What symbolic purpose does Dickens intend by opening his narrative with a cemetery?  Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Injustice is rife in Great Expectations, and the opening scene in the grey misty graveyard symbolizes this injustice of life as Pip stares at the graves of his parents who were denied their adult lives. Orphaned by the untimely death of his parents, young Pip is alone to search throughout his life for love and a father-figure, as he is unjustly treated by Mrs. Joe, his sister, Uncle Pumblechook, and Estella. The graveyard also symbolizes the injustice of life that sentences an orphan to exploitation as Pip is mistreated by Mrs. Joe and little Biddy is used by her great-aunt who makes her virtually run the store and teach the classes held in the evenings.

That the criminal justice system of Dickens's time created a social graveyard in which one was sentenced to live without hope of improvement reflects the industrialized society of the Victorian Age as there was a justice for the poor and a justice for the rich.  The account of the trial of Magwitch and Compeyson certainly underscores this injustice of the age.  In Chapter XXXII, in which Pip takes a tour of Newgate prison with his friend, the clerk of Mr. Jaggers, Pip watches as Wemmick walks among the prisoners as one would walk among the graves of the churchyard, telling many of the inmates that it "is useless"regarding their hope for acquittal.  Indeed, they are as dead men in a church graveyard as Wemmick bids them goodbye.  Certainly, the opening graveyard scene depicts the mournful impression of society in Dickens's novel: one of loneliness, guilt, injustice, and tragedy--an impression repeated in each stage of Great Expectations.

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