Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

Old churchyard at night.

“Great Expectations”, first published in 1860, is widely regarded as Dicken’s greatest work.  The story is set both in London and on the marshes around Kent.  This extract is taken from near the opening of the novel where Pip, a small boy of 7, walks through the churchyard to visit his parents’ graves. Suddenly, an escaped prisoner jumps out at him …..

“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”

A fearful man, all in coarse gray, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.

“Oh! Don’t cut my throat, sir,” I pleaded in terror. “Pray don’t do it, sir.”

“Tell us your name!” said the man. “Quick!”

“Pip, sir.”

“Once more,” said the man, staring at me. “Give it mouth!”

“Pip. Pip, sir.”

“Show us where you live,” said the man. “Pint out the place!”

I pointed to where our village lay, on the flat in-shore among the alder-trees and pollards, a mile or more from the church.

The man, after looking at me for a moment, turned me upside down, and emptied my pockets. There was nothing in them but a piece of bread. When the church came to itself,–for he was so sudden and strong that he made it go head over heels before me, and I saw the steeple under my feet,–when the church came to itself, I say, I was seated on a high tombstone, trembling while he ate the bread ravenously.

“You young dog,” said the man, licking his lips, “what fat cheeks you ha’ got.”

I believe they were fat, though I was at that time undersized for my years, and not strong.

“Darn me if I couldn’t eat em,” said the man, with a threatening shake of his head, “and if I han’t half a mind to’t!”

Some thinking points …

In the second paragraph Dickens builds the description of the strange man with a list of phrases.  The sentence structure and the use of repetition builds momentum and gives pace to the description.  Why do you think Dickens builds this pace?

Look at the verbs used to describe the condition of the man:

  • “soaked”
  • “smothered”
  • “lamed”
  • “cut”
  • “stung”
  • “torn”

What do these verbs show about his experience of travelling through the marshes?

How does the writer communicate a sense of danger in this extract?

Classic inspiration – some ideas for writing based on this extract

  • Write about an event from the point of view of a child.
  • Write about a dangerous situation.
  • Describe a what hunger feels like.