How Effective Are the Opening Chapters of Great Expectations?
Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ was published in 1860 as monthly stories in magazines and newspapers - How Effective Are the Opening Chapters of Great Expectations? introduction. Dickens’ wrote novels and stories that were seen as social documents which meant that they portrayed what his society was like at the time. The industrial revolution was a time of mass poverty in Britain. There was homelessness, unemployment and massive divisions between the rich and the poor. This was the time when Dickens wrote ‘Great Expectations’ which therefore means it reflected those poverty ridden times. New advances in technology meant that honest workers lost their jobs to machines.
No work meant that the lower classes were reduced to live the life of crime where they stole food to eat and goods to make money. The high crime rate led to great injustice and corruption in the court system. Crimes as measly as stealing a loaf of bread could be punished by death if you did not have the money to bribe the courts. The country’s previous prosperity and justified welfare had dropped into complete disarray. When we are introduced to the main characters in ‘Great Expectations’ we are shown evidence of Dickens’ society straight away. The characters represent the gap between the rich and the poor.
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Characters from working class backgrounds like Pip are shown straight away and soon after this we are introduced to Ms Havisham and Estella who are upper class. The characters are first described in settings that go with their class. Pip in a rundown graveyard and Ms Havisham in her large mansion. When Pip meets Ms Havisham it is his first encounter with someone who is upper class. Before this meeting he had never known of the huge differences between the rich and the poor. Through these main characters we are shown the evidence of how rich people and poor people are different in every way. Great Expectations’ is written in the first person from Pip’s perspective as he aspires to be the complete opposite of his working class background; a gentleman. After meeting Ms Havisham and Estella, Pip is left with envious thoughts as he wishes to be upper class. The main reason for this is that after meeting Estella he immediately falls in love with her. But Estella has been brought up by Ms Havisham to despise the lower class and treat them like vermin. Therefore Pip makes it his most important ambition to become a gentleman and be worthy of Estella.
When Pip does become a gentleman he thinks that the funds for it came from Ms Havisham as she took a liking to him when he was a boy, but in fact, it is Magwitch that Pip has to thank for it. Magwitch had sent any money he earned to Pip after they first met in the graveyard. In the opening and setting of the book, and in the first chapter as a whole, Dickens captures the readers’ interest which is important for any novel. This is done by immediately introducing us to the main characters and giving us reasons to empathize with them.
This is important as it allows the characters to then develop over the novel. Magwitch is forgotten about for most of the novel until he is revealed to be the one who changed Pip’s life. Straight away there is action in the novel as, in the first chapter, Pip is in the graveyard when Magwitch attacks him and demands food. This makes the reader want to read on very much. The readers’ interest is captured further because there are many themes introduced in the first chapter. The first theme is family as in the beginning Pip is in the graveyard visiting his parents’ and siblings’ graves.
This theme is consolidated when we see the relationship between Pip and Mr and Ms Joe Gargery. The second theme in this novel is crime. This theme is introduced when we first meet Magwitch (the escaped convict). This is more evidence of this novel being a social document as it represents the crime ridden society that Dickens lived in. More themes such as longing and power begin to show themselves as Pip meets Ms Havisham and Estella and longs to have the same lifestyle but only for one main reason; to gain Estella’s respect and love.
Themes such as this one develop much over the novel as Pip becomes more powerful. This is because as he becomes more gentlemanly and wealthy, his love for Estella grows as he feels his chance to be worthy of her is increasing. Pip is the narrator of this novel, therefore we are introduced to the characters from Pip’s point of view. In the introductory chapter of this novel we are introduced to Pip and Magwitch. First of all, the reader feels great sympathy for Pip as he is described to be in a very troubled and lonely situation.
The first setting of the book is Pip alone in a graveyard, visiting his parents and siblings who have all passed away. The way Pip himself is described also makes the reader feel very sorry for him. He is described as “a small bundle of shivers” which makes the reader imagine him as a very vulnerable and sad child. Soon after, Pip is approached by a dark figure; Magwitch. When we are first introduced to Magwitch, we are given the impression that he is a mysterious and frightful man. His first involvement in ‘Great Expectations’ is of him being very aggressive towards Pip.
Although, it is not only his actions that tell us of his character. Magwitch’s first speech is very aggressive as he says “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat! ”. This again tells us that Magwitch is very frightening. The way Dickens describes Magwitch’s appearance tells us that Magwitch is, at first glance, quite terrifying. He is described as ‘A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. This is not only more evidence of the fear he evokes but it also makes it clear to the reader that Magwitch is an escaped convict as the chains are still on his leg.
All these descriptions make the reader imagine Magwitch as a very dangerous man. However, as Dickens’ description of him continues, an unexpected feeling of sympathy subtly arises in the reader. The reader feels this when Magwitch is described as ‘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… ’. The constant use of the word ‘and’ makes all of Magwitch’s woes seem much worse.
The reader then begins to see Magwitch as, not a threatening and treacherous man but a man who is in a very desperate situation. In contrary to the evocative description of Magwitch’s desperation, he then goes on to threaten Pip. The reader understands the violence because of the urgency of his situation. After this encounter with Magwitch, he is not mentioned again until Chapter 39 where he surprisingly returns and reveals that he is responsible for Pip’s fortune. Primarily, Pip and also the reader may feel slightly cautious to accept that it Magwitch is Pip’s benefactor and not Ms Havisham.
This is most definitely the full twist of the novel as it tells the reader that Magwitch is an honest man who is returning a favour. He also tells Pip that he aimed to make him a gentleman through the money he provided. “I’ve made a gentleman out of you! … I swore afterwards, sure as ever i spec’lated and got rich, you should get rich. ” After finding out the efforts that Magwitch has put into repaying Pip, we start to feel sorry for the person who has been through many hardships and came out a good man.
This surprise is good and bad for Pip. It is good as he now knows that Magwitch is a good man and not a blood-thirsty convict. It is bad as Pip was so certain that Ms Havisham was helping him and that, through Ms Havisham, he would have a better chance of being successful with Estella. This unexpected twist of events establishes the reader’s continuing interest, as they would want to know how the changing of Pip’s dependence will change his life. The introduction and setting of this novel are what ensures the reader’s desire to read on.
The immediate scene of Pip at the graveyard is such a bleak and sad situation that it makes the reader empathise with Pip and wonder how his apparently dismal life will unfold. The description of the landscape as a ‘large flat wilderness’ makes it seem as though Pip’s situation is hopeless. The fact that he is in a graveyard adds to this. A graveyard is a place for the dead and one of the most lifeless places one could be in. Throughout the first chapter, there is a very large sense of fear and suspense. Tension and terror rises in the opening due to the encounter with Magwitch.
Tension is created through the dialogue of Magwitch and the speed and urgency of his questions. Dickens describes snippets of action in between the speech that create more fear and tension as it informs the reader of Magwitch’s great urgency. Other themes are raised and intently explored throughout the novel such as the theme of family. Straight away the theme of family is shown as Pip is visiting the graves of his deceased parents and siblings. The theme is also represented through Mr and Mrs Joe Gargery. The latter and Pip have formed a strong parental relationship especially between Pip and Joe.
Joe is seen as a father figure in many parts of the novel as he gives advice and comfort to Pip in times that he needs it. Magwitch reveals the theme of crime and punishment to the reader. He is the symbol of ‘Great Expectations’ being a social document and therefore the corrupt justice system that Dickens was familiar with. The theme of respectability and power is also introduced through Ms Havisham and Estella showing the fact that in Dickens’ time, power favoured fortune. From the moment Pip meets Estella he finds himself aspiring to be a gentleman so to be worthy of her love.
Pip was happy with the fact that Ms Havisham was helping him become a gentleman as he now had everything he wanted, including Estella, guilt free. When he discovers that Magwitch is his benefactor, he may have felt like less of a gentleman as his help and funds had come from a dishonest and criminal source. The opening chapters of ‘Great Expectations’ raise questions about childhood, poverty and crime. These were all issues that were relevant in the day that Dickens lived in. In the opening chapters Dickens creates a detailed map of if the things he is trying to portray and allows them to go on and develop throughout the novel.
These themes and their relevance drive the opening chapters into a novel that the reader is eager to divulge in. Dickens creates effective tension combined with expressive and emotive descriptions and language that ensnares the reader’s definite interest. Dickens used characters of different styles, ages and personalities to engage the reader. Dickens created the perfect opening that is a necessity in ensuring the reader will read on. The opening chapters prepared the reader for the rest of the novel.