What is the significance of the opening scene in Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The opening pages of Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations are significant in a number of ways, including the following:

  • The very first paragraph introduces Pip, the narrator of this autobiographical novel.  Since the novel explores Pip’s development from childhood to adulthood, the opening paragraph immediately engages our interest in the central character of the book.
  • The second paragraph opens with a sentence that performs several functions: (1) it already suggests some wit on the part of Pip; (2) it begins to show Dickens’ talent as a writer, especially in the balanced phrasing of “his tombstone and my sister”; and (3) it not only introduces two more important characters (Pip’s sister and her husband) but also begins to sketch the kind of world into which Pip was born (thanks to the reference to “the blacksmith”).
  • The following sentence emphasizes that Pip never saw his father or his mother, thus introducing two major themes of the book: isolation and the function of substitute parental figures.
  • The next two sentences (about Pip’s interpretation of the tombstones) begin to introduce an element of paradoxical humor into a book that is often humorous indeed. The frequently whimsical quality of Dickens’ writing begins to appear when Pip says, concerning one of the tombstones, that

The shape of the letters on my father's, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, "Also Georgiana Wife of the Above," I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly.

Pip is a character whom we are already beginning to like, since he (now an adult) can look back on his earlier self and offer wry self-mockery. Pip seems lacking in excessive pride or pretension and seems to have a sense of humor. Pip is already displaying the distinctiveness of personality, the idiosyncrasy, for which Dickens’ characters are so often well-known and which often helps make them so unforgettable.

  • Finally, Pip’s references to his five dead siblings already imply another theme of the novel: that life can be hard, that success in life (and even survival) is hardly guaranteed, and that life can often lead to loneliness and isolation.  The adult Pip’s comments on his dead siblings already imply his compassion, but his sense of humor prevents this moment from being saccharine or sentimental.



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