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

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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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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