What is the significance of the opening scene in Charles Dickens's novel Great Expectations?

The significance of the opening scene in Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations is that it immediately establishes readers' sympathy for the protagonist, Pip. In it, Pip is a vulnerable young lad, a seven-year-old living on the bleak Romney Marshes. The grim description of the Marshes only serves to heighten sympathy for the boy.

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Dickens manages to hook the reader right from the start of Great Expectations . The opening scene is a masterpiece of mood-setting that captures our attention with its vivid description of the Romney Marshes with all is cold, damp, and dreariness. This is an inhospitable place, to put it mildly,...

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Dickens manages to hook the reader right from the start of Great Expectations. The opening scene is a masterpiece of mood-setting that captures our attention with its vivid description of the Romney Marshes with all is cold, damp, and dreariness. This is an inhospitable place, to put it mildly, certainly no place for a small child like Pip. That Pip should live here only heightens the sympathy we’ve already gained from knowing that he is an orphan.

Poor young Pip comes across as the loneliest boy in the world. And his loneliness, the kind that only a child would understand, is driven home in the first major set-piece of the novel, Pip’s terrifying encounter in the churchyard with the escaped convict Abel Magwitch.

As Magwitch descends upon him, Pip is all alone. His parents may be nearby, but they’re long since dead, buried in the churchyard. At this precise moment, Pip desperately needs the protection of an adult. Such protection will indeed arrive one day, but ironically it will come from the man who now threatens to cut his throat.

The scene in the graveyard is important because it establishes the lack of a true protector in Pip’s life, something that will affect him as he makes the difficult transition into adulthood. In due course, Pip will seek protection in a number of adult authority figures such as Miss Havisham and the lawyer Mr. Jaggers. But neither of them have his true interests at heart, and so Pip will remain as lonely inside as he was on the outside on that cold, foggy day in the churchyard.

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The opening scene introduces us to Pip the protagonist, both his background and his personality.

We learn a great deal about him in the first two paragraphs alone: he goes by a diminutive version of his true name, he is an orphan who lives under the charity of his older sister and her husband, and he is part of the working class (since his stepfather and brother-in-law are blacksmiths).

Pip's manner of narration suggests he is a witty fellow with a fine imagination. As a child, he assumed his father was "a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair" because the font used on his father's tombstone suggested such a likeness to him.

When the convict makes his appearance in the churchyard, we also learn Pip is a compassionate person. Though the convict makes threats and frightens him, Pip agrees to help him out of his shackles. This kindness is one of Pip's most admirable traits throughout the novel so Dickens makes sure to establish it early on in this opening scene.

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The opening pages of Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations are significant in a number of ways, including the following:

  • The very first paragraph introduces Pip, the narrator of this autobiographical novel.  Since the novel explores Pip’s development from childhood to adulthood, the opening paragraph immediately engages our interest in the central character of the book.
  • The second paragraph opens with a sentence that performs several functions: (1) it already suggests some wit on the part of Pip; (2) it begins to show Dickens’ talent as a writer, especially in the balanced phrasing of “his tombstone and my sister”; and (3) it not only introduces two more important characters (Pip’s sister and her husband) but also begins to sketch the kind of world into which Pip was born (thanks to the reference to “the blacksmith”).
  • The following sentence emphasizes that Pip never saw his father or his mother, thus introducing two major themes of the book: isolation and the function of substitute parental figures.
  • The next two sentences (about Pip’s interpretation of the tombstones) begin to introduce an element of paradoxical humor into a book that is often humorous indeed. The frequently whimsical quality of Dickens’ writing begins to appear when Pip says, concerning one of the tombstones, that

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. From the character and turn of the inscription, "Also Georgiana Wife of the Above," I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly.

Pip is a character whom we are already beginning to like, since he (now an adult) can look back on his earlier self and offer wry self-mockery. Pip seems lacking in excessive pride or pretension and seems to have a sense of humor. Pip is already displaying the distinctiveness of personality, the idiosyncrasy, for which Dickens’ characters are so often well-known and which often helps make them so unforgettable.

  • Finally, Pip’s references to his five dead siblings already imply another theme of the novel: that life can be hard, that success in life (and even survival) is hardly guaranteed, and that life can often lead to loneliness and isolation.  The adult Pip’s comments on his dead siblings already imply his compassion, but his sense of humor prevents this moment from being saccharine or sentimental.

 

 

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