One of the most famous opening scenes in English literature – the graveyard, the prison ship, the convict – boils down to the provenance of a pie. What strikes the episodic reader of Great Expectations, as opposed perhaps to the one barrelling through the volume in one go, is the sustained low comedy – almost the satire – of Pip’s moral torture. When Magwitch rears out of the mud and demands Pip feed him, the young man runs home to his sister’s kitchen, with only the consequences of inaction on his mind: “In a word,” he reflects in chapter six, “I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right, as I had been too cowardly to avoid doing what I knew to be wrong. I had no intercourse with the world at that time, and I imitated none of its many inhabitants who act in this manner. Quite an untaught genius, I made the discovery of the line of action for myself.”
All this about a pie. Is there not something about the theft of a home-made dessert which undermines the high language of original sin and redemption which forms the backbone of this opening section? Certainly the rest of these first fifty pages is full of broad comedy and rude mechanicals. Take Pip’s aforementioned sister, a woman who gets short shrift from Pip, despite the fact that without her he would be a homeless orphan, and of whom much fun is made at the expense of her constant refrain that she has brought up her brother “by hand”. Dickens is at his worst here, particularly in a buttock-clenching Christmas dinner scene populated with grotesque wannabes like the haughty Mr Pumblechook, Pip’s sanctimonious uncle, or Mr Wopsle, the deluded and incompetent clerk of the local church. We are meant, of course, to think these characters ridiculous and even perfidious- and so Pip’s argument that he had hardly fraternised with the world when he resolved to be become a hypocrite rings a little hollow.
Indeed, the only wetly sympathetic character in these opening chapters – Pip’s surrogate father, and the put-upon partner of his sister – has something rather cutting to say of our narrator. Joe recounts how he met ‘Mrs. Joe’, and first met Pip: “If you could have been aware how small and flabby and mean you was, dear me, you’d have formed the most contemptible opinions of yourself!” Pip may no longer be a bawling baby when the novel begins, but by the close of the seventh chapter, the last of this first month’s reading, he is dispatched to Miss Havisham with only eloquence separating him from that meanness.
This cruelty may, of course, be Dickens’s: reading this novel as it was published, the joins become apparent quite clearly, with cheap cliffhangers and mini-plots forming a hack’s miniature topography beneath the great rolling wave of the broader piece. Part of that connective tissue are the cameos of characters who exist to be judged: Mr Wopsle, of course, but also Magwitch and the soldier who comes to arrest him all serve the usual figurative purposes in Dickens’s text. On the other hand, the early theme of these chapters is the lack of wisdom present in the rush to judgement – it’s why, perhaps, Pip’s conscience is presented as a comic thing, his ethical pains out of all proportion with his actual crime. This pits theme against Dickens’s favoured form – one wonders how this will pan out, episodically.