What is the significance of the last sentence in Chapter IX about the chain of iron or gold that would never have bound you without the formation of the first link?
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
This figurative observation of Pip's at the end of Chapter IX of Great Expectations is similar to the lines of Robert Frost's poem "the Road Not Taken" that reads, "Knowing how way leads to way..." Because Pip has met Estella and fallen in love with her and because he has had the experience of seeing that there is another world beyond the forge, and has been made to feel that he is common and inferior, Pip's life has been markedly altered. Now, he no longer can be satisfied with his little room and the furture of becoming apprenticed to Joe as a mere blacksmith; instead, Pip has seen an aristocratic young lady and a pale young gentleman whom he perceives as superior, so he desires to be a gentleman and live a much different life from the one that he has been living. These desires of Pip are the first link in the "chain of iron," his guilt at his neglect of leaving Joe and not visiting him and the "chain or gold," his wealth given to him by a secret benefactor, one who turns out to be different from Miss Havisham, and one about whom Pip has misgivings and even shame.
As a mature Pip who narrates in retrospect, the metaphor of the chain that would not have been formed without the making of the first link carries much significance since the narrator is aware of the many links formed after his first visit to Satis House. For, Pip returns to Satis House again, then his desire to become a gentleman comes true, and his life is altered irretrievably from that of the simple boy at the Gargery forge.
The end of Chapter IX deals with Pip’s return from Satis House and the irony of his newly-found dissatisfaction with his lot thanks to the haughty, cruel and beautiful Estella. The metaphor which Dickens uses to illustrate Pip’s direction in life from this point on is the forging of a chain-
‘Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.
The metaphor is an appropriate one, as Pip’s original path was to become apprenticed then take over as blacksmith from his brother-in law, Joe Gargery. The metaphor suggests that futures are forged or created link by link from the various materials of life. Pip is also plagued with fearful memories of the convict on the marshes and the penalties for wickedness which Mrs Joe readily threatens him with.
A similar metaphor had been used before by Dickens, more memorably so, in ‘A Christmas Carol’. In this earlier text we see Jacob Marley’s ghost explain that he is encumbered by a great chain made of his ill deeds-
“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”
Scrooge is warned that his own chain is great, and only good deeds can rid him of the eternal torture of bearing its weight forever.