Great Expectations

Charles Dickens

Chapters 4–7

Summary Chapters 4–7

Analysis: Chapters 4–7

In addition to the introduction of the convict, the other important plot development in the early chapters of Great Expectations occurs at the very end of Chapter 7, when Pip learns he is to be taken to Miss Havisham’s to play. His introduction to Miss Havisham and her world will determine a great part of his story and will change him forever. Though Pip has no sense of the importance of the event, Dickens conveys its importance to the reader through Mrs. Joe and Pumblechook, who are obviously ecstatic at the idea of Pip befriending the wealthy old woman. This is the first hint in the novel of the theme of social class and social improvement, which will quickly become the dominant idea.

Because he spends the first several chapters of the book exclusively among those of his own social station, the theme of social class is not particularly important in this section. But Pip’s low social standing makes itself felt in subtle ways—in the colloquial dialect spoken by Joe and his sister, the mean ambition of Mrs. Joe and Pumblechook, and the ineffective rigor of his country school (where he is taught by Mr. Wopsle’s great aunt), for example. By describing Pip’s early education, Dickens continues to emphasize the idea of self-improvement. Just as Pip’s behavior indicates a desire for moral improvement and Mrs. Joe’s ambition indicates a desire for social improvement, Pip’s struggle to learn to read indicates a desire for intellectual and educational improvement. To emphasize this point, Dickens contrasts Pip’s meager knowledge with the ignorance of Joe, who admires Pip’s poor writing because he himself is unable to read or write.

Dickens also uses this scene to develop Pip’s special relationship with Joe. Although Joe is not Pip’s father or even his brother, he is the most caring person in his life—a simple, honest man. Dickens contrasts Joe’s earnest good nature with the grasping ambition and self-satisfaction of Pumblechook and Mrs. Joe, implying even at this early stage of the novel that real self-improvement (the kind that leads to goodness) is not connected to social advancement or even education, but rather stems from honesty, empathy, and kindness. Pip will spend fifty chapters learning this lesson himself, and will then be struck by the fact that, in the figure of Joe, the best example had been in front of him all along.

As he did in the first three chapters, throughout this section Dickens demonstrates a masterful ability to tell his story effectively without ever losing the perspective of childhood. Though the novel itself is narrated by the adult Pip remembering his life, Pip the character is still a little boy in these chapters, and the narrator comically and sympathetically conveys his immature impressions. At the Christmas dinner in Chapter 4, for instance, Pip is terrified that his secret will be found out, but he balances his fear with a deep desire to tweak Mr. Wopsle’s large nose—to “pull it until he howled.” His sense of guilt for sneaking behind his guardians’ backs is so great that he believes the whole world is busy trying to discover his secret, and he fully expects to “find a constable in the kitchen, waiting to take me up.”