Guides readers through Dickens’s quintessential coming-of-age novel, Great Expectations, exploring perennial themes related to the nature of love, justice, and heroism.
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About the Author
Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for nearly 50 years. He has authored or edited over fifty books, including The Word of God in English and A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society's annual meetings and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version Bible.
Read an Excerpt
Terror in the Churchyard
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A good preliminary exercise for every episode in a story is to analyze what there is about the story material or technique that arouses our interest. Novelist E. M. Forster gives classic expression to this principle: a story "can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next." Dickens has an unfailing knack for making us want to know what happens next.
Dickens is a master realist, basing his material on close observation of real life. Paradoxically, though, he makes continuous use of fairy tale material.
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Preliminary note about format. Dickens published Great Expectations with chapters that bear numbers only, without titles. The descriptive chapter titles in this guide have been added to help us identify and remember what makes each chapter distinctive.
Seven-year-old Pip is lingering in a churchyard (British term for a cemetery adjacent to a church) on a late winter afternoon. His parents and five siblings lie buried before him. In this spooky setting, "a fearful man" leaps from behind a tombstone and grabs Pip. The fearful man turns out to be an escaped convict, and his cross-examining of Pip yields him the information that Pip lives in the home of the local blacksmith. The convict turns Pip upside down and threatens him with death if he does not appear the next morning with a file and food. Thus terrorized, Pip "ran home without stopping."
The opening page and chapter of a novel are the crucial test that every successful novelist must pass. The storyteller needs to put something in front of readers to draw them into the story and arouse enough interest to make them want to keep reading. Dickens has obviously cast his lot with the evocation of terror as his "hook" into the story. Everything that happens in this famous opening chapter evokes terror.
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This chapter uses conventions of the opening of ghost stories: a figure of terror springs from behind a grave at twilight on a winter afternoon as the wind howls and a hangman's gibbet is silhouetted against the sky.
This novel is thoroughly rooted in the England of Dickens's day — so much so that it ranks as regional writing (writing that contains numerous references to a specific geographic region). One can go to a cemetery in Cooling in Kent and find the row of family graves that Dickens claims as the model for his description on the first page of this novel.
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The first terror is the setting: winter, late afternoon, a churchyard, biting weather, an escaped convict capturing a helpless seven-year-old, a hangman's gibbet silhouetted against the sky. The process of interrogation that the convict imposes on Pip intensifies the terror. So do the threats that the convict unleashes, such as the threat to tear out Pip's heart and liver. The physical posture of Pip heightens the effect, as we see Pip shivering while sitting on a tombstone, being turned upside down so the bread in his pocket will fall out, and running home as the cattle lift their heads to stare at him.
But of course this is also our introduction to the first-person narrator and protagonist of the story. He is the archetypal child, first of all, and his way of thinking is naïve and childish. Second, he is an orphan, in important ways alone in the world, looking down at the graves of seven family members on the first page of the novel. Additionally, we catch an early glimpse of Pip's current family situation, with his sister as a sinister mother figure and the local blacksmith as a substitute father.
For Reflection or Discussion
Chapter 1 can be summarized under the formula "design for terror"; what things make up the terror? What feelings are evoked? What details show Dickens's skill at creating atmosphere?CHAPTER 2
Terror at Home
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An important feature of every story, but of a novel especially, is that the storyteller creates a whole world of the imagination that we enter as we read. The opening pages of a novel constitute our entry into that world. We need to operate on the premise that everything that the author includes is an important part of the world that gets set in motion as the story unfolds. Accordingly, noting the features of the imagined world is an important part of our analytic task.
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This chapter narrates what happened at home on the evening after Pip had been terrorized in the churchyard. Terror in the churchyard at the hands of a convict is now succeeded by a scene of abuse at the hands of Pip's sister, who functions in Pip's life as a surrogate mother. Most of the chapter is devoted to filling out the picture of Pip's home situation, through a pattern known as a foil (based on "to set off"). The unpleasantness of Pip's sister and the compassionate nature of Joe Gargery (who married Pip's sister and fills the role of father to him) stand out, highlighted by being contrasted to each other.
The second half of the chapter shifts from an emphasis on characterization (of Joe and his wife) to plot. We learn that the time is Christmas Eve and additionally that there has been an escape from the convict ship that is regularly docked in the marshes on the edge of town. This, of course, ties into the man who captured Pip in the churchyard and to whom Pip feels obliged to provide a file and food the next morning. Pip endures a sleepless night, ridden with anxiety about his morning mission. The chapter ends with Pip leaving the house and running "for the misty marshes."
The first phase of a well-made plot is exposition — the dispensing of background information that readers need to know before the plot conflict can begin. In Great Expectations this exposition lasts for seven chapters. This chapter gives us a "slice of life" in Pip's home situation. It is a mixed situation, with the harshness of Pip's sister contrasted to the innate good nature of Joe Gargery.
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In the early chapters of Great Expectations, Dickens shows his genius at portraying childhood psychology. Much of it is humorous, as when on page one Pip concludes on the basis of the lettering on his parents' tombstones that his father was a "square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair," and his mother "freckled and sickly." But on a more somber note, we relive childhood fears as Dickens takes us inside the mind of the seven-year-old Pip.
One way in which storytellers make us want to keep reading is to create characters about whose destinies we are made to care. This applies preeminently to the protagonist and explains the leisurely pace of the novel in this chapter: Dickens wants us to get to know his protagonist and is in no hurry to return Pip to the marshes.
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Humor is a Dickens hallmark, and we need to be alert to it. Even in the most oppressive of situations portrayed in this novel, there is often a note of humor. For example, Pip sits in terror at the supper table because he needs to save bread for the convict, yet the whole scene in which he "bolts his food" is handled in a comic manner. Often it is Dickens's way of expressing something (his "way with words") that produces the humor, as when Pip describes his sister's practice of shoving him in irritation with the statement: "I often served as a connubial missile."
As the scene continues to unfold, Dickens skillfully introduces a note of foreshadowing about the action that we know will take place in the churchyard the next morning. The criminal motif will be of central importance in the story, and we are given a lot of information about an unusual feature of Pip's hometown, namely, the continuous presence of convict ships in the marshes, where criminals are set to work. The chapter ends on a note of high suspense as Pip steals a file and food and heads out for the marshes.
For Reflection or Discussion
What are the important features of Pip's home situation? Why do you think Dickens gave such a detailed picture of the domestic life in the Gargery household? What additional features of the world of the novel emerge in the chapter?CHAPTER 3
In the Churchyard Again
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In his classic short essay entitled "On Stories," C. S. Lewis makes it clear that he greatly values the quality of atmosphere in a story. Dickens is a master at creating atmosphere. Another way of getting at this quality of good stories is to say that world making is one of the most important tasks of a storyteller.
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The design for terror continues in this episode. The scene is as spooky as it had been in chapter 1. A thick mist blankets the scene. The cattle stare in a frightening manner. We expect the worst. But at least we think we know what will happen, until Dickens springs a new terror on us: the first person Pip meets is, indeed, a convict, but not the one Pip had met the afternoon before. But Pip presses on with his mission and eventually comes to the original convict, who devours the food as a dog eats. Our curiosity is aroused (but not satisfied) when the convict is greatly agitated by the news of another convict loose in the region. The chapter ends on a note of high drama (a forte of Dickens) with the convict "filing at his iron [chain] like a madman."
The first thing to do is relish the descriptive genius of Dickens. No one has ever excelled Dickens's ability to describe the physical details of a setting. We also need to understand that this novel is "vintage British" in the pictures of landscape and weather that Dickens gives us. The means by which a storyteller awakens and maintains our interest are many, and one method is the creation of scenes that are so impelling to our imagination that we want to keep reading.
Balancing this attention to setting is the characterization of the original convict — the "fearful man," as he is called in chapter 1. We learn more and more about this figure — about his physical suffering on the cold marsh, his fear about being recaptured, and about his antagonism (not yet explained) toward the other escaped convict (an antagonism we only slightly detect, but that will explode just a few chapters later). A key moment occurs halfway through the chapter that would be easy to overlook entirely but that is actually one of the main events in the chapter. "Something clicked" in the throat of the convict, and Pip responds by feeling and expressing pity for the convict. Pip says, "I am glad you enjoy" the food. A bond has been established between Pip and the convict that will be a mainspring of the story's action.
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Great stories require that we reread them. On a first reading we are not fully aware of the eventual significance of certain details. This chapter is a prime example. It contains hints of things — clues laid down — that explode with significance when we reach later phases of the story. Two examples are the clicking in the convict's throat accompanied by Pip's gesture of compassion and the convict's intense and implicitly hostile feeling toward the other fugitive on the marsh.
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For Reflection or Discussion
What descriptive touches are particularly striking? How does the convict come alive in your imagination as the chapter unfolds? At what moments do you sense that something has just happened that possesses a hidden and as yet unknown significance?CHAPTER 4
A Memorable Christmas Dinner
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The comedy of this episode is unmistakable, but there is a dark underside as well: Pip continues to be mistreated by the adults. And this brings us to an important feature of the novel as a whole: convict and child are strangely bonded in this story, and what they have in common is that they are both outsiders in their society and at some level victims of it.
The British have always excelled in producing idiosyncrasies of character, and Dickens is a master at portraying them. The four new characters introduced into the story in this chapter are prime specimens, especially Uncle Pumblechook and Mr. Wopsle.
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Stories are constructed on the principle of a back-and-forth rhythm between contrasting elements. The first six chapters of Great Expectations keep alternating between the sinister marsh and the Gargery house. Despite the obvious contrasts represented by this alternation, there are also things that remain constant across the chapters. The primary "constant" in these chapters is that adults terrorized the boy Pip.
The main action in this chapter is the account of Christmas dinner at the Gargery household. Four unforgettable local townspeople join the Gargery household for Christmas dinner. There is a double focus: the annual Christmas dinner rituals of a typical British household are reenacted before us, and we overhear the table conversation of this particular Christmas dinner. The element of terror stems from the fact that Pip knows all through the meal that in fulfilling his obligations to the convict he has (a) replaced the container of brandy with a bad-tasting mixture known at the time as Tar-water and (b) removed a much-anticipated pork pie from the pantry. The suspense becomes so unbearable for Pip that at the end of the chapter he makes a bolt from the table.
Two things hold the key to the enjoyment of this chapter. First, it is a comic masterpiece. Highlights include the physical description of Uncle Pumblechook, the idiosyncrasies of personality among the guests, the conversation around the table, the style with which Dickens expresses certain things, and the scene in which Uncle Pumblechook drinks the horrible-tasting Tar-water.
Second, Dickens is often said to be "the man who invented Christmas" in England. This is of course an exaggeration, but the fact remains that in his Christmas stories Dickens codified the spirit and practices of English Christmas-keeping. Chapter 4 of Great Expectations ranks as a "primary text" for documenting what Christmas was like in Victorian England. We need to allow Christmas dinner in the Gargery house to come alive in our imagination.
For Reflection or Discussion
What details constitute the humor of this chapter? What is the contrasting dark side of what happens around the dinner table? What makes a Victorian Christmas inviting as we reenact it in this chapter?CHAPTER 5
Chase and Capture on the Marsh
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The archetype at work in this chapter is familiar to storytelling and to real life. It is variously known as the "flight and pursuit" motif and the "chase and capture" motif. Literary critics would also identify the fight between the two convicts as a "scene of violence."
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The Christmas dinner scene had ended with Pip bolting for the door, where he had run right into a soldier holding handcuffs. The party of soldiers has appeared on the Gargery doorstep in search of a blacksmith who can fix the handcuffs as part of their search to capture the escaped convicts. Quickly the action shifts to a chase scene on the marsh. Joe and Pip join the excitement of the chase. The convicts are captured, but the plotline does not exactly run in the conventional path. When the soldiers come upon the convicts, they are engaged in a life-and-death hand fight. One of the convicts is in extreme fear of the other, but at this point it is for us a mystery. The original convict sees Pip in the group, and in an effort to save Pip from reprisal in regard to the stolen food, he claims to have stolen it. Joe responds with sympathy to the convict, saying that he and Pip would not want a convict to have "starved to death, ... poor miserable fellow-creatur." As in an earlier scene, something "clicked in the man's throat again." On a first reading, the detail seems unimportant, but it expresses the convict's emotional response to Pip and Joe's generosity and compassion. Later, the convict acts on his emotional reaction by becoming Pip's anonymous benefactor.
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Yet another genre to which this story belongs is the adventure story. Ernest Baker, in his book A History of the English Novel, has written, "Great Expectations is a novel of adventure, the sort of adventure that might well happen to a person who got himself mixed up with questionable characters, in such a spot as this, close to the convict-ships, or in what really were in those days the wilds of London."
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The back-and-forth swing of the story continues, but the first third of the chapter is a blend of the two story lines that have been emerging. The party of soldiers belongs to the convict story, but as Joe repairs the handcuffs, everyone else perpetuates the Christmas spirit as they stand around drinking wine and chatting. Then the warmth and confined space of the house is replaced by the "cold and threatening weather" and "the dismal wilderness" that the pursuers enter as they track the convicts. The relative quietness of the domestic sphere gives way to shouts and physical exertion. There is even a scene of violence as the two convicts fight each other. In the concluding sentence, the extinguishing of torches as they are "flung hissing into the water" brings this mini-adventure story to a close.
For Reflection or Discussion
What domestic touches serve as a balance to the dominant spirit of physical conflict and eventual violence of the action? If you are unfamiliar with the story as a whole, what details gesture toward some hidden significance? If you are familiar with the subsequent action, what significance do you attribute to such events as the accusations that the two convicts exchange and the conversation between the convict and Joe at the end of the chapter?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dickens's Great Expectations"
Copyright © 2014 Leland Ryken.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Nature and Function of Literature,
Why the Classics Matter,
How to Read a Story,
Great Expectations: The Book at a Glance,
The Author and His Faith,
Storytelling Technique in Dickens,
1 Terror in the Churchyard,
2 Terror at Home,
3 In the Churchyard Again,
4 A Memorable Christmas Dinner,
5 Chase and Capture on the Marsh,
6 Return to Normalcy,
7 Pip's Childhood Education,
8 Pip's Initiation into Life at Miss Havisham's House,
9 Debriefing Back Home,
10 The Mysterious Stranger,
11 Enter the Pocket Family,
12 Life at a Standstill,
13 Pip's Being Apprenticed to Joe,
14 Ashamed of Home,
15 Violence at Home,
16 Crime Scene,
17 Pip at the Crossroads: A Sunday Afternoon Walk with Biddy,
18 Pip's "White Knight" Arrives,
19 Pip Says Good-Bye to the Village,
20 Arrival in London,
21 From Law Office to Pip's Apartment,
22 Meet Herbert Pocket,
23 Dinner at the Pocket House,
24 Getting to Know Mr. Jaggers,
25 Getting to Know Wemmick,
26 Dinner at Mr. Jaggers's House,
27 Joe Visits Pip in London,
28 Journey to the Village,
29 A Strange Meeting at Miss Havisham's House,
30 Return to London,
31 Mr. Wopsle's Acting Career,
32 Visit to Newgate Prison,
33 Meeting Estella in London,
34 Pip as Spendthrift,
35 The Funeral in the Village,
36 Pip Turns Twenty-One,
37 A Second Visit to Wemmick's House,
38 Bad News Regarding Estella,
39 Pip's Benefactor Revealed,
40 The Morning After,
41 The Beginnings of a Plan for Escape,
42 The Life Story of a Reformed Convict,
43 Pip Returns to "Hometown",
44 Pip Confronts Miss Havisham and Estella,
45 Magwitch Changes Location,
46 Further Plans for the Convict's Escape,
47 Still More Terror,
48 Pip Learns Who Estella's Mother Is,
49 Another Visit to Miss Havisham,
50 and 51 Pip Learns Who Estella's Father Is,
52 and 53 Pip's Narrow Escape on the Marshes,
54 Magwitch Is Captured,
55 Developments in Herbert's and Wemmick's Lives,
56 The Sentencing of Magwitch,
57 Pip's Death and Rebirth,
58 Pip's Return to the Village,
59 Pip Attains His Romantic Quest,
The Moral Vision of Great Expectations,
The Religious Vision of Great Expectations,
Glossary of Literary Terms Used in This Book,
What People are Saying About This
“It is hard to imagine a better guide than Leland Ryken to help readers navigate the classics. In an age in desperate need of recovering the permanent things, I am thankful that Crossway and Ryken have teamed up to produce excellent guides to help Christians take up and read the books which have shaped the western intellectual tradition.”
—Bradley G. Green, Associate Professor of Christian Thought and Tradition, Union University; writer-in-residence, Tyndale House, Cambridge