Great Expectations | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Great Expectations | Chapters 1–2 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1

A boy named Philip Pirrip, nicknamed Pip, gazes at the graves of his parents in a church cemetery situated on a stark marsh near the sea. As Pip ponders the graves, a scary-looking man appears in the cemetery. He threatens Pip, telling him to keep quiet or "I'll cut your throat." The man wears a large iron on his leg. Petrified, Pip pleads for his life. The man asks the boy what his name is and where he lives, and Pip tells him. When the man asks about Pip's mother, Pip explains that his parents are dead and buried in the graveyard, and he lives with his sister and her husband. The man orders Pip to get him a file and food. If Pip fails in this task, the man says his younger companion will find Pip during the night and tear out his heart and liver. Scared out of his wits, Pip swears to comply.

Chapter 2

Pip arrives home, where he sees Joe Gargery warming himself by the fire. Pip describes Joe as a gentle, physically strong, dimwitted soul. Joe and Pip have formed a close bond that helps them endure the rages, scolding, and beatings of Joe's wife, called Mrs. Joe. Mrs. Joe is Pip's sister.

Soon Mrs. Joe bursts into the house, strikes Pip with a stick, and throws the boy at Joe. Furious, Mrs. Joe asks where Pip has been, and the boy replies that he was at the churchyard. She complains about having to take care of Pip and then prepares tea. Concerned about not being able to find food for the man on the marshes, Pip puts his piece of bread down his trousers.

Because it is Christmas Eve, Pip stirs the pudding for the next day. Then he hears guns firing in the distance and asks why. Mrs. Joe grudgingly explains the firing warns that a prisoner has escaped and comes from prison ships called Hulks. Pip goes to bed, terrified about the young companion coming to tear out his heart and liver and about being sent to prison for stealing food. As dawn breaks Pip sneaks to the pantry and takes food, including a pork pie and a bottle of brandy. He then removes a file from the blacksmith shop and heads into the marshes.

Analysis

In Chapters 1 and 2 Dickens immediately begins to develop the theme of uncertainty and deceit. In the opening paragraphs of Chapter 1, Pip reveals that he has no idea what his parents looked like. Because of his uncertainty, he imagines how they look based on the lettering on their tombstones. So early on Pip has uncertainty about his own identity and self-worth. Later the man on the marsh warns that his younger companion will tear out Pip's liver and heart if the boy fails to bring food to the man. This warning terrifies Pip and fills him with uncertainty about the young companion. Pip imagines that such a terrible person might attack Pip before he gets a chance to steal the food. Again uncertainty fuels Pip's imagination.

Also Dickens soon connects uncertainty with deceit. Because Pip is not sure he'll find food to steal, he hides a piece of bread in his trousers, thereby deceiving both Joe and Mrs. Joe. Because Pip thinks the young companion might kill him, he decides to steal food, another act of deceit.

Deceit ties in directly with the theme of guilt. Even though Pip plans to steal food to protect himself, he feels guilty about this act and about hiding bread in his pants. Dickens states, "The guilty knowledge that I was going to rob Mrs. Joe ... united to the necessity of always keeping one hand on my bread-and-butter ... almost drove me out of my mind." Therefore the fear caused by uncertainty combined with the guilt caused by deceit tortures Pip.

In Chapters 1 and 2 Dickens introduces the theme of social class and ambition by introducing one member of the lower class and three members of the working class. The man on the marsh represents the lower class, a desperate, half-starving person who is an outcast of society. Pip, Joe, and Mrs. Joe are members of the working class. Joe works as a blacksmith and earns enough money to provide a decent home with a warm fire and plenty of food. As opposed to the man on the marsh, Pip lives in physically comfortable surroundings. His sister and brother-in-law are most likely respected members of their community. The day-to-day hardships that Pip faces are caused by the attitude of a person, namely his sister, not by physical want.

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