The opening chapters of any novel are key in introducing the reader to the storyline. There are numerous ways in which to attach the reader early on in, and to, the novel. The opening chapters are where the reader will become acquainted with key characters, become involved in the characters’ lives, and get an overall feeling/mood about the novel. It is important that these opening chapters, then, are skilfully written so that the reader becomes involved in all aspects of the novel to come. The main settings in the opening chapters of Great Expectations are that of the churchyard, Pip’s home, and the marshes.
Each of these settings deliver a sombre mood, which is especially evident in those settings based outside. This is because the wide-open spaces are harsher than those inside, and Pip is less familiar with them. The external world also offers Dickens to experiment with the idea of Pip being afraid of things he cannot see, and therefore gives Pip an unsettled feeling, which is passed on to an involved reader. Dickens begins Great Expectations with Pip at his family’s gravestones in the churchyard. Despite the fact the scene is largely about death, the mood is briefly lifted by Pip’s light-hearted description of the graves before him.
This informs us that Pip has experienced loss and death at an early age, and may be able to cope in certain situations better than other children of his age; however, this could also show that Pip is lacking in certain life experiences and this may affect him and his choices negatively in his future. Pip’s five little brothers ‘gave up trying to get a living exceedingly early in that universal struggle’. The fact that they had ‘given in’ to death, but Pip himself hadn’t, shows us his strength and determination to succeed. Knowing this, this early, about Pip’s character infuses the reader with a sense of optimism about Pip and his future.
The use of the setting of the graveyard works a mood of isolation and desolation; Pip is isolated by the fact he is an orphan. The graveyard itself is described as ‘bleak’ and ‘overgrown’, showing that it has been neglected – much like Pip himself. The repetition of ‘dead and buried’ further lowers the mood. Pip recalls that his ‘most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things’ is placed at a time between light and dark- possibly symbolising the transition from good to bad, which may become relevant later in Pip’s life.
The derelict setting is reflected in the mood as Dickens goes on to describe the landscape surrounding the churchyard. He continually describes it as a ‘dark flat wilderness’, which is dreary in appearance, but with possibilities of deep and unknown dangers. There are obstacles on the marshes such as dykes, mounds and gates, which work as visual obstructions as well as symbols for possible upcoming obstacles in Pip’s life. Dickens maintains the use of words such as ‘flat’, ‘low’ and ‘dark’ which gives an eerie feel and dense mood to the opening chapter.