the reader feels sympathy towards Magwitch.

The character of Magwitch tells us about society at the time Dickens wrote the novel. His resolute escape and firm intent on staying free is clearly because of what may happen if he was caught – he could be killed in a public hanging. After speaking to Pip, Magwitch runs to hide away quickly, and when Pip points to the grave of his mother and Magwitch wrongly assumes his mother is alive and nearby, “he started, made a short run, and stopped and looked over his shoulder” – just showing how worried he is about the possibility of being caught. Dickens may be questioning if Magwitch’s life is unfairly hard.

The narrative style of “Great Expectations” directly influences how the reader imagines the scene and empathises with the main character. Dickens chose to write in the first person from the point of view of Pip some years later. This is evident from the text saying “I pleaded in terror” – the “I” showing first person and “pleaded” being in the past tense. The biggest clue to it being autobiographical from Pip’s perspective is where he introduces himself in the very first paragraph, “So I called myself Pip and came to be called Pip.” This is a very personal style and as a result the reader feels closer to the character of Pip making them more interested in what happens to him.

The dominant sentence type in the first chapter is very long and complex. An example of this is:

“After darkly looking at his leg and me several times he came closer to my tombstone, took me by both arms, and tilted me back as far as he could hold me; so that his eyes looked most helplessly into his”. These long sentences, using a lot of punctuation were common in novels during the time Dickens wrote but it is also because Pip is looking back and accurately describing the event which changed his life. Dickens uses so much description to demonstrate how much Pip has thought about that night and re-lived every aspect in his mind. It also helps the reader to be able to picture the scene easily leaving their minds free to explore the characters in more detail. This encourages the reader to carry on finding out the depth of these characters aswelll as offering enjoyment.

Throughout the story, the character of Pip develops from a young, naive and vulnerable child into “a gentleman” – an upper class man living in London. Since the day he met Magwitch he began to turn into the exact opposite to the impression Magwitch gave to the reader. Whilst Magwitch has always spoken with rough dialect, Pip speaks the perfect “Queens English”. Magwitch wore torn rags – Pip wears expensive clothes (and a hat!). Magwitch had to show incredible determination to escape from prison and stay alive – Pip was handed it on a plate. This contrast makes the reader wonder what is actually important, especially when Pip turns into a “snob” and forgets his roots which he came from, including people like Joe Gargery. He becomes selfish and self-involved, showing how social class can ruin a man.

Towards the end of the book the secret to who Pip’s benefactor is revealed. After expecting it to be Ms Havisham, Pip is appalled to find that Magwitch has given him this life. After being caught, sent back to prison and being released into Australia his hard working attitude is shown again as he has made a business and livelihood from hard, manual labour. Almost all the money he made he passed on to Pip – a very generous gesture. This demonstrates how even the most rough, uneducated people like Magwitch can, with hard work and opportunity, succeed and still offer unbelievable kindness. The way Dickens kept both Pip and the reader guessing as to who was the mystery benefactor was a very effective way of keeping the reader interested and reading to find out the answer.

Dickens helps the reader to understand the characters and setting through excellent description, and the inclusion of specific details offering insight into a person. At the beginning Dickens drops the emotional bombshell of Pip’s background very bluntly to the reader. He does not make the character of Pip tell us about how terrible his life is and how lonely he is, or how he misses his parents, but gives the reader the information and allows them to think about how it would feel – thus making a personal connection between the reader and Pip. In the first chapter it is greatly important that the reader likes Pip. This personal link helps this, along with the reader’s understanding of Pip and how they can see him as realistic.

Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-70) experienced the good and bad of Victorian society. His childhood was troubled and he moved around with his family a great deal. At the age of twelve he was sent to work as the family were in major financial difficulty, only a few days later his father was sent to “debtors’ prison” and his family, excluding him and his sister, lived in the prison aswell. This perhaps gave him the knowledge of being apart from his family apart from his sister – like Pip. He found fortune in becoming a writer – telling tales truthful and relevant to the times.

Many of Dickens’ novels address issues in society and in “Great Expectations” the author expresses many of his views and opinions, using the novel as a tool to show his philosophy on Victorian life. For example, Dickens quite clearly believes education and social position have no impact on potential in life, or kindness – the underdog can rise above others – in the case of Magwitch, who has defied the odds and made something of his life, at the same time as changing the life of someone else.

Dickens is also trying to raise the issue, and make the public aware of the state of punishment and the legal system. Indeed, he in fact, had a job as a junior clerk for a legal firm but hated the laws and so quit. The simple fact that Magwitch was escaping from prison, without actually being a truly evil crook, must have had something to do with what faced him inside. He probably had only committed a small offence but may have been unfairly sentenced to the harsh Victorian prisons or death.

Mostly Dickens just tries to provide entertainment while highlighting the issues of reality which he believes are a problem. Taking into account all the methods Dickens uses to make sure the reader likes the opening chapter and starts to build up a relationship with the characters – I believe he creates a very effective starting point, ensuring his audience will continue to buy his magazine.

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