How does Dickens create tension and fear in Chapter One of Great Expectations?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Charles Dickens creates tension in Chapter One of Great Expectations with atmosphere and setting.

Young Pip comes to the churchyard in the marsh, a "bleak place overgrown with nettles." There he looks at the five graves of his dead brothers. Past the churchyard is the marshes and beyond it a "low leaden line" that is the river. 

...the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

Into this dismal atmosphere enters "a fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg." He is covered in mud, limping from leg irons, with cuts from thorns and briars, and shivering in the cold. When he comes up to Pip, growling and with teeth chattering, the boy is terrified. This man takes Pip and shakes him upside down in order to find if anything is in his pockets. He frightens Pip into bringing him a file and some vittles. Then he leaves, and as he does so, Pip watches him go. Again the atmosphere is dark and oppressive, an atmosphere of fear and tension:

The marshes were just a long black horizontal line then, as I stopped to look after him; and the river was just another horizontal line, not nearly so broad nor yet so black; and the sky was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed. 

With this dark, frightening atmosphere around him, Pip hurries home to find vittles for this growling and threatening man.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Tension and fear are created through a combination of setting and description. Note how the first chapter presents us to Pip, the protagonist, in a graveyard, as he contemplates the graves of his parents and his dead siblings. Not only is the opening of this novel set in a graveyeard, but it is also one that is located in the marshes away from the rest of the civilised world, and so Pip is well and truly by himself in a "bleak place overgrown with nettles." Dickens therefore builds up tension through giving the reader an elaborate description of his earliest childhood memory and the bleak landscape around. Then, the reader is shocked and surprised, just as Pip himself would have been, with the sudden and completely unexpected appearance of somebody else. This is described in the following way:

"Hold your noise!" cried a terrible voice, as a man stood up from behind the graves at the side of the church porch.

Not only does this terrify because of its abruptness, but also Magwitch comes up from behind a gravestone, as if he were a dead man coming back to life. The events in Chapter One therefore create fear and tension through the sudden appearance of Magwitch in an isolated, Gothic setting combined with the manner of his appearance. For the young Pip, depressed and crying already, this would have been truly terrifying.

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Great Expectations

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