How is Pip's view of the setting from the cemetery symbolic in Great Expectations?
Dickens is very concerned with social inequality and the circumstances which lead the poor to be kept poor—and especially with the extent to which injustice is so rife that it has become normalized. In the beginning of this novel, we find Pip sitting in a graveyard, relating quite casually the impressions he has drawn of his mother, father, and five dead siblings based only upon their gravestones. It is normal to Pip to be the only living member of a family who otherwise are all inhabitants of the graveyard; the sheer number of his dead siblings, in particular, is shocking to the reader, particularly because Pip does not offer any particular opinion about this fact. When Magwitch asks Pip where his mother is, he points to the gravestone and says, "there, sir," without any apparent hesitation. Pip is at the absolute beginning of his journey: the rest of his family having been committed to their graves, he represents the only surviving "pip" from that family tree, and any growth he sustains will naturally take him further away from the lowly place they all ended up in.
By beginning his novel in a cemetery, Dickens indicates to us that Pip is the last remaining hope of a family whose dreams have otherwise been ground down by poverty, illness, infant mortality, and so on. Pip must have very great expectations indeed if he anticipates entering good society from this seeming dead end of a starting point.
In the beginning of the book, Pip is sitting in a cold cemetery staring at his parents’ headstones. Pip describes himself as “the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry” (ch 1, p. 4). When he looks out at the marshes, he sees nothing but cold desolation. This is symbolic of the isolation Pip feels.
When Pip is accosted by the convict, he asks him where his family is. Pip points to the headstones. The simple fact is that the boy is sitting alone in the harsh landscape because he has almost no one.
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. (p. 4)
This establishes the events of this chapter as foundational in Pip’s life. His encounter with Magwitch not only affected him emotionally, but it also redirected the course of his life because Magwitch gave him his great expectations.