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Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens

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What is Pip's first impression of London in Great Expectations?

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Pip reaches London in chapter 20 of Great Expectations after much eager anticipation. His departure is a great event—not only for him but also for Joe and Biddy and various members of the community. Mr. Trabb the tailor treats Pip with a new and fulsome deference, while Pip himself announces, "henceforth I was for London and greatness; not for smith’s work."

Pip's first impression of London, therefore, is a bitter disappointment. He immediately remarks that this is not how one would expect the greatest city of a mighty empire to look:

We Britons had at that time particularly settled that it was treasonable to doubt our having and our being the best of everything: otherwise, while I was scared by the immensity of London, I think I might have had some faint doubts whether it was not rather ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty.

Pip is a country boy. When imagining London, he has always focused on its size and magnificence, expecting to step out of his stagecoach into a gleaming alabaster city, filled with fine ladies and gentlemen. It has not occurred to him that a vast city will inevitably include a great deal of dirt and squalor.

Mr. Jaggers, when he came to visit Pip, was an immensely impressive figure. He remains so, even in London, but his offices are much less impressive, being in a squalid and rather dangerous area. Wemmick also does little to improve matters when he tells Pip, "You may get cheated, robbed, and murdered in London."

Finally, even the more genteel neighborhood of Barnard's Inn is ugly, dingy, and depressing, while Pip's future lodgings are in a state of disrepair. Pip makes his feelings on the subject perfectly clear:

I thought it had the most dismal trees in it, and the most dismal sparrows, and the most dismal cats, and the most dismal houses (in number half a dozen or so), that I had ever seen.

He sums up his first experience of the capital, as he stares dolefully out "through the window’s encrusting dirt" with the observation that "London was decidedly overrated."

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Pip is overwhelmed by his first impressions of London. He's never seen a place quite like it before. A young man born and raised in a humble cottage on the Romney Marshes, Pip isn't used to big-city life. So when he arrives in London for the first time, he's completely astounded by what he sees.

But not necessarily in a good way. As he navigates London's winding streets, its dirty lanes and back alleys, he comes to find the city rather gloomy and unpleasant. The area around Jaggers's law office is particularly insalubrious, not least because of its close proximity to the notorious Newgate Prison, where executions take place with grim regularity. (Many of those executed are Jaggers's clients).

And when Pip casts eyes on where he's going to live as a young gentleman about town, he's far from impressed. The area surrounding his apartment in Barnard's Inn is...

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rather dingy, to say the least. In due course, as Pip enters enthusiastically into the social life of a gentleman, none of this will matter. London life will become most agreeable to him. But for now, just after he's just arrived in the big city, the nation's capital seems thoroughly unsatisfactory.

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When Pip first arrives in London in hopes of realizing his "great expectations," he is certainly taken aback by the realities which he encounters.

Having been derogated as being "coarse" and "common" by Estella, Pip expects to find an impressive and sophisticated city. Instead, he feels "some faint doubts whether it was not rather ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty."

When he steps off the coach onto the "gloomy street" where there are offices, Pip enters that of Mr. Jaggers and is ushered into the chambers of the barrister, which is a "most dismal place" lighted only by skylight. As he is uncomfortable waiting in this dark room, Pip decides to go outside and walk on the streets. He sees the dark dome of St. Paul's cathedral "bulging...from behind a grim stone building," a building which Pip is told is Newgate Prison. The street is covered with straw to soften the cacophony of passing carriages and wagons. Rather sordid and unsightly people who smell strongly of "spirits" are outside the prison, indicating that trials have begun.

Later, when Mr. Jaggers's clerk Wemmick escorts Pip to Barnard's Inn where he will reside, Pip is sadly disappointed. For, he finds in the "melancholy square"

the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together in a rank corner as a club for tomcats.

Pip is so greatly disappointed by this "first realization of my great expectations" that he looks in dismay at Mr. Wemmick. Once alone, Pip decides that London has been "decidedly overrrated."

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Pip's first impressions of London are visual. After having never really been in the city itself, he had no idea how dirty and ragged it could be. This is just part of the era, but it is particularly an aspect of London that Dickens wanted readers to notice.

Pip finds the street gloomy, and the description of Jaggers' office is terrible. Many dark overtones are used, and the disjointed joining of buildings made Pip wonder why the city was designed that way. The coach Pip had ridden in to get there was described as weather-stained and the rags therein were described as moth-eaten.  Jaggers' office is described as having greasy walls as people intimidated by him backed up. Being so close to the courthouse, the area around Jaggers office was described as pretty dirty as are most inner-city places today.

This description is important because it foreshadows Pip's experience there.

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