Illustration of Pip visiting a graveyard

Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

Start Free Trial

How is the mood and atmosphere described in chapter 1 of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Chapter One of Great Expectations introduces us to Pip, develops his character, describes the dreary marshlands in which he lives, and sets the plot going with the introduction of the fugitive Magwitch. Dickens uses tone skillfully to support these aims. It’s not all doom and gloom; Dicken’s use of description reinforces Pip’s essential humanity. A close reading will show that even Magwitch is worth some compassion as well.

One example of this is Pip’s own narrative of his family, the knowledge of which comes entirely from their tombstones. Of his parents, his “first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father's, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair.” The “stone lozenges” of his five dead siblings lead Pip to think “that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.” There is an almost comic quality to these observations, which contrasts with Pip’s description of the graveyard as a “bleak place overgrown with nettles” and the view of the countryside as a “low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea.” We learn at the end of the third paragraph of the chapter, that “the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.” These changes in tone mark Pip as someone who has suffered greatly, but does not pity himself; in short, he is someone with whom the reader should empathize.

Magwitch’s arrival, and his terrifying demand that Pip bring him “a file and wettles” forms a counterpart to the the way Dickens uses tone to introduce Pip. Magwitch is terrifying, but also pitiful. He is a “man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.” Magwitch’s desperation makes him dangerous, but it also humanizes him; the story he tells Pip about his companion -- “There's a young man hid with me, in comparison with which young man I am a Angel…[who has] has a secret way pecooliar to himself, of getting at a boy, and at his heart, and at his liver” – is clearly meant to scare Pip, but also is clearly false, and can be almost understood as a kind of cruel joke. When Pip watches Magwitch depart, his reaction is not one of loathing, but compassion: “he looked in my young eyes as if he were eluding the hands of the dead people, stretching up cautiously out of their graves, to get a twist upon his ankle and pull him in.”

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The main scene in Chapter 1 takes place in a marshy graveyard, and as such the atmosphere is dark, grim, and spooky. There are "terrible" voices heard by Pip, threats of death, and the mood is scary and dark. Towards the end of the chapter, a great, moody description is given of the scene:

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. On the edge of the river I could faintly make out the only two black things in all the prospect that seemed to be standing upright;

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team