How does the author build suspense at the end of chapter 4?

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ajmchugh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Chapter 4 of Great Expectations, a tortured Pip suffers through Christmas dinner, expecting that someone will discover that he has stolen from his sister and Joe to aid an escaped convict. 

During the meal, Mrs. Joe complains to her guests about what a burden it has been to raise Pip, which obviously creates an uncomfortable situation for him--and causes him to clutch the table leg for the entire meal.  Then, Mrs. Joe offers her guests brandy, which causes more anxiety in Pip, because he took brandy to the convict and replaced it with tar-water.  Uncle Pumblechook drinks the tar-water, has a violent coughing fit, and the incident ends with Mrs. Joe exclaiming, "Tar! Why, how ever should tar come there?" 

Before anyone pursues the answer to this question, Mrs. Joe decides to retrieve and serve the pork pie she has made for the dinner, which Pip has also stolen.  As Mrs. Joe heads for the pantry, the fear becomes too much for Pip:

I have never been absolutely certain whether I uttered a shrill yell of terror, merely in spirit, or in the bodily hearing of the company.  I felt that I could bear no more, and that I must run away.  I released the leg of the table, and ran for my life.

Just as Pip flees, soldiers intercept him at the front door.  Though they are there to seek Joe's help in repairing a set of handcuffs, Pip thinks they are there to arrest him for stealing. 

Obviously, Dickens creates a very uncomfortable situation for the young Pip, showing his growing anxiety during what should have been a pleasant holiday dinner. 

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Great Expectations

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