Great Expectations Study Guide

Great Expectations

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations is a novel about a poor boy named Pip, who lives with his cruel sister and her blacksmith husband. After years of helping a wealthy reclusive woman named Miss Havisham, he receives a small fortune from an anonymous benefactor. After learning to live like a gentleman and many attempts to court Miss Havisham's daughter, Estella, Pip learns that his fortune was not from Miss Havisham, as he had assumed, but a convict he had helped save when he was a child.

Chapter 1 Summary

Brief Summary

As an infant, Philip Pirrip could not pronounce his full name, and thus called himself Pip , the name by which he is presently known. Pip is a young orphan boy who lives with his sister and her husband in the rural marshland of southeastern England. On a visit to his parents' tombstones in a secluded village churchyard, Pip is accosted by a gruff, threatening man, an escaped convict from a nearby prison ship. The man swears Pip to secrecy, and demands that the boy bring him food and a file with which to saw away his leg irons. Terrified, Pip agrees to meet him with the goods the following morning.

Detailed Summary

The novel's protagonist, christened Philip Pirrip at birth, could not pronounce his full name as an infant. In a failed attempt to articulate his title, the child called himself Pip,

the nickname he continues to use throughout his life. At the onset of the novel, Pip is a meek young boy living with his sister and her husband, a blacksmith, in the rural marshland of southeastern England. Orphaned by his deceased parents, Pip is entrusted in is sister's care.

Alone, Pip visits his parents' tombstones in the village churchyard, a bleak, isolated spot overgrown with nettles. As Pip sits quietly, he is suddenly accosted by a monstrous, roaring man. The man, an escaped convict from a nearby prison ship, is dressed in rags and has iron chains locked around his ankles. He turns Pip upside down, emptying his pockets of a meager slice of bread, which he devours like a ravenous dog. Pip pleads for his life, which the man concedes to spare, if the boy will bring him food and a file to saw through his leg irons. The convict demands that Pip keep their encounter a secret, and that he follow through on his promise. Otherwise, the convict threatens, he will suffer severe consequence. Pip agrees to meet the man the following morning, with the food and the file, and runs home, utterly terrified.

Chapter 2 Summary

Brief Summary

Pip's wicked sister, Mrs. Joe , whips him with a can she calls the Tickler, as punishment for his coming home late. Her kindly husband, the blacksmith Joe Gargery , is friendly with Pip, but is not spared Mrs. Joe's wrath. It is Christmas Eve, and she demands that Pip spend all evening stirring the pudding.

Pip pockets his dinner to give to the convict, and hears shots fired just before he goes to bed, which signify that a convict has escaped. Pip is so terrified, he can hardly sleep. The following morning, Pip steals food from the pantry and a file from Joe's smithy, and sneaks out to meet the convict in the marshes.

Detailed Summary

At home, Pip is lambasted by his wretched sister, who he calls Mrs. Joe, for staying out too long and worrying her near to death. As punishment, she whips Pip with a cane she calls the Tickler. Her gentle-mannered, humble husband, the blacksmith Joe Gargery, is not spared his wife's wrath, particularly when he offers friendly comfort to Pip. Mrs. Joe demands that Pip stir the holiday pudding for the duration of the evening, in preparation for tomorrow's Christmas celebration.

Shaken by his encounter with the convict, Pip cannot eat his modest supper of bread and butter. He pockets his slice of bread to give to the convict the following morning. Mrs. Joe, noticing the rapid disappearance of Pip's bread from his plate, suspects the boy is ill. She takes him in a headlock and administers tar-water, pouring the potion down his unwilling throat.

Just before he goes to bed for the evening, Pip hears guns fired in the distance. Joe confirms that the guns have sounded to alert the town that a convict has escaped from prison ship, across the marsh. So terrified is Pip of the convict, that he can hardly sleep. The following morning, he robs Mrs. Joe's pantry of bread, a rind of chess, a jar of mincemeat, a pork pie, and some brandy. Pip mistakenly dilutes the decanter of brandy with tar-water, and replaces it on the pantry shelf, a discovery that is not made until Chapter 4. Afterward, he steals a file from Joe's smithy, then slips off with his booty to meet the convict in the marshes.

Chapter 3 Summary

Brief Summary

On his way to meet the convict, Pip encounters another man in the marshes. This man is also an escaped convict, and he tries, however unsuccessfully, to strike Pip. The man then runs off into the mists. Pip finds the convict he'd met the previous day at their intended meeting place. The convict shivers in the cold, and looks weak and starving. He devours the food Pip has delivered, and Pip regards him respectfully, and with fear. When Pip mentions the other man he had encountered in the marshes that morning, the convict is clearly alarmed by the news, and hurriedly saws away his leg irons with the file Pip has brought him.

Detailed Summary

Pip treks through the marshes to reunite with the convict and deliver to him the food and file he has stolen from home. Before he finds this convict however, Pip comes upon another man, also an escaped convict who has taken refuge in the marshes. The man attempts, unsuccessfully, to punch Pip, then scurries away into the mist. Pip finds his intended convict at their planned meeting spot, shivering in the cold, looking weakened and pathetic. Pip regards the convict with caution and kindness, handing over to him the food. The convict remains gruff, but is less violent than on the previous day. Upon Pip's mention of the other convict, however, the man becomes harsh and frantic, visibly upset by the news. Hurriedly, he saws away his leg iron with the file. Pip runs home, through the mists, the file sawing audibly in the distance.

Chapters 1-3 Analysis

The first three chapters of Great Expectations introduce the novel's protagonist and narrator, young Pip, and build a sense of mystery, particularly around the escaped convict, that sets the foundation for the central plot of this classic novel. Pip is the central character of the novel, which is told retrospectively, in his words. His retrospection, however, is not colored by his age; Pip relates his story as he perceived it at whatever age he experienced it. The convict, therefore, is just as frightening to Pip in his adult memory as he was when he met him as a young boy.

Great Expectations serves as a careful character study of Pip, detailing his transition from youth to adulthood in classic bildungsroman form. At the onset of the novel, Pip seems a boy with good intentions who wants to do what is morally right, but who struggles to make the right decisions. These characteristics are particularly evident in Pip's relationship with the convict, who the boy feels obligated to serve, though he is terrified and repulsed by him. Despite his fear and revulsion, Pip risks his own well-being to aid the convict. Initially, it is out of terror that he does so, but, in time, Pip becomes more compassionate and even worries about the convict's safety when he learns that the police are searching for him.

The first chapters of the novel also illuminate one of Pip's most omnipresent qualities: his all-consuming guilt and anxiety. After stealing food from Mrs. Joe's pantry, and the file from Joe's smithy, Pip is full of remorse, his every thought devoted to the daunting prospect of being discovered a liar and a thief. Pip's conscience is tremendous, and though he may do wrong, he is never unaware of it. Curiously, Pip does not ask Joe, Mrs. Joe, or the authorities for help when he is threatened by the convict. Instead, he takes the responsibility upon himself, feeling dutifully that he must fulfill his obligation to the haggard man who so frightened him in the marshes. The thick mists and dank cold of the marshes also serve the plot, creating an eerie, mysterious atmosphere. Frequently throughout the novel, Dickens employs setting to create an atmosphere that correlates to the novel's turn in plot.

Pip seems a remarkably brave character to set out on his own into the eerie marsh, and to return to the gruff, violent convict after he has made such horrifying threats on him. At other points in the novel, Pip must exhibit a similar bravery, embarking on his own into a frightening, unknown place and managing to survive. Pip's feeling of setting out on his own into the unfamiliar develops into a prominent motif in the novel.

The early introduction of the convict, who, it is later revealed, is named Magwitch , creates a bothersome mystery yet unsolved. Although Pip is certain that he will never see the convict again, the mystery remains, indicating that the convict will surely reappear in future plot developments. As the story unfurls, Pip learns that Magwitch, the man who so terrified him in his childhood, is his secret benefactor, the man who has helped Pip's great expectations come to fruition.

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