Seven-year-old Pip walks through a churchyard on a cold, gray day before Christmas, visiting the graves of his parents. He lives in the marsh area of Kent where the River Thames meets the sea. Orphaned as a baby, he lives with his sister, Georgiana, who is twenty years older than he, and her husband, Joe Gargery, the village blacksmith. Suddenly a convict "with a great iron on his leg" confronts him. The convict has escaped from the nearby prison ships called the Hulks. After turning Pip upside down and finding only a piece of bread, the starving man threatens to eat his fat cheeks. Learning that Pip lives with a blacksmith, he agrees to let Pip live as long as he returns the next morning with some "wittles" and a file from Joe's forge. To further ensure Pip's help, the convict tells him there is a young man with him who will eat his heart and liver if he fails to return. Pip agrees to help and then watches the man stumble away.
Pip returns to his home and is warned by Joe that his sister is on a ram-page [rampage] looking for him. She returns a short time later and lets him have it on the backside with the "Tickler," a wax-tipped cane. She has "brought him up by hand," something that gains her respect from all the neighbors, and Pip notices she is quick to use the hand on him and Joe. At supper, Pip slips his bread in his pants leg to save it for the convict. Joe, concerned that Pip has swallowed the bread whole and might choke, expresses his worry. Mrs. Joe responds by pounding Joe's head against the wall and calling him a great stuck pig, then pouring Tar-water down both Pip's and Joe's throats. Later that night, they hear guns from the prison ship firing, announcing the escape of another convict.
Unable to sleep, Pip gets up early to steal the food and file, and then sets out to deliver them. He runs into a second convict and assumes him to be the young man who eats boys' livers. Running in terror, Pip finds "his" convict. While watching the man devour the food, Pip expresses concern about not leaving enough food for the young man who is waiting. The convict realizes he is not alone on the marshes, and suspecting it is an enemy of his, starts madly filing his leg iron while Pip escapes.
Dickens gets right to the action. Within the first few paragraphs, he has introduced the main character, Pip, conveyed that the story is being told in first person by Pip when he is older, given the location of the story, revealed that Pip is an orphan with five dead brothers, and introduced the conflict: a convict in need of help. The choice of the retrospective first-person narrator is effective because the reader immediately feels part of an intimate and confessional conversation.
Description is one of Dickens' strengths and weaknesses, as seen in the quote describing the convict: " . . . a man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin." It is rich with detail, creating a crisp vision of the man, and it is overloaded with detail, making the reader wonder if Dickens will ever stop. Yet there is no question he has a gift for bringing the reader right into the place, in this case " . . . a bleak place overgrown with nettles . . . dark flat wilderness . . . intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it."
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