What is Pip doing when the story opens in Great Expectations?

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In this exposition of Great Expectations, as in all expositions to narratives, one setting is introduced to the reader of Dickens's great classic.  It is a poignant and cold setting at that as Pip visits the bleak graves of his five brothers and of his father and mother, who have left him orphaned. In addition, the raw afternoon on the marsh in its grey bleakness is invaded by a grey convict who crosses into the grey churchyard:

A fearful man, all in coarse gray, with the great iron on his leg.  A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied around his head.  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 grwoled and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.

As "fearful" as he is frightens Pip into complying with his requests to bring him a file and "wittles."  For, he threatens to "tear him open."  And, he tells Pip, there is a young man with him who

"has a secret way of getting at a boy, and at his heart, and at his liver.  It is in wain for a boy to attempt to hide himself from that young man.

Pip runs home without stopping after looking back as the man hugged his shuddering body and limped away.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Right at the very beginning of the story, Pip is visiting the graves of his father and his mother and the five children of theirs who died when they were all very young.  The graves are in a churchyard out in the marshes that surround the town where Pip is living.

While Pip is there in the church yard, he is confronted by a man.  The man is a convict who has escaped from the "hulks."  These are the prison ships anchored in the river.  The convict demands that Pip go and bring him food and a file so that the convict can get his shackles off.

ajmchugh's profile pic

ajmchugh | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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Great Expectations opens with a half-page description  of Pip's family, and readers immediately learn that Pip, whose real name is Philip Pirrip, is an orphan whose mother and father are dead, as are five of his siblings.  As the novel's action begins, Pip, a young child at the time, is sitting by himself by their graves at the cemetery.  He describes, the darkness of the marshes, the wind rushing from the sea, and the wild overgrowth of vines in the churchyard, and tells readers that he is shivering and afraid and beginning to cry. 

At that moment, he is accosted by an escaped convict who demands that Pip bring food and a file, with which he might file off his leg irons, the next morning.  Further, he instructs Pip not to tell anyone of the encounter.  This leaves the young Pip in a difficult predicament: he must steal from his abusive sister--and her husband--and face the consequences of that act, or he will be killed for not doing as he was told. 

As this is the first event in Dickens's bildungsroman, it gives readers important information about Pip's character, as in the following chapters, we see how Pip deals with this traumatic experience. His obsessive worry and fear regarding the situation are consistent with many other conflicts he will experience as the novel progresses. 

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