My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Discussion | Title: Great Expectations (in Context) | Author: Charles Dickens | Ch: Chapter I

First, a suggestion. Read aloud the entire first chapter, which is a brilliant piece of writing. Read it slowly enough to capture the inflections and to allow your imagination to visualize Dickens's description.

Many of his contemporary readers did read his fiction aloud, often doing so for the benefit of an audience (not everyone could afford even the cheal serialized numbers) or for oneself. Published serially in weekly (Great Expectations) or monthly parts, reading aloud protracted the pleasure. Reading aloud was far more common then (typically the master of a middle-class home would routinely read the Bible aloud to the servants) and, as the huge popularity of Dickens's public readings attests, his fiction lent itself to being read aloud, the description becoming more vivid, the drama more intense, and the comic, especially the rhythms of speech, more hilarious. 

That Great Expectations is written in the first person (the only other novel of the fifteen is David Copperfield, and Esther Summerson's half of Bleak House's narration is first-person) is further reason to capture Pip's voice, or really voices, for there are two, the child and the recollecting adult. Moreover, the novel literally opens upon a matter of speech, Pip's calling himself "Pip."

Great Expectations is what is called a novel of education or bildungsroman (Search)Such works describe the growth into adulthood of a young personThe genre begin to proliferate in the 18th century (examples are Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759-67) and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774; rev. 1787)a work based loosely on an episode in Goethe's life. 

The progenitor of such explorations was Jean-Jacques Rousseau's didactic novels about young people, Julie, or the New Heloise (1761) and Émile; or, on Education (1762). But above all there was his own compelling autobiography, the aptly titled Confessions (1770), a pioneering work that explored with stunning honesty the experiences, including masturbation and theft, that made him who he was.

While it was natural that prose and especially the novel would explore the developing self, the endeavor spilled over into poetry and helped engender the greatest poem in English on "the growth of the poet's mind," Wordsworth's epic-length The Prelude. Once we mention poetry, we should include Byron's great comic poem Don Juan. Other examples of the 19th-c. bildungsroman include Austen's Mansfield Park, Scott's Waverley, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Jane Eyre, and Flaubert's A Sentimental Education. And of course David Copperfield and Great Expectations. The interest in the development of the self may take the form of an extensive treatment of childhood or, as in Austen's Emma, dwell on a particular year. Examples from the early 20th century are Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, and the first volume, Swann's Way, of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. 

David Copperfield was Dickens' favorite novel. Recognizing how both it and Great Expectations sprang from the same sources in his past, he read over Copperfield to avoid repetition. They are, though, radically different works, though they share being written in the first person. The most important difference may be where they begin. Copperfield's first chapter is "I Am Born." Great Expectations opens with the hero's being born psychologically, the moment at which he arrives at a distinguishing consciousness of the world and at self-awareness. 

Great Expectations is a subtler and darker treatment of the mind and its response to conditions. David Copperfield is more faithful to salient features of Dickens's life and includes sketches of his parents, some of his schooling, his experience working in the blacking warehouse, and something of his erotic life. And David Copperfield, whose initials are Dickens's reversed, is also a writer.  

Great Expectations is deeper psychologically and  has the density and symbolic structure of a dream. Dickens has himself grown over the last several novels prior to Great Expectations and seems to travel freely through his past, recognizing its relentless hold upon the present despite his being able to anatomize the past. The past, for Dickens, is never past; it is who we are, and its shadows lend depth and meaning to the present.

 

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The opening paragraphs to almost any Dickens novel compress into a microcosm the entire work. This is most true of Great Expectations, for the momentous account here is the first link of what Pip calls the "chain of iron or gold" that shapes a life. Dickens's friend Thomas Carlyle, from whom Dickens received much of the French Revolutionary background to A Tale of Two Cities, had written in Sartor Resartus. "as in every phenomenon the Beginning remains always the most notable moment...." 

The first chapter contains the novel's core. It describes Pip's psychological birth and the source of his profoundest fears. It recounts his coming into being (a "pip" is a seed), the birth of consciousness.  Dickens's readers would have known that the "pip" is a disease which afflicts chickens, rendering them small, thin, and feeble. 

"Pirrip" is a palindrome (PIR:RIP), a mirror word that is the same spelled backwards or forwards. Pip too is at palindrome. At just three letters it's the smallest possible one, a nuclear encapsulation cleverly expanded in Pirrip, which contains the abbreviation for "Rest In Peace," appropriate to his coming to self-awareness in a graveyard. 

One book with which most of Dickens's readers were familiar was the King James Bible, whose language and rhythms shaped much subsequent English poetry. They would hear in "So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip" an echo of Genesis ("And God called the firmament heaven...And God called the dry land earth"). Pip's naming of himself is comically portentous when read in conjunction with Genesis. Pip names himself, because his "infant tongue" cannot pronounce his given names. He is weak, alone, and yet not without will.

Not only does the language recall Genesis, we learn shortly that it is also Christmas Eve. Pip's birth into consciousness is a mote between these two momentous events.

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