The pivotal event in the beginning of Great Expectations is Pip’s assistance of the convict Magwitch because it determines his entire future.
The book opens with Pip sitting in a church yard looking at his parents’ headstones. We therefore establish that he is a poor orphan (five of his siblings had died as well), and a lonely, contemplative boy. His fate is sealed. He is going to be a poor, uneducated blacksmith for the rest of his life.
“You bring me, to-morrow morning early, that file and them wittles. You bring the lot to me, at that old Battery over yonder. (Chapter 1, p. 6)
Then something happens to change his life forever. An escaped convict accosts him and demands food and assistance in the form of a file. If Pip had not been the blacksmith’s nephew, it would not have worked. But he is, so he can help.
It is not just Pip’s assistance in a time of need that matters to Magwitch. He is also impressed with Pip’s generous and caring nature. Pip actually seems to care about what happens to him, and it has been a long time since anyone showed any concern for Magwitch.
Pitying his desolation, and watching him as he gradually settled down upon the pie, I made bold to say, “I am glad you enjoy it.” (ch 3, p. 15)
Magwitch feels isolated and completely overwhelmed when Pip comes into his life. He is so grateful that he decides to send every penny he makes back to Pip to make him into a gentleman. Pip has no idea—he assumes that Miss Havisham is his benefactor. Magwitch wants to make Pip into a gentleman to show the world that anyone can become one, but also to thank Pip for the kindness he had done.
The two opening chapters establish the circumstances of the main character-narrator, Pip: he is a lonely young orphan living in the countryside, being brought up rather harshly by his much older sister, although there is also the kindly figure of Joe the blacksmith in the home, who is a friend to him. The actual events of these chapters, however, revolve mainly around another figure who will become a major character and actor in Pip's life: Magwitch the convict. At this stage Pip does not know his name but he is terrified when he suddenly comes upon him in the graveyard. In the second chapter Pip also meets a second convict, Compeyson, who is Magwitch's enemy. The meetings with the convicts, rough and frightening figures to a young boy, in a bleak and lonely setting, help to set the rather dark tone of the whole novel. Also the theme of guilt, which pervades the novel, is established in these chapters with the image of the cconvicts and Pip's internal agitation as he has to steal food from home to bring secretly to Magwitch.