The opening chapters of any novel are key in introducing the reader to the storyline. There are numerous ways in which to attach the reader early on in, and to, the novel. The opening chapters are where the reader will become acquainted with key characters, become involved in the characters’ lives, and get an overall feeling/mood about the novel. It is important that these opening chapters, then, are skilfully written so that the reader becomes involved in all aspects of the novel to come.
The main settings in the opening chapters of Great Expectations are that of the churchyard, Pip’s home, and the marshes. Each of these settings deliver a sombre mood, which is especially evident in those settings based outside. This is because the wide-open spaces are harsher than those inside, and Pip is less familiar with them. The external world also offers Dickens to experiment with the idea of Pip being afraid of things he cannot see, and therefore gives Pip an unsettled feeling, which is passed on to an involved reader.
Dickens begins Great Expectations with Pip at his family’s gravestones in the churchyard. Despite the fact the scene is largely about death, the mood is briefly lifted by Pip’s light-hearted description of the graves before him. This informs us that Pip has experienced loss and death at an early age, and may be able to cope in certain situations better than other children of his age; however, this could also show that Pip is lacking in certain life experiences and this may affect him and his choices negatively in his future.
Pip’s five little brothers ‘gave up trying to get a living exceedingly early in that universal struggle’. The fact that they had ‘given in’ to death, but Pip himself hadn’t, shows us his strength and determination to succeed. Knowing this, this early, about Pip’s character infuses the reader with a sense of optimism about Pip and his future.
The use of the setting of the graveyard works a mood of isolation and desolation; Pip is isolated by the fact he is an orphan. The graveyard itself is described as ‘bleak’ and ‘overgrown’, showing that it has been neglected – much like Pip himself. The repetition of ‘dead and buried’ further lowers the mood. Pip recalls that his ‘most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things’ is placed at a time between light and dark- possibly symbolising the transition from good to bad, which may become relevant later in Pip’s life.
The derelict setting is reflected in the mood as Dickens goes on to describe the landscape surrounding the churchyard. He continually describes it as a ‘dark flat wilderness’, which is dreary in appearance, but with possibilities of deep and unknown dangers.
There are obstacles on the marshes such as dykes, mounds and gates, which work as visual obstructions as well as symbols for possible upcoming obstacles in Pip’s life.
Dickens maintains the use of words such as ‘flat’, ‘low’ and ‘dark’ which gives an eerie feel and dense mood to the opening chapter.
There is further symbolism in Pip’s surrounding, in that there is both a flowing river and flat, solid ground on one landscape; this could reflect that there are two ways in which to travel the same distance, and that Pip is soon to have to choose a path to take, (in turn altering his life), – this is thought-provoking and concerning to a reader, and intensifies the already dampening mood.
The marshland is repeatedly represented as a place where good meets sin, this is shown in the image of its skyline – which is of ‘long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed’ – as well as in the only two vertical structures on the horizontal landscape of the marshes – a beacon and a gibbet. The beacon’s use is to guide sailors home and steer them from danger, whereas the gibbet is to hang criminals for the crimes they have committed. These two structures symbolise good and ‘evil’, and the choices in which Pip is to make, leading to either a life of good, or a life of sin.
The second chapter shows Pip in a new setting – at home. Here, Pip lives a strict and ordered life, where he must always be on his best behaviour. His sister, Mrs Joe, regards him as a burden on her, and does not hold back in letting him know so. This setting instils in the reader a sense of sympathy for Pip, as he has just undergone a frightful experience on the marshes and is now at home, where usually a boy should find safety, but instead fears punishment for having been gone.
Later in the same chapter Pip addresses that it is Christmas Eve. Instead of doing what other children at the time may be doing (enjoying themselves), he finds himself doing chores and worrying over the recent events he has had to endure; Dickens uses this as another way to draw sympathy from the reader.
Chapter three commences with a description of Pip’s view of outside his window. It’s very damp, ‘as if some goblin had been crying there all night’. The setting of the weather within this chapter is fundamental in supplying a deep and heavy mood. Everything lies ‘clammy’ outside, like something uncomfortable to touch with dry hands, and makes the mood equally uncomfortable, as it is uncertain and changeable, and particularly unclear in the thickness of the mist. Instead of Pip’s ‘running at everything, everything seemed to run at him’. Pip’s guilty conscience shows that he is an innocent and thoughtful child, who knows the difference between right and wrong. Pip is no longer as afraid of Magwitch and, as he becomes less afraid, so too does the reader for Pip. He is more afraid of the obstacles that seem to ‘call out at him’ as he crosses the marshes. Dickens makes Pip’s surroundings surreal under the mist to convey a feeling of uncertainty and ambiguity.
These opening chapters prove important as they become even more relevant later into the novel. The ‘bleak’ settings and heavy moods give the reader a sense of what’s to come of the story, and of Pip. The settings in the earliest chapters are thoroughly described in order to deliver a definite mood. Though the mood of the opening chapters remain similar to each other, the settings go between that of the desolate marshes and of Pip’s own home. The fact that the settings can be of two extremes, and the mood warrant similar feelings from a reader, shows that Dickens is highly skilled and deliberate in how he delivers these chapters so that they can be perceived this way.