How does Dickens use setting to convey the mood right at the opening of Great Expectations?
In this opening scene, the narrator sets us on the English fens, the river and the marshes merging toward the sea, at a deserted graveyard on a gray, cold day. The adult narrator is remembering himself as a young boy, a boy already growing frightened by the bleak and overwhelming setting even before a terrifying event befalls him:
Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. . . . I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that 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.
This passage gives us a broad overview of the setting and openly connects it with death by lingering on the graveyard, where Pip lists the names of the infant children (infant in this context means children up to age five) that have died, children not much younger than he would have been. Words like "raw," "bleak," "dead," "dark," and "leaden," as well as images of a graveyard overgrown with nettles and the wind rushing like a wild animal from a "savage lair" all add to an atmosphere of fear and foreboding.
As happens continually in this novel, the narrator moves back and forth between his memories of how he perceived the scene as a child and his present perception of it. While the scene is shown through the exaggeratedly fearful eyes of a young boy, the narrator also pulls the camera away at the end, so to speak, separating his adult consciousness from that of the child's and depicting Pip as seen from afar in a way that builds sympathy for him: "the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip."
This powerful mood of loneliness, grayness, and fear is built through the piling up of grim images and becomes the perfect backdrop for the young boy to encounter an escaped convict.
In the beginning of chapter 1, Dickens establishes a stark, cold, and unforgiving landscape to mirror Pip’s stark, cold, unforgiving life.
The book opens in a graveyard. There’s a mood-setting image for you! Dickens not only describes the tombstones and graveyard in detail, he describes the surrounding land too.
[The] dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea…. (Ch 1)
Pip sits staring at tombstones of his mother, father, and former baby siblings because he wants to be close to his family. Into this dreary scene enters a frightening figure—the convict.
Pip is sitting in this “bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard” when a “fearful man” comes up on him (ch 1). This man is in such bad shape that Pip alternates between being scared and feeling sorry for the man.
After the man leaves, we return to the unforgiving descriptions of the landscape, where “the sky was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed” (ch 1). The reader is already expecting drama and tragedy, having already been introduced to a lot of it in a short time. Therefore Dickens effectively sets a dark and unforgiving mood from the very beginning of the book.
In Chapter 1 of Great Expectations, Charles Dickens employs pathetic fallacy and imagery. In addition, there is an atmosphere of forlorn isolation to this chapter that is created by the use of imagery that lacks color and the lonely feelings of fear in the orphan Pip.
The literary technique of pathetic fallacy is the attribution of human feelings to inanimate objects, and it is exemplified in the first chapter as little Pip visits the bleak place near the "savage lair" of the sea.
Further, the convict's manner of holding, tilting, and shaking Pip creates images that are much like the movements of the rolling sea:
After each question he tilted me over a little more, so as to give me a greater sense of helplessness and danger. ...He tilted me again.... He gave me a tremendous dip and roll....
The forlorn and dismal mood comes from the color imagery of grey that prevails in the tombstones, the "low leaden line" beyond where the river is, and the "fearful man, all in coarse grey," with a leg iron on who seems to suddenly appear. This man hugs his shuddering body as he limps toward the church.
There are also impressions of the foggy mists and the marshes, which later prove to be connected to Pip's guilt. These also contribute to the dismal atmosphere.