Charles Dickens wrote “Great Expectations” in 1860. It is known for being a dark, atmospheric novel, set in 19th Century. Dickens is widely known today for the success of his novels, and his excellence in using fictional, atmospheric places in “Great Expectations” to reflect the minds of characters and to explore significant themes, such as class, crime, and love.
The narrator of “Great Expectations” is Pip and the use of first person narrative gives the reader Pip’s perception and point of the story. To add, “Great Expectations” is a retrospective novel, a grown man looking back on his life.
To summarise the events of chapter one, we are introduced to the main protagonist Pip as a young boy. He is wandering in the graveyard with curiosity wanting to know who his parents were when an escaped convict grabs him and threatens him with violence unless he helps him. Pip is stunned and runs home in terror.
In the opening chapter of “Great Expectations” Dickens creates atmosphere and tension. He uses an eloquent range of vivid imagery which illustrates the setting as well as the mood. The first chapter defines the novel type which is bildungsroman, following the main character from childhood to adulthood.
Pip is presented to the reader by Dickens as a young boy.
“My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name being Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.”
Pip, his name, is also a seed. A seed is the beginning of a plant. Dickens has cleverly associated, in the reader’s mind, the young child at the start of his journey into a growing seed. This therefore describing Pip, turning from a vulnerable child to a mature adult.
In the first paragraph we are to see Pip’s past and not a very pleasant one it was. We immediately know that Pip is an orphan and that all his five siblings are dead. The author’s intent was to create sympathy for Pip and this he has done really well.
Pip responds to the convict’s actions by pleading “O! don’t cut my throat sir,” this portrays that Pip is well mannered by addressing Magwitch as Sir. He speaks with no hesitation to the convict; by the way he states his name immediately: “Pip, Pip sir”.
The first two paragraphs strongly contrast each other to gain effectiveness. The first paragraph is about Pip being presented as young, innocent and frightened. The second describes the harsh environment which isolated and bare that surrounds him. This is deliberately done so we feel sympathy for him.
The introduction of the convict builds more atmosphere in this scene as when he first speaks he says a short sentence which breaks up the rest of the scene in comparison with the long complex sentences at the beginning of the chapter. “Hold your noise!” The short opening speech startles and interests the reader – form of ellipsis.
We learn that Magwitch is not educated. Instead of “point” he says
“Pint” and “Now lookee here”. Thus giving the reader an impression that he is working class.
The convict’s appearance does not seem to be welcoming as his dress code is rather shabby. As the convict approaches Pip he becomes scared and fears him, he describes him as being.
“… a fearful man all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. 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.”
The paragraph consists of descriptive language about Magwitch. This contrast is extremely effective. It portrays the convict as a vicious, merciless evil thing. The use of sibilance has a great effect as the ssss sound is the hissing of a snake implying threat.
We learn that Magwitch’s speech is very abrupt and violent.
The threat of the unseen “young man” terrifies Pip and adds further tension to the chapter. The man has no name and he is described to Pip as “pecooliar.” However the reader knows that the “young man” isn’t true but to a young child it is believable. The convict also threatens Pip with violence that the “young man” will rip his heart and liver out if he doesn’t get him “wittles” and “a file.” The violence of this is purposeful so that Pip will do what he says.
The countryside where Pip lives is described using words such as “harsh” and “savage”; these words make countryside seem aggressive and cruel. “Harsh” and “Savage” can be used to describe Magwitch’s character.
As the convict leaves the graveyard, watched by Pip, a vivid atmosphere is created as the colours used are red, black and grey “angry red lines and dense black intermixed”. These colours signify sinister and violence and alert the reader of death gloom and fear. Dickens’s purposely casts a gloomy atmosphere in the scene of the story to make people realise how horrible things were at that time.
We learn that Pip is situated in the marshlands of Kent. As mentioned before we first meet the main protagonist Pip, in the graveyard near his home. The landscape is described as “dark flat wilderness” and a “bleak place.” The graveyard is described as “all overgrown with nettles.” The use of monosyllabic words “bleak” and “dark” make the setting seem dark and desolate.
Overall the opening chapter of Great Expectations was written with a cold and dark mood, almost dull in the first few paragraphs and quickly moves to an intense, fearful, and dangerous situation. Dickens use of dark colours and a graveyard for setting to make the scene seem more atmospheric. It was particularly effective to have Pip in the midst of all this, though it shows a high level of contrast and almost seem improper that a young innocent child such as him could possibly be in the position he was.