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Pip is about seven years old when the novel opens (he mentions his age in chapter 50). Dickens skillfully catches the reader's attention and sympathy in the first few pages, introduces several major themes, creates a mood of mystery in a lonely setting, and gets the plot moving immediately. George Gissing asks the reader to "Observe how finely the narrative is kept in one key. It begins with a mournful impression–the foggy marshes spreading drearily by the seaward Thames–and throughout recurs this effect of cold and damp and dreariness; in that kind Dickens never did anything so good." For George Orwell, "All the isolation of childhood is there" in the first chapter.


The first chapter immediately involves the reader because of Pip's terrifying encounter with the convict and the humor with which the chapter is infused. Dickens skillfully introduces several major themes in it. Pip is alone, physically alone in the cemetery and solitary in being an orphan; his aloneness prefigures the isolation he will experience later in the novel. His illusions about his family's tombstones are comic and convincing as the sort of misreading that a child might make; they also introduce the theme of failure to communicate.

The adult Pip is remembering a milestone in his life, a moment when he had his "first vivid and broad impression of the identity of things" (page 1). His being turned upside down as he gains this insight suggests that his view of things was distorted, perhaps even upside down. The terror and the helplessness of childhood are captured in Pip's identifying himself as "the small bundle of shivers growing afraid" (page 2), as well as his depersonalization. The convict who terrorizes Pip is the ogre of childhood fairy tales and introduces the theme of crime and Pip's connection to criminality. Watch for the various ways by which Pip is connected to criminality as the novel progresses.

Several symbols are introduced: the river, the gibbet or gallows, the signpost, and the beacon.


Day 1 Pages 1-124
    Overview of Dickens
    Some General Comments
    Dickens and Society
    The Opening of Great Expectations
    Pip's Sense of Guilt
Day 2 Pages 125-253
    Pip, Estella, and Miss Havisham
Day 3 Pages 254-366
    Pip's Expectations
Day 4 Pages 367-490
    Redemption and Love
    The ending

March 23, 2011