Dickens presents Pip’s childhood as unpleasant and full of misfortune. He encounters many fearful characters and does not have the most affectionate of families. Pip goes through arduous journeys to become an independent, mature, young ‘gentleman’, from a scared “small bundle of shivers”. “Great Expectations” is a buildungsroman which shows Pip’s personal growth and development throughout the novel. Dickens uses different techniques of language, the context of Victorian attitudes and comedy with self-deprecating humor and comic asides.
In the first chapter, Pip has his first encounter with fear. This is when he meets the runaway convict in the ‘dark, flat wilderness’ that is the marshes. The condition of his surroundings enhances the fear that Pip feels and is described by Dickens as a ‘savage lair’ in which dismal and ‘bleak’ things are situated such as the gibbet. A beacon is mentioned in the text as well. This is where Dickens introduces symbolism of the novels concern with the path of life where guidance can be given – with penalties if this is not followed. A beacon normally guides ships and boats so they do not crash, this represents the guidance and if the boats do not follow the beacon they will run aground. The ‘gibbet in the landscape’ represents the penalties and the state the boat will be in if the beacon is not used. Later in the story Dickens uses this symbolism to show how if Pip had used the help that he had been given he would not have made the mistakes he did and would not have had to face the consequences he did.
Not only do the settings create fear but so do the characters, Magwitch and Miss Havisham. At the marshes, Pip comes face to face with a ‘fearful man.’ This is the convict dressed in ‘all coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg.’ The sight of this convict terrifies Pip because he looks very aggressive and as if he could undoubtedly harm Pip. Pip can readily recognise Magwitch to be a convict who doesn’t give the idea that he is a ‘gentleman’ in appearance and of heart. Later on Pip finds out that Magwitch is actually a gentleman with his kindness. At first glance however, Pip is very frightened because he immediately assumes that the convict must have done something horrendous to be in prison so could be capable of doing anything to Pip. This fear is presented by Dickens with the repetition of ‘and’: ‘who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled.’ This repetition emphasises the panicky, breathless fright Pip undergoes.
Criminals of different classes are seen as animals as shown in the occurrence where the two convicts, Magwitch and Compeyson, are brawling. Compeyson is a gentleman of a higher social status whereas Magwitch is not. This is the reason; Compeyson gets a reduced prison sentence and Magwitch an extended one even when it was largely the fault of Compeyson. This shows how the society of Victorian England was class ridden and hierarchical. Pip gets caught up in this society, wanting to a gentleman. At this point he is above himself as he contemplates that he could become a gentleman. In his earlier stages of life Pip seems to think that a gentleman is based on appearances and wealth but later realises that a genuine gentleman is acknowledged from within by kindness and honesty.
Pip doesn’t come from an affectionate and loving family as the only person that cares for him is Joe. His own sister, Mrs Joe acts like she doesn’t want him and treats him like he doesn’t deserve to be alive. In the 19th century it was conventional for children to be treated in this atrocious manner. They were ‘to be seen but not heard’ and were often degraded. Mrs Joe and Pip do not have a very tender relationship. It is very informal as we see by the fact that Pip calls her ‘Mrs Joe’ when it is his own sister he is speaking to. One of the causes for this is because she brought him up ‘by hand.’ This is a comic pun that Dickens uses. When he says this he means beaten not brought up single handed. The ‘tickler’ is used and this also brings trepidation into his life. Dickens shows how dire and adverse many children’s lives were in the Victorian period. Another example of how children were treated unequally is Estella and Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham only uses Estella in seek of revenge to break male hearts just like she had had hers broken: ‘Well! You can break his heart then.’ In this way Estella and Pip are similar as they both do not live in very loving environments. Both children are orphans which is another similarity between the two.
Pip’s childhood is not completely horrible as he does have somebody who loves him. This person is Joe who is not a blood relative to Pip. Joe loves Pip and they have been together through the taunting of Mrs Joe. Joe describes them as ‘fellow sufferers’ which indicates that they are both in similar positions. At the Christmas meal when Pip is being looked down upon, Joe is the one that is there to help him. He does this by giving Pip more gravy every time Pip is insulted. Joe tries to support and look after Pip so that he does not come to any harm which is seen when he tries to push Pip up the chimney away from Mrs Joe and her ‘Tickler.’ We see how Joe and Pip are ‘ever the best of friends’ when Pip leaves for Miss Havisham’s house which is the first time that they separate, Pip feels overwhelmed.
When Dickens puts across Pip’s wild imagination, he adds comedy. He uses self – deprecating humour and comic asides to do this. Self – deprecating humour is when the older Pip can look back at himself and laugh at what has happened to him because of the distance and the detachment: ‘I believe they were fat.’ This is understated humour as the older Pip cuts in between the dramatic explanations of the younger Pip accounts. Dickens can criticize his younger self. Dickens also uses comic asides which are extra bits of information that are funny: ‘…throwing me – I often served as a connubial missile – with Joe…. The older Pip is almost laughing at himself. When Dickens uses euphemism comedy is again created. This is when the harsh events take place and Pip softens it down so it does not seem as bad. This is shown in the brackets on page fifty where Pip describes how Mrs Joe scrubs over him with her ring as well although this is softened down. However outside the brackets, the way he is cleaned by Mrs Joe is exaggerated and is hyperbolic: ‘I was soaped, and kneaded, and towelled, and thumped.’ The repetition of ‘and’ produces a comical effect of the pain he is suffering. There is an irony that Joe was nicer to Pip than Mrs Joe, his own flesh and blood. Even though Joe was the only nice thing that happened to Pip, he still feels ashamed when he takes Joe to see Miss Havisham later on in the novel.