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Language and atmosphere Essay

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Analyse the importance of chapter one of Great expectations with regard to character, plot, theme, language and atmosphere In modern society, when our children feel boredom creeping over them, they can turn to the technological wonders of our time, such as computers and televisions, and other gadgets and gizmos that have become commonplace in everyday homes. However, in 1861, the time of the great Charles Dickens, there were no such contraptions, and so children and adults alike turned to the entertainment that books had to offer, and would lose themselves in worlds of imagination, fantasy and the impossible. Dickens’s Great Expectations is an excellent example of 19th century literature and was even published by serialization in Dickens’s own magazine; ‘All the year round’. It is a bildungsroman tale that tells the story of a young, poor boy, who is known throughout the novel as ‘Pip’, that has fantastic, and eventually realised dreams of becoming a respected gentleman.

In chapter one, we are introduced to the rather ‘larger than life’ character Magwitch, the stereotypical criminal who the Victorians all love to hate. Our first impression of Magwitch is, just as Charles Dickens intended, of a frightening and dangerous man whose “terrible voice” terrifies Pip and immediately turns us, the readers against him. Dickens does this to reinforce the fact that he is, after all, a criminal, and to highlight the clichd views of the general public.

This could even be viewed as bitter sarcasm, as, although Dickens is bowing to the public mood, he makes it clear for those who look more closely that he does not share the same opinion. On the other hand, Magwitch is also shown in a comical light, “I wish I was a frog. Or an eel!” and we even see a kinder and more vulnerable side, “a man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones…who limped and shivered.”

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The author shows us these different qualities so that we can obtain a greater understanding of the character and view him in a fairer, more sympathetic light. In addition to this, Dickens gives us subtle hints throughout the chapter that Magwitch, like all people shows weakness; “he hugged his shuddering body in both arms” and, through Pip’s narration; “A man whose legs were numbed and stiff”, he tries to make us feel that perhaps even criminals deserve a second chance to be respected pillars of society.

It is very important that Magwitch is introduced in the first chapter, rather than a later chapter, as this establishes tension and atmosphere, and creates a compelling hook that will ensure that the following chapters continue to be purchased. And of course, adding a typical “bad guy” to the equation gives all readers, particularly of the Victorian era, a desperate need to see him beaten! Possibly the most important role that Magwitch plays in Great Expectations is that of the ‘instrument of justice’.

When we first meet Magwitch, he is intimidating Pip in the churchyard, and shouts at him that he will only stop his dangerous accomplice from harming him, if he brings him food. When Pip fulfils his end of the bargain, Magwitch returns the favour, only years later, becoming Pips benefactor and enabling him to start a better, wealthier life. Magwitch, however, is not shown justice, as after months of supporting Pip, he is captured, thrown in a jail cell, and later dies of exhaustion. Once again, this underlines the harsh views of the Victorians and the severe attitude towards criminals in the 19th century.

We are also introduced to Pip in the opening chapter; the main character in Great Expectations, and the novel’s narrator. The story opens with him remembering himself as a boy, standing alone and crying in a churchyard near the marshes; “the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip”. Dickens depicts him as a harmless, caring boy, so as to draw sympathy from the reader, even though at that point in the story, Pip is content with his common life. When Magwitch is introduced, the narrator Pip presents an interesting relationship between himself and the bullying man.

At first, the relationship appears to be based solely on power and fear. The man yells at Pip to get what he wants, a file and some food, and Pip responds, only because he fears for his life. And yet, after they part, the young Pip keeps looking back at the man as he walks away. The image of Magwitch holding his arms around him is remarkably familiar to the initial image of young Pip, holding himself in the cold, alone in the churchyard with the stones of his dead parents. For a moment, the relationship seems to warm.

They share a common loneliness, the orphan and the escaped convict. Even while he is afraid, Pip instinctively displays a sympathetic reaction. This initial meeting, between a small boy and a convict, will develop into the central relationship in the book, which will cause Pip’s great expectations of himself to rise and fall. The author’s decision to assume the character of Pip, and therefore write using first person narrative, proves to be very significant in the development of the story.

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