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Free Study Guide for Great Expectations by Charles Dickens-Book Summary


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Philip Pirip, known as Pip, is a young orphan being brought up by his sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, and her husband the blacksmith. One Christmas Eve, Pip visits the graves of his parents and five dead brothers, trying to imagine what they looked like. He has never known them. He is interrupted by a frightening man, large and mud-smeared, with prison irons attached to his leg. The man demands to know Pip’s name, then turns him upside down trying to empty his pockets of any money. Young Pip has only a piece of bread, much to the stranger’s disappointment. The man finds out that Pip lives with his brother-in-law, the blacksmith, and demands that Pip bring him a file and some food. The man tells the terrified seven-year old that if he fails to bring these things the next day, his heart and liver will be torn out. He also warns Pip not to breathe a word about their encounter to anyone.


The first few lines of Great Expectations establish with immediacy the sad plot of the orphan Pip. He has never known his parents and is completely alone in a desolate cemetery trying to imagine what they looked like. No other introduction is needed, since this situation is at once compelling and dramatic; after all, the child is only seven years old. It can be assumed he has little history with which to begin his tale; therefore, the reader is thrown at once into his life by means of the narrative action.

Structurally, the novel establishes itself as a first-person retrospective; that means the narrator is remembering the events of his life and has arranged them to suit his fashion in telling the tale. The immediate sympathy gained by the situation (an orphan alone in a cemetery) also reinforces the credibility of the narrator (the older orphan looking back on his life); the audience is compelled to like the narrator, to trust him and want the best for him.

The author, Charles Dickens, displays mastery of setting and tone in these first few moments, describing vividly the marshes surrounding the small village at the edge of North Kent. In this lonely and serene environment, young Pip turns into “a bundle of shivers.” The stranger with leg irons still attached is ominous and instantly threatening, causing Pip to fear for his life. And yet the convict displays his own vulnerability when he asks for a file to free himself from his chains and some food to relieve his hunger. He alone is not strong enough to sever his chains, nor can he survive without food. These observations, of course, rest solely in the minds of the readers. Young Pip is no less terrified.

Young Pip’s willingness to provide information about his family and to deliver help, albeit out of fear, reflects his natural giving nature. As well, it sets him up for the future events of the novel. Interestingly, the turning upside down of Pip by the stranger becomes a symbolic moment in the boy’s life; after meeting this man, Pip’s world is turned upside down.

As an introduction to this serial novel, the first chapter succeeds admirably in establishing setting, tone, and character. A troubling dilemma happens almost right away, and the entire novel follows as a consequence.



Pip returns to his home and interacts with his sister and her husband. His sister Georgiana, known as Mrs. Joe, is two decades Pip’s senior, and a vigorous bully. Joe and Pip are comrades in the household, both victims of Mrs. Joe’s bad temper and rough spirit. In her customarily gruff way, Mrs. Joe gives both Pip and Joe bread and butter for their supper. Pip hides his in his trousers, to take to the stranger.

That night, Joe tells Pip that two convicts have escaped from the nearby Hulks, which are prison ships. Young Pip is so frightened by his secret acquaintance with one of these convicts that he cannot sleep. Early the next morning, Christmas Day, he collects food from the pantry, including a pork pie specially made for dinner. He also pours out some brandy from the brandy bottle and replaces it with water, so as not to get caught. Having stolen Joe’s file from the forge, he runs off in search of the convict.


This chapter describes Pip’s guardians, Mr. and Mrs. Joe. The formal relationship between Pip and his sister is evident, as he calls her Mrs. Joe. She is the dictator of the house and commands unchallenged obedience not only from Pip but also from her husband. She frequently vents her anger on both of them, often without justification or excuse. When she believes that Pip has swallowed his bread in one bite, she gives him foul tasting tar water as punishment.

Mrs. Joe always wears an apron with an “impregnable” bib, which is a palpable symbol for the drudgery she imposes on herself. The pins and needles attached to her bib signify her self-punishing aggressiveness, which is in forceful contrast to Joe’s mild-natured simplicity. She seems to resent the burden of Pip on her household and makes Pip aware of his imposing existence.

Joe and Pip share a very tender relationship. They are exceedingly fond of each other mainly because they are victims of the same terror. At the dinner table, they share moments of comraderie; Joe is concerned for Pip when he thinks the child has eaten too quickly. Joe has paternal affection for Pip, and Pip loves Joe as well.

This chapter highlights the strong differences between Pip’s relationship to his sister and his relationship to Joe. The latter is much closer, which is of particular importance when one considers the “great expectations” of the plot. Pip will abandon Joe in search of a better life, despite his natural love and affection for the blacksmith.

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