As an infant, Philip Pirrip was unable to pronounce either his first name or his last; doing his best, he called himself “Pip,” and the name stuck. Now Pip, a young boy, is an orphan living in his sister’s house in the marsh country in southeast England.
One evening, Pip sits in the isolated village churchyard, staring at his parents’ tombstones. Suddenly, a horrific man, growling, dressed in rags, and with his leg in chains, springs out from behind the gravestones and seizes Pip. This escaped convict questions Pip harshly and demands that Pip bring him food and a file with which he can saw away his leg irons.
Frightened into obedience, Pip runs to the house he shares with his overbearing sister and her kindly husband, the blacksmith Joe Gargery. The boy stashes some bread and butter in one leg of his pants, but he is unable to get away quickly. It is Christmas Eve, and Pip is forced to stir the holiday pudding all evening. His sister, whom Pip calls Mrs. Joe, thunders about. She threatens Pip and Joe with her cane, which she has named Tickler, and with a foul-tasting concoction called tar-water. Very early the next morning, Pip sneaks down to the pantry, where he steals some brandy (mistakenly refilling the bottle with tar-water, though we do not learn this until Chapter 4) and a pork pie for the convict. He then sneaks to Joe’s smithy, where he steals a file. Stealthily, he heads back into the marshes to meet the convict.
Unfortunately, the first man he finds hiding in the marshes is actually a second, different convict, who tries to strike Pip and then flees. When Pip finally comes upon his original tormentor, he finds him suffering, cold, wet, and hungry. Pip is kind to the man, but the convict becomes violent again when Pip mentions the other escapee he encountered in the marsh, as though the news troubles him greatly. As the convict scrapes at his leg irons with the file, Pip slips away through the mists and returns home.
The first chapters of Great Expectations set the plot in motion while introducing Pip and his world. As both narrator and protagonist, Pip is naturally the most important character in Great Expectations: the novel is his story, told in his words, and his perceptions utterly define the events and characters of the book. As a result, Dickens’s most important task as a writer in Great Expectations is the creation of Pip’s character. Because Pip’s is the voice with which he tells his story, Dickens must make his voice believably human while also ensuring that it conveys all the information necessary to the plot. In this first section, Pip is a young child, and Dickens masterfully uses Pip’s narration to evoke the feelings and problems of childhood. At the beginning of the novel, for instance, Pip is looking at his parents’ gravestones, a solemn scene which Dickens renders comical by having Pip ponder the exact inscriptions on the tombstones. When the convict questions him about his parents’ names, Pip recites them exactly as they appear on the tombstones, indicating his youthful innocence while simultaneously allowing Dickens to lessen the dramatic tension of the novel’s opening.
As befits a well-meaning child whose moral reasoning is unsophisticated, Pip is horrified by the convict. But despite his horror, he treats him with compassion and kindness. It would have been easy for Pip to run to Joe or to the police for help rather than stealing the food and the file, but Pip honors his promise to the suffering man—and when he learns that the police are searching for him, he even worries for his safety. Still, throughout this section, Pip’s self-commentary mostly emphasizes his negative qualities: his dishonesty and his guilt. This is characteristic of Pip as a narrator throughout Great Expectations. Despite his many admirable qualities—the strongest of which are compassion, loyalty, and conscience—Pip constantly focuses on his failures and shortcomings. To understand him as a character, it is necessary to look beyond his self-descriptions and consider his actions. In fact, it may be his powerful sense of his own moral shortcomings that motivates Pip to act so morally. As the novel progresses, the theme of self-improvement, particularly economic and social self-improvement, will become central to the story. In that sense, Pip’s deep-seated sense of moral obligation, which is first exhibited in this section, works as a kind of psychological counterpart to the novel’s theme of social advancement.