The story opens with the narrator, Pip, who introduces himself and describes an image of himself as a boy, standing alone and crying in a churchyard near some marshes. Young Pip is staring at the gravestones of his parents, who died soon after his birth. This tiny, shivering bundle of a boy is suddenly terrified by the voice of large, bedraggled man who threatens to cut Pip's throat if he doesn't stop crying.
The man, dressed in a prison uniform with a great iron shackle around his leg, grabs the boy and shakes him upside down, emptying his pockets. The man devours a piece of bread which falls from the boy, then barks questions at him. Pip tells him that yes, he is an orphan and that he lives with his sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, the wife of a blacksmith, about a mile from the church. The man tells Pip that if he wants to live, he'll go down to his house and bring him back some food and a file for the shackle on his leg. Pip agrees to meet him early the next morning and the man walks back into the marshes.
Dickens introduces us immediately to Pip, who serves as both the young protagonist of Great Expectations and the story's narrator looking back on his own story as an adult. With this two-level approach, Dickens leads the reader through young Pip's life with the immediacy and surprise of a first person narration while at the same time guiding with an omnipotent narrator who knows how it will all turn out. The adult narrator Pip will foreshadow future events throughout the story by using signs and symbols.
Dickens uses this duality to great effect in the first chapter, where we are personally introduced to Pip as if we were in a pleasant conversation with him: "I give Pirrip as my father's family name..." Immediately after this, however, we are thrown into the point of view of a terrified young child being mauled by an escaped convict.
The narrator Pip then presents an interesting, and prophetic, relationship between the boy and the bullying man. At first, the relationship appears to be based solely on power and fear. The man yells at the boy only to get what he wants, a file and some food, and the boy only responds for fear of his life. And yet, after they part, the young Pip keeps looking back at the man as he walks alone into the marshes. The image of the man holding his arms around him, alone on the horizon save a pole associated with the death of criminals, is strikingly 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, then, the relationship seems to warm. They share a common loneliness and a common marginalization from society, 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. It is the relationship which will cause Pip's great expectations for himself to rise and fall.
Pip runs home to his sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, and his adoptive father, Joe Gargery. Mrs. Joe is a loud, angry, nagging woman who constantly reminds Pip and her husband Joe of the difficulties she has gone through to raise Pip and take care of the house. Pip finds solace from these rages in Joe, who is more his equal than a paternal figure, and they are united under a common oppression.
During the dinner, Pip nervously steals a piece of bread. Early the next morning, Pip steals food and a pork pie from the pantry shelf and a file from Joe's forge and runs back to the marshes.
The reader's sympathy once again is directed at Pip who not only lost his parents but is being raised by a raging, bitter woman. A common criticism inherent in many of Dickens' novels is the abuse of children in society at large. Although he paints Mrs. Joe in a rather humorous light at times, the reader is still keenly aware of the fear in which this poor child grew up.
Character names in Dickens' works are often codes which reflect a characteristic of the person or their station. Mrs. Joe's name can be decoded to reflect humorous irony on Dicken's part. Although the wife of Joe has taken both his names in the classic patriarchal manner (usually connoting that the wife is the property of the man) the Gragery household is anything but patriarchal. In fact, her husband is treated as little more than a child and Pip and he are the submissive ones.
The next morning, Pip sneaks out of the house and back to the marshes. He finds a man, wet and cold and dressed like a convict, but he turns out to be a different convict from the man who had threatened him the night before. This man has a badly bruised face and wears a broad-brimmed hat. He runs away from Pip without speaking to him. Pip finally finds his man and gives him the food. The man reacts with anger when Pip tells him about the other convict. Pip leaves him filing at his shackle and returns home.
The second meeting of Pip and the convict is much more civil and sympathetic than the first. Pip even puts away his fear to say, "I am glad you enjoy it," as the convict eats. Since he stole the food and file, Pip is now the convict's partner in crime and feels closer to the man.
Great Expectations is sometimes called, among other things, a mystery or suspense novel, and in this chapter we see elements of that genre. Dickens uses secrets as a way of heightening suspense throughout the novel. Someone is always hiding something from someone else. Sometimes these secrets are clear to the reader and makes the reader a partner in crime with the characters, as we are with Pip last as he sneaks around his house, terrified of getting caught, stealing food. Other times the reader is left out of the secret but we are given the impression that it is an important thing that we need to find out, as in the case of the two convicts. We know that there is some connection between the two that is important to the story but we are given very few clues to help us.
Pip returns home to find Mrs. Joe preparing the house for Christmas dinner. She has invited Mr. Wopsle, the church clerk, Mr. Hubble the wheelwright and Mrs. Hubble and Uncle Pumblechook who was a "well to do corn-chandler" who "drove his own chaise-cart." The discussion over dinner was how fortunate Pip should feel about being raised "by hand" by Mrs. Joe and how much trouble she has gone through in that endeavor, though Pip's opinion was never requested. Mr. Pumblechook nearly chokes on some brandy after the meal and Pip realizes that he poured tar water in the brandy bottle when he stole some for the convict. Mrs. Joe becomes too busy in the kitchen to afford a full investigation, but then announces that she is going to present the pork pie. Sure that he is going to get caught, Pip jumps up from the table and runs to the door, only to meet face to face with a group of soldiers who appear to be there to arrest him.
The suspense grows in this chapter as the reader and Pip fearfully await the discovery by Mrs. Joe of the things which are missing from the kitchen. The apprehension is kept light, however, with a foolish dialogue between the adults over how much trouble Pip is to raise for Mrs. Joe. Mr. Pumblechook is presented as a loud mouth idiot, full of himself. The only sympathetic character is Joe, who continues to make gestures of support toward Pip. Dicken's little social commentary here is clear: It is often the dim witted and poor (Joe) who act with more grace and charity than wealthy loud mouths (Mr. Pumblechook and Mr. Wopsle) who claim that they do.
The soldiers do not want to arrest Pip but they do need a pair of handcuffs fixed by Joe. They are invited in, Mr. Pumblechook offers up Mrs. Joe's sherry and port, and Joe gets to work on the handcuffs in the forge. They are, in fact, hunting two convicts who were seen recently in the marshes. After Joe fixes the handcuffs, he, Pip, and Mr. Wopsle are allowed to follow the soldiers into the marshes. They soon find the two convicts wrestling each other in the mud. The one with the hat accuses the other, Pip's convict, of trying to kill him, but the other replies that he would have done it if he really wanted to. Instead, he had been the one who had called for the soldiers and was willing to sacrifice himself just so the one with the hat would get caught again.
The bring the two back to a boathouse where Pip's convict, eyeing Pip, admits to stealing Mrs. Joe's pork pie by himself, thus getting Pip off the hook.
Joe and Pip watch as the two convicts are brought back to the prison ship.
The reader is presented with the question of why the two convcts are fightng each other. Pip's convict goes so far as to say that he deliberately got himself caught, just so he could make sure the man with the hat would go back to prison. What hatred did this man have that would make him go back to prison just to see another suffer as well?
The relationship between the convict and Pip continues to grow as well, even though they do not speak and the convict hardly looks at him. The convict obviously wants to protect the boy and, suspecting Pip may be threatened, takes the blame for stealing the pork pie. The two are, once again, united in secrecy.
Joe, Pip, and Mr. Wopsle walk back home. Pop decides not to tell Joe the truth about his file and the pork pie -- he is afraid of losing his respect. When they return, the topic of discussion is the question of how the convict managed to get into the locked house. Through his bombastic overbearance, Mr. Pumblechook's argument wins: the convict crawled down the chimney. Mrs. Joe sends Pip to bed.
Pip's fear that Joe would "think worse of me than I was" if Pip told him about the file and pork pie is a fear that Pip will revisit throughout his young life. Joe is the only friend in the world for Pip, he is his entire society. Pip fears to lose this companionship by telling the truth. In the future, Pip will struggle with telling the truth because of the fear that society will think less of him.
Pip describes a little of his education with Mr. Wopsle's great aunt, a "ridiculous old lady" who had started a small school in her cottage. The education, as Pip describes it, is less than satisfactory, but Pip does learn some basics from Biddy, an orphan girl who works for Mrs. Wopsle.
While doing his homework one night, Pip discovers that Joe is illiterate. Joe explains that he never stayed in school long because his father, a drunk and physically abusive to him and his mother, kept him out. Joe goes on to explain to Pip that, because of his father, Joe stays humble to Mrs. Joe. "I'm dead afeerd of going wrong in the way of not doing what's right by a woman," he says. He let's Mrs. Joe "Ram-page" over him because he sees how difficult it is to be a woman, remembering his mother, and he wants to do the right thing as a man. Pip has new understanding and respect for Joe.
Mrs. Joe comes home, quite excited, and proclaims that Pip is going to "play" for Miss Havisham, "a rich and grim lady who lived in a large and dismal house." Uncle Pumblechook suggested Pip to Miss Havisham when she asked if he knew any small boys. Pip was to go tomorrow and spend the evening at Uncle Pumblechook's in town.
Chapter Seven and Chapter Eight mark a key turning point in the novel, separating Pip's young childhood in the humble company of Joe from the beginnings of greater expectations in the company of higher society.
The chapter presents a relationship between Joe and Pip which is growing in love and respect. Joe is at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and, particularly, at the bottom of his household's hierarchy but Pip finds new respect for his position. "I had a new sensation of feeling conscious that I was looking up to Joe in my heart." The image is almost ideal: the young Pip and Joe sitting next to the fire, Pip admiring him and teaching him the alphabet.
Dickens contrasts this humble setting with the opportunity presented at the end of the chapter by the noisy entrance and rather insolent announcement by Mrs. Joe. She introduces the first of Pip's "great expectations" in the form of the job given to Pip "to play" for Miss Havisham: "...this boy's fortune may be made by his going to Miss Havisham's." Although little is known about the wealthy woman, and less is known exactly how Pip is supposed to "play," the opportunity is one where Pip will be in the company of a higher social and economic class of people.
Pip spends the evening at Mr. Pumblechook's and is brought to Miss Havisham's after a meager breakfast. They are met at the gate by a young woman, Estella, "who was very pretty and seemed very proud." Estella lets Pip in, but sends Mr. Pumblechook on his way. She leads him through a dark house by candle and leaves him outside a door. He knocks and is let in. There he meets Miss Havisham, a willowy, yellowed woman dressed in an old wedding gown. She calls for Estella and the two play cards, despite Estella's objection that Pip was just a "common labouring-boy." "Well," says Miss Havisham, "you can break his heart." Estella insults Pip's coarse hands and his thick boots as they play.
Smarting from the insults, Pip later cries as he eats lunch in the great house's yard. He explores the yard and the garden, always seeing Estella in the distance walking ahead of him. Finally, she lets him out of the yard and he walks the four miles home, feeling low.
Dickens uses strong imagery to describe Miss Havisham's house ("The Manor House" or the "Satis House") as barren of feelings or even life, even before we meet the bitter Miss Havisham and the rude Estella: "The cold wind seemed to blow colder there, than outside the gate..." Again we have a strange mystery: Why is this woman always in the dark, and dressed in a wedding gown? Who is the young and pretty Estella and what is she doing in such a morbid place?
Pip's first taste of "higher society" is a bitter one, and it leaves him ashamed and embarrassed rather than justifiably angry. Pip is, in fact, just a toy for both Miss Havisham, who wants him to "play," and Estella, who treats him roughly while at the same time flirts. Pip, torn between being insulted and his attraction to Estella, opts to feel ashamed of his upbringing -- so much so that he "wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up." His new found respect and love for Joe was being spoiled by his embarrassment of being brought up in a lower class family.
Pip is forced to talk about his day to Mrs. Joe and Mr. Pumblechook. Pip lies in a fantastical matter, making up stories about dogs being fed veal and Miss Havisham lounging on a velvet couch. He lies, partly in spite, but also because he is sure that the two would not understand the situation at the Satis House even if he described it in detail..
Later, Pip tells Joe the truth, and also confesses that he is embarrassed about being a "commoner" because of his attraction to Estella.
Joe reassures him that he is not common, he is uncommon small and an uncommon scholar. Referring to Pip's lies, he adds, "If you can't get to be oncommon through going straight, you'll never get to do it through going crooked."
Joe's analysis, though phrased in what Pip would call "common" language, is accurate: Pip is trying to become "uncommon" by lying about his experiences. Pip made up lies about the Satis House with the intention of glorifying it in front of the eager Mr. Pumblechook and Mrs. Joe, both of whom eat it up. While Pip is naively honest in admitting to Joe that he wants to become uncommon, he is intelligent enough to know that he can become uncommon by being dishonest, or, as Joe would have it, "crooked."
One of the main themes of the book is spelled out in this chapter, specifically, the desire to rise above one's social station. Dickens, writing this book toward the end of his life, is speaking directly of his own youthful desires and those of his father as well. As the story of Pip unfolds and we witness the different ways in which Pip tries to climb the social ladder -- by making up fantastical stories in this case -- it will be interesting to listen to the running commentary made by the narrator, the older Pip, who, like Dickens himself, is looking back on this theme and reflecting on how it affected his happiness later on in life.
Pip states plainly that he wants to be uncommon and so, taking to heart Joe's advice that "you must be a common scholar afore you can be a oncommon one," he asks Biddy at the small school to help him get educated. Mr. Wopsle's great-aunt's school is little more than a play school and Pip understands it will be hard to concentrate on some actual learning, but Biddy agrees and gives Pip some books to start with.
On the way home, Pip goes into a pub to pick up Joe. He finds Joe sitting with a stranger, a man with one eye pulled closed and a worn hat on his head. The man asks Joe all kinds of personal questions, some about Pip's relation to him, the whole time staring at Pip. At one point, the man stirs his drink with Joe's file -- the file Pip stole to give to the convict! As Joe and Pip depart, the stranger hands Pip a coin wrapped in paper.
When they get home, Pip realizes that the paper is actually a two pound note. Thinking it was a mistake (though Pip knows somehow that it wasn't) Joe runs back to the pub to give it back but the man is gone.
Pip, excited at the beginning of the chapter by the prospect of educating himself to become uncommon, is reminded of his common, and somewhat illegitimate, past by the stranger in the pub. As he goes to sleep, he is bothered by the fact that it is uncommon to be "on secret terms of conspiracy with convicts."
The man clearly knew something about Pip assisting the convict and wanted Pip to know that he did. How he knows remains a mystery, but Pip's immediate fear is how his past will "haunt" him as he tries to climb out of his common background.