How does Dickens introduce the main themes and concerns of the novel in the opening chapters of “Great Expectations”?
“Great Expectations” is a “Tragi-comedy” written by the famous novelist Charles Dickens during the early 19th centaury. It is synonymous with the suffering of real people during the Victorian Era, and it looks at life from the downcast eyes of a small boy unknowingly pitched as an apt pinup boy for the era of poverty and hardship, in harsh juxtaposition with the perspective later on in the novel of a boy with whom the riches of life cling to like moss on an old oak. The novel itself was originally designed to keep Dickens’ weekly magazine, “All year round” in business; to do this he needed a novel that would appeal to all types of readers: those who favoured romance, those who craved mystery and those who loved gruesome horror, those who loved a little bit of excitement and those who wanted easy reading as well as those, like dickens himself, who a objectionable rusted mirror, a book that would change things, signify the hard times. It is this patchwork quilt of genres that the book was supposedly meant to slot into, without losing its moral compass or excitement or plot, that shape the novel into a mismatched mélange of themes, stuck haphazardly together by the glue that makes the very basis of all good reads, a decent writer.
The themes of the book vary and clash but in short they include: self achievement/improvement, justice and betrayal, pride and revenge, crime and guilt, astonishing imagery and of course romance. The aim of this paper is simply to scrutinise these said themes and examine how Dickens introduces them in the early steps of the book, so to start as we mean to continue, let’s begin with examining the very first of these themes, and one could argue the most important or at least the most commonly referred, that of self improvement.
The moral theme of Great Expectations is quite simple: affection, loyalty, and conscience are more important than social advancement, wealth, and class. Dickens establishes the theme and shows Pip learning this lesson, largely by exploring ideas of ambition and self-improvement—ideas that quickly become both the thematic centre of the novel and the psychological mechanism that encourages much of Pip's development. At heart, Pip is an idealist; whenever he can conceive of something that is better than what he already has, he immediately desires to obtain the improvement. We see this very early on in the novel, when he first sets eyes on Satis House and Estella; he longs to be a wealthy gentleman. It may not make him a better person, or even make him happy, but he does not realise this. And maybe this is something we can forgive, as when he originally longs for improvement he is indeed very young and naive in the ways of the world, but maybe it is something that he should have grown out of with age. We see Pip’s desire for self improvement rear its scarred head once or twice again during the early stages of the novel, for example, in the early chapters when he thinks of his moral shortcomings, he longs deeply to be good. “”, and again, when he realizes that he cannot read, he longs to learn how. Pip's desire for self-improvement is the main source of the novel's title: because he believes in the possibility of advancement in life, he has “Great Expectations” about his future.
Ambition and self-improvement take three forms in Great Expectations—moral, social, and educational; these motivate Pip's unwaveringly throughout the novel. First, Pip desires moral self-improvement. When he steals the food Magwitch, he feels awful about his immoral actions and because of this he is extremely hard on himself and feels powerful gut-renching guilt that spurs him to act better in the future. When he leaves for London, for instance, he torments himself about having behaved so wretchedly toward Joe and Biddy. Second, Pip desires social self-improvement from the very...
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