The opening of Great Expectations could be seen as your average opening to a novel. It introduces the primary character Phillip Pirrip and gives a short summary of his background, including the fact that his parents are dead alongside his five brothers. This is a very grim opening and it is evident that Dickens is trying to get the reader to feel sympathy towards Phillip Pirrip (Pip) because of his unfortunate background. In the first few lines it also mentions the fact that Pip is under the care of Mrs. Joe Gargery, his sister, who is married to a blacksmith.
This opening description of Pip like the rest of the story, is in fact a narration by the adult Pip, who is describing how the story of Great Expectations which revolves around himself, came to be.
The sympathy that Dickens makes the reader feel does not just impose itself on the opening passage; Dickens uses Pip, a boy that is isolated not only in that particular situation but in his general life to gain the sympathy of the reader. By giving the sympathetic approach towards Pip, the author sets the scene perfectly for what is to come.
The primary story of Great Expectations begins in the marsh country of England, where the land is raw and wet and a young Pip of roughly seven years of age stands in a churchyard before seven gravestones which are that of his family – the sight provoking him into crying. The sympathy is created again for Pip, but this time it is cut short, due to the fact that a mean, growling and ragged looking man appears from behind the gravestones. Dickens approaches the introduction of this character very carefully, and he shows this with speech.
‘Hold your noise!’ cried a terrible voice, ‘Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!’
These forms of dialogue are sudden and brash and capture the reader’s attention immediately, with the threat to Pip of cutting his throat holding the attention of the reader. The setting of this particular opening passage definitely creates tension, the fact that Pip is in a graveyard, is very grim (dead people), but the fact that seven members of Pip’s family lie there, adds to the tension. On top of all this, he has been threatened by what Pip then describes to be a convict. Pip’s description of this man though, really gives an aspect of interest for the reader. He describes the convict of his unkempt appearance,
‘A fearful man, all in 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.’
Pip’s description of the man clearly shows that the author wants us to understand the man’s position – that he has a great iron on his leg – this is probably referring to some form of shackle and that he is running away from something or has escaped. The fact that the author uses the word ‘and’ the amount that he does, lengthens the description of the convict’s appearance and fixates an image of him in the readers mind because it is hard to forget the way he has been described. For example, Pip describes the convict as a man who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled.
This creates a picture of the convict in the readers mind because his appearance has been lengthened in its description more than it needs to be, in a sense. Due to the fact that the image of the criminal has been emphasized in the readers mind, the description also creates a sense of sympathy towards him – ‘cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered’, this makes the reader feel a sense of sympathy towards him but it is then taken away slightly by the way in which he treats and speaks to Pip. He speaks in a common and harsh way and in addition to this he makes lots of commands and threats, such as when he tells Pip to hold his noise and when he threatens to cut Pip’s throat. When the two first meet, the convict establishes his dominance by threatening to cut Pip’s throat who responds by pleading for his life. ‘O! Don’t cut my throat, sir, pray don’t do it, sir’.
With this reaction from Pip, the author is trying to convey the fact that Pip is intimidated by the convict and that Pip believes that the convict will carry out the threat if he does not help. With this sense of intimidation from Pip’s point of view, this increases the level of tension in these opening lines. In terms of the description of the convict, the author tries to give a sense of sympathy for him but also to make us understand that he is of an aggressive stature because of his situation (running away from something) and even towards the end of his meeting with Pip he shows a different side to his character. His tone and manner changes when he says, ‘Now, you remember what you’ve undertook, and you remember that young man, and you get home’.
With this statement it is almost as if he now cares about what happens to Pip.
The author is very clever when trying to create tension in the opening pages because the first page is describing Pip’s background and how he hasn’t much family. Dickens makes the situation as full of sympathy for Pip as he possibly can because this is then used as a form of build-up, a build-up to the introduction of the convict. All of a sudden, from the reader feeling sympathy for a teary-eyed Pip, they are now encountering a very aggressive man who threatens Pip.
The second page is different because the situation has extended to the convict questioning Pip aggressively which really intensifies the moment. This whole concept of ‘out of the blue’, really adds to the tension because when Pip is being questioned by the convict, you can really feel that he is intimated by him. An example of this is when Pip replies to the convict speaking of how he could eat Pip’s ‘fat’ cheeks, ‘I earnestly expressed my hope that he wouldn’t, and held tighter to the tombstone on which he had put me; partly, to keep myself upon it; partly, to keep myself from crying’. This shows that Pip feels genuine fear because he knows anything can happen and the author wants the reader to acknowledge this. So, in the situation, anything can happen and this is an effective form of tension and suspense used by the author.
Dickens also in the opening page creates a very grim and dismal opening in reference to Pip’s tormented childhood and the trauma in which he has suffered from an early age (death of seven members of family) – this is through the language in which he uses:
‘Dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates……..and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip’.
This part of the passage gives the reader an aspect of the poverty and the premature deaths that have always been a threat to Pip from an early age. Obviously, as mentioned before, there is plenty of sympathy towards Pip in this paragraph, which contributes to the tension because when the convict appears, it is out of the blue and again, gives the reader the feeling that anything can happen.
I think what really causes the most tension in the opening pages of Great Expectations is the way Dickens uses the narrator to tell the story. Here we have the adult Pip describing how when he was little he sat all by himself outside his parents and brothers graves and cried – the situation can’t help but have some tension and sympathy. The adult Pip talks about how as a child he couldn’t pronounce his full name properly; emphasizing the fact that he was just an infant at this point in time. This aspect of Pip only being an infant is important because in the opening pages, Pip is intimidated by the convict quite a few times, but this is not because Pip is cowardly but because he is just a boy. The fact that he never saw his parents also creates sympathy which is extended by how he describes them and how he feels they would have looked like. All of these aspects of death really add to the tension.
This may not have much relevance to the actual question and point of this essay, but the language in which Dickens uses in some cases really indicates that this was written before the twentieth century. Examples of this include, the use of the word wittles or ‘vittles’ which back in the nineteenth century was another word for food – this word is used by the convict when he is commanding Pip to help him, he asks him to bring him a file and ‘vittles’. Also the language in which the convict uses sometimes drifts from Standard English to dialect, for example at one point, he tells Pip,
‘You fail, or you go from my words in any partickler (particular)……your liver shall be tore out, roasted and ate’. This is also of an aggressive tone which again adds to the tension.
Dickens also uses the sense of fear to emphasize upon the tension in the opening pages; this is done through the surrounding countryside/landscape, for example, Dickens emphasizes the fact that it is getting dark in a vast marsh country, and adds to the dark setting by using the wording, ‘this bleak place overgrown with nettles’, this really darkens the situation adding to the fact that this is also a place where the deceased are laid to rest. Also, Dickens’s description of the horizon as being ‘a low leaden line’ really imposes his vision that everything is very grey and dreary. The setting of the opening pages is very important and Dickens really uses his descriptive wording in the correct manner at the correct time, mounting to a very effective and strong setting.
The opening chapter of Great Expectations ends on a very effective line and the very last line sums the chapter up more or less perfectly.
‘But, now I was frightened again, and ran home without stopping’.
This sums the chapter up well because Pip spends most of it in fear and in this one line he brings it to an end by indicating that he will be running home without stopping.
He has been in fear over the situation of him not having much family left but in even more fear when the convict appears and commands/threatens him for help. When he says that he ran home without stopping, this is more in fear of the convict and what he is asking more than anything. But Pip is also afraid of what the convict threatened if he does not help – ‘the young man that is hiding among the stones’, eager to tear him to pieces if he doesn’t produce the file and wittles.
So, the final line is effective because it sums up the fact that Pip is in much fear in the opening chapter and the author emphasizes that Pip is frightened again at the end – so much so, that he runs home without stopping.
In conclusion, I believe that Charles Dickens, as the author of Great Expectations creates tension in its opening simply because of several key elements such as – setting, descriptions of the surrounding landscape/background and the manner in which the primary character Pip, is presented and portrayed to the reader. All these elements contribute to what is undoubtedly one of the most compelling, tense openings to a novel ever presented. Even one hundred & forty six years after it was first published,
Great Expectations the novel is still one of the most popular novels ever written and its brilliant opening is a sheer example of Dickens’s quality in story-writing.
Bringing this analysis to a close, this essay deals with the intensity, sympathy and all the other aspects in which Dickens tries to impose upon his opening chapter of a novel to what is, ultimately a classic.