Look at the opening chapter of ‘Great Expectations’ and explore some of the ways in which Dickens uses language to create themes, characters and the setting for the story

For this coursework assignment, I will be looking at the opening chapter (chapter 1) of the ‘Great Expectations’ novel to explore some of the ways in which Dickens uses language in order to create themes, characters and the setting for the story. ‘Great Expectations’, which is regarded by many as one of the finest achievements, was written in London between 1860-1861 by Charles Dickens, a very successful and well-known author, who was famous in both England and America.

Charles Dickens was born on February 7th, 1812 in Portsmouth, but spent the first part of his early childhood in Kent (England).

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The eldest son, and one off eight children, Charles was part of a poor, working class family. Dickens’ Father, John, worked as a clerk in the Navy Pay office but unfortunately got himself and his already under-privileged family into terrible debt; the family moved to London when Dickens’ was nine. By the age of twelve, his father was finally imprisoned for debt, where his mother and five other siblings soon followed; Charles was left, feeling lonely and abandoned, he was taken out of School and sent to work at a factory, earning just six shillings a week.

In the 1800s (the times in which Dickens was born), wealth was certainly an important issue; it was almost an accessory for some. The industrial revolution had been underway for some time, and so as it began to develop there was a great increase of cities, which brought about new wealth to the privileged minority. Because of this, decent housing was almost impossible to get if you were short of money and so the few that were well off got to live in luxury, whist the majority of the population had to work long hours in dangerous factories just to survive. Soon enough, the poor were segregated from the rich leaving Britain with two nations instead of just one.

Years later, Charles had endured many of jobs before finally becoming a lucrative author at the age of twenty-five. However, Dickens early experiences of childhood poverty and English Justice had left it’s mark, and so he was desperate to bring about social change which he eventually succeeded in; his experiences also inspired him to create novels such as ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Great expectations’ which both deal with issues such as, social class, justice, childhood poverty, abandonment and many more.

Because ‘Great Expectations was greatly influenced by Dickens own life, there are many similarities (especially in chapter one) between himself and the character Pip, through both childhood and adulthood. These similarities include, childhood poverty, achievement and feelings of loneliness and abandonment.

Dickens spent the early part of his childhood in Kent, whilst Pip grew up in the marshes of Kent. We also learn at the start of chapter one, that Pip has no close family due to their deaths when he was much younger. In comparison to this, we know from Historical context, that Dickens was estranged from his family when he was young after they were imprisoned for debt. Another similarity (which I think is biggest yet) between Charles Dickens and the character Pip is shown later on in the novel, when Pip realises that he wants to become successful and in order to do this he must climb up the social ladder and so he moves to London in order to educate himself; eventually, Pip meets his desire to become successful after he is made a gentleman. Dickens also had ambition too; he taught himself shorthand after dropping out of school and later moved to London where he soon became as thriving author.

In the time that Dickens wrote ‘Great Expectations’ (1860-1861), novels were first published in serial form, meaning that one or two chapters would appear in a magazine each week. ‘Great Expectations’ was similar to a modern day soap opera, it appeared in a weekly magazine called ‘All the Year Round’ and it ran for 36 weeks in total before it was properly published as a novel. Like a soap opera, the serialised format of ‘Great Expectations’ is full of twists and surprises and characters that often meet up again in the most unlikely ways. Each episode builds up suspense, which keeps the audience happy and wanting to know what happens next. Estella, for example, turns out to be Magwitch’s daughter, Compeyson (Magwitch’s former partner in crime) turns out to be the man who jilted Miss Havisham at the altar and Pip’s real benefactor turns out to be the convict Magwitch whom he met when he was a small boy in a churchyard; it is a bit like a never-ending story. However, unlike a soap opera, the story is being told from Pip’s point of view, who is looking back at the previous events in his life.

There are many different themes in the novel ‘Great Expectations’, most of which are portrayed at the very start of the story; we are introduced to the themes of death, childhood innocence, loneliness, crime and guilt. At the start of chapter one, we are firstly introduced to the themes of death and loneliness. The scene opens on Pip, standing in a gloomy cemetery at the gravesite of his family so pitifully alone that he can do no more than to look at the tombstones and conjure up typical images of what his mother and father might of looked like:

‘ The shape of the letter’s on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair.’

This shows that Pip is deprived of parental guidance. The fact that he has never known his parents and is completely alone in a desolate cemetery trying to imagine what they looked like immediately makes the audience sympathise with Pip’s character. The derelict setting also adds to the fact that Pip is so piteously alone because of the language that Dickens uses, like ‘bleak’ and ‘raw’. Dickens also makes heavy use of visual images and metaphors towards the end of the chapter like the way he uses black and red imagery to describe the night sky, and the way he talks about the ghostly image of the gibbet and the pirate in order to bring about the sense of fear and danger; relevant to the theme of death and also crime:

‘The other a gibbet, with some chains hanging to it which had once held a pirate.’

The theme of crime, guilt and innocence is explored throughout the novel largely, but especially in chapter one. In chapter one we are introduced to the escaped criminal Magwitch who frightens Pip, simply because he is a convict; he forces the vulnerable, young Pip to bring him food and a file by making malicious threats. Being the innocent child that he is, Pip obediently does as Magwitch asks him to because he is scared and believes that Magwitch will carry out his threats. However, Pip feels really guilty about having to steal from home because they do not have much to spare and when he returns to the marshes with the stolen items he imagines that the cattle are giving him accusing looks and shouting ‘ Stop young thief’; again this shows his innocence and heavy conscience. We also see this later on in the novel too; as Pip starts to move further up the social ladder he grows ashamed of Joe because he is a poor, working class blacksmith but when Pip becomes ill, Joe comes and pays off all his debt and nurses him back to good health which makes Pip feel guilty. He knows his moral behaviour was wrong to Joe and he starts to question himself about it, again, showing that he has a strong sense of conscience.

Other important themes in the novel include, ambition, self-improvement, social class, crime, guilt, and innocence. At first I do not think it is easy to notice the moral theme in ‘Great Expectations’ because there are more then just one overall theme but when you delve deeper into the plot, it’s quite simple. In my opinion I believe that affection, loyalty, and conscience are much more important than self-improvement, wealth, and social class. I think this because Dickens establishes those themes and shows Pip learning his lesson, largely by exploring ideas of ambition and self-improvement; ideas that very quickly become both the thematic centre of the novel and the mechanism that triggers most of Pip’s social development.

Although the themes of self improvement and ambition are only hinted at in the first two chapters, we can already start to see some of the flaws in Pip’s life that will later on encourage his ambition. In chapter one, we see that Pip’s lifestyle is a not a glamorous one; he lives in the forge surrounded by bleak and dangerous marshes and in chapter two we see Pip being treated very unkindly by his sister (who is also his guardian), Mrs Joe and with the death of his parents, is it any wonder that Pip feels lonely and isolated? And so, for these reasons it is only natural for Pip wanting to leave his home in Kent and make something better of his life.

Whenever Pip can conceive of something that is better than what he already has, he immediately desires to obtain the improvement. For example, when he sees Satis House he longs to be a wealthy gentleman, when he thinks of his moral shortcomings, he longs to be good and when he realizes that he cannot read, he longs to learn how. Pip’s desire for self-improvement is the main source of the novel’s title because he believes in the possibility of advancement in life; he has “Great Expectations” about his future. Later on in the novel we see ambition and self-improvement take three forms in Great Expectations-moral, social, and educational; these motivate Pip’s best and worst behaviour throughout the novel. First, Pip desires moral self-improvement. He is extremely hard on himself when he acts immorally and feels powerful guilt that spurs him on to act better in the future. When he leaves for London, for instance, he torments himself about having behaved so badly toward Joe and Biddy. Second, Pip desires social self-improvement. When Pip goes to play at Satis house, Estella, insults him about his “coarse hands” and “thick boots” and although Pip knows that these certain accessories have never been favourable, they had never troubled him up until now:

“I am humiliated, hurt, spurned, offended, angry”

Here we can see that Pip is starting to become touchy about his social status, he even tries to blame Joe for not teaching him to call Jacks, Knaves:

“I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly and then I should have been so too”

Pip is ashamed of his background; he is in love with Estella an so he longs to become a member of her social class, and encouraged by Mrs Joe and Uncle Pumblechook he conjures up fantasies of becoming a gentleman. Significantly, later on in the novel Pip finds that his life as a gentleman is no more satisfying and certainly no more moral than his previous life as a blacksmith’s apprentice.

Third, Pip desires educational improvement. This desire is connected to his social ambition and longing to marry Estella; a full education is a requirement for being a gentleman but as long as he is remains an ignorant country boy, he has no hope of social advancement. Pip understands this fact as a child, when he learns to read at school, and as a young man, when he takes lessons from Matthew Pocket. Ultimately, through the examples of Joe, Biddy, and Magwitch, Pip soon learns that social and educational improvement are irrelevant to a person as long as they have a good heart and that conscience and affection are to be valued above education and social standing.

As I have already mentioned, social class was an important issue in Victorian England; people were judged on how much money they had. Throughout the novel, Dickens explores the class system of Victorian England by introducing us to socially contrasting characters. In chapter one, we are introduced to the criminal Magwitch and the poor peasants of the marsh country, Joe and Mrs Joe. Later on in the novel we also meet the likes of Uncle Pumblechook who is of middle class and Miss Havisham, who is of extremely high class.

The theme of social class is central to the novel’s plot and to the ultimate moral theme of the book. When Pip starts to climb the social ladder, he forgets all about his true roots back home in Kent; he forgets the kind nature of Joe who stuck by him through his younger life, who took him on as a Blacksmith’s apprentice and who supported Pip when he started to achieve something. Instead, Pip becomes selfish; he doesn’t appreciate Joe’s kindness and rejects him when he comes to visit him in London because again, he feels ashamed of his background. However, as Pip grows older later on in the novel, he is finally able to understand that wealth and class are less important than affection, loyalty, and inner worth; and despite the admiration in which he holds for Estella, he realises that one’s social status is in no way connected to one’s real character. Take Bentley Drummel for instance, an upper-class young man who is arrogant and conceited, while Magwitch, a persecuted convict who may look fierce and threatening, has a deep inner worth.

I have learned that by including these themes in the novel, Charles Dickens intended to send out a moral message to his readers. He uses the book to put across his views on Victorian society; the way in which people were judged by how much money they had, the way the poor were treated differently from the rich like Compeyson for instance, who was able to swindle his way out of crime through the use of money. Throughout the story, I think that he is trying to ask his readers a question: Is gaining money and Social status better than having little money but a good heart. Overall, Dickens is trying to prove that money and class does not make you a better person and we can see this through the example of Joe who may not have a lot of money to spare, but he makes up for it with his good nature and kindness.

In chapter one (characters)

The marshland is one of the first and probably one of the most important settings in the novel. The first thing the reader sees at the beginning of the novel is an extremely desolate, moorland location and more specifically, a graveyard within it. It is significant because it is where Pip’s family are buried which puts a big emphasis on the fact that Pip is an orphan living in almost complete isolation. This drab, dreary location with it’s deserted landscape and miserable weather suggests that Pip is entering an area of risk and peril; and so the audience are constantly kept in suspense because such description builds up a sense of dread, a sense of foreboding. The reader starts to expect something awful to happen so it is hardly surprising when Pip is faced with an escaped convict who emerges from the shadows and threatens to cut Pip’s throat unless he succumbed to his demands. Consequently, I don’t think that any other introduction is needed because this effective setting that Dickens creates is both compelling and dramatic.

Dickens uses various language techniques to create an atmosphere and to give a sense of drama. In chapter one, we are given a very detailed description of the bleak, dark churchyard where Pip is visiting the graves of where so many of his relatives are buried. The graveyard itself is described as a “bleak place overgrown with nettles” whilst the marshland beyond is “intersected with dykes and mounds and gates with scattered cattle feeding on it”

The river is described as a “low leaden line” while the sea is described as a “distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing”.

Overall the visual image we get from this description is a negative one, the depressing tone also reflects on what the reader is feeling too. I think that Dickens’s greatest strength, as a writer is his use of narrative to describe places and convey atmosphere. He uses effective metaphors to describe each of the surroundings – the marshland, the graveyard, the river and the sea whilst using other forms of language techniques such as quality adjectives and alliteration, which gives the audience a perfect illustration of the setting.


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