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How Charles Dickens Builds Tension in Chapters 1 and in Chapter 39 of “Great Expectations”?

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In this essay, I will define how, Charles Dickens builds tension in Chapters One and later on in Chapter thirty-nine of his, second -to-last complete novel, ‘Great Expectations’. Tension is defined as a feeling of anxiety or nervousness about something that is just about to happen. ‘Great Expectations’ is a coming of age story that revolves around the life of one man, Pip. Pip shows us the important events in his life that shaped who he became. Along the way, he acquires a menagerie of different acquaintances and friends that influence him in his decisions and goals for his life. His story has one main point: no matter what happens to a person in their life, a person cannot change who they are inside.

The book was first published in 1860, during the era of the Victorians, a time where poverty and corrupt law was on the high. Written by one of English language’s greatest writers, Dickens writes ‘Great Expectations’ in a semi-autobiographical style as a remembrance of his life. Born in 1812, Dickens was brought up in a working-class family lacking money. It was in a matter of time his father was imprisoned for bad debt and Dickens had to start working at a young age in Warren’s blacking factory where he endured appalling conditions as well as loneliness and despair. He then took up the work as a reporter and then died of a stroke in 1870. Some readers would think that the main side of Great Expectations is its moral message about the importance of being honest to yourself, and its attack on the bad pressures of surroundings, health and justice. Great Expectations is a story that the public can relate to because it shows that possessions and wealth do not change who people are inside, and that finding one’s self can be a long tedious process until finally the mists rise and everything becomes clear.

The first skill Dickens uses to build up tension is the way he creates the setting. From the start, Dickens immediately builds up suspense by his vivid descriptions of the scenery in Chapter one. He uses lots of detail to describe the landscape to give an atmosphere. The setting in Chapter one is in the evening in the marshlands of Kent as stated in the Chapter, ‘marsh country’. Here the reader instantaneously gets an image of a precarious environment for Pip. This feeling of futileness develops tension. Furthermore we then meet the main protagonist, Pip who sits in the isolated village ‘churchyard’; staring at his parents’ ‘tombstones’. From the word ‘tombstones’ and ‘churchyard’, the reader immediately gets a feeling of edginess as we get an image of death, the paranormal or even ghosts. Further on the Chapter, Charles Dickens again builds up tension by his vibrant imagery of the setting. For example, he adds more life to the surroundings around Pip by stating ‘river’ and ‘sea’ which could additionally give a sense of danger to the reader.

Moreover, the landscape or the graveyard is then described as a ‘dark flat wilderness’ and a ‘bleak place overgrown with nettles’ which suggests that the setting is dull and not fit for civilization. Here the use of monosyllabic words like ‘bleak’ and ‘dark’ make the setting seem even darker and desolate thus indicating no civilization. The word ‘wilderness’ can also be connected to the phrase ‘distant savage lair’ and ‘scattered cattle’, signifying an uninhabited place with wild animals hence being unsafe for a young child. Here anxiety is at a climax and tension is building up to a controversial or devastating event that could endanger Pip’s life. Thus this is another way Dickens has built up tension by his description of the setting. Additionally, the repetition of ‘marshes’ and ‘river’ emphasizes the fact that the environment around Pip is insecure. Lastly, at the closing stages of the chapter, Dickens describes the setting of having ‘dykes and mounds and gates’, perhaps indicating and stressing even more that the atmosphere is uncivilized which then creates an impression that it is forbidden.

Similarly, to Chapter one, Charles Dickens also builds up tension in Chapter thirty-nine of his novel, ‘Great Expectations’. Just like Chapter one, Dickens uses his dramatic descriptions of the setting to build up anxiety. Chapter thirty nine also has very frightening prevalence’s with the setting. Dickens again tries to build tension and anxiety towards a horrifying experience. At the beginning of the chapter, the reader gets to know that the setting has changed from the ‘marsh country’ of Kent to the busy streets of ‘London’. We know that although Pip is in an active environment, unlike Chapter one, he still feels isolated.

Additionally, once again the scenery is set in the darkness and the reader knows that darkness symbolizes a disturbing atmosphere. Instantly, the reader now knows something bad may happen to Pip which could hence build up suspense. Furthermore, Dickens also builds tension in Chapter thirty-nine where it says, ‘Our chambers were in Garden-court, down by the river’. This quote can also be associated with ‘exposed to the river’. From these two quotes the reader can see that the word ‘river’ is being repeated and hence we know that it is foreshadowing a bad thing. We know that it is predicting a bad thing because whenever Pip is near a river something wretched happens to him and so this develops suspense. Additionally the last thing Dickens does to build up nervousness in Chapter thirty- nine is where it says, ‘We lived at the top of the last house’. This builds up tension because it creates a lonely atmosphere in the reader’s mind.

Charles Dickens also personifies the weather to build up tension in Chapters one and then later on in chapter thirty-nine. The weather has a dramatic part to play in which Charles Dickens builds suspense and anticipation, which inveigles the reader and encourages sympathy for Pip. An example of Dickens using the weather is when he states, ‘raw afternoon’. This right away gives the reader an image of a very cold winter afternoon which could build up tension. Furthermore, to build up tension in Chapter one he also said, ‘wind was rushing’. Once again, Dickens is bringing life into the weather to give an image of disaster so that it could build up suspense. Dickens also gave life to the weather as stated in the chapter, ‘rains were heavy’. This phrase indicates that a storm is approaching which could potentially be dangerous to Pip. What’s more, Dickens personified the weather when he said this, ‘tide is in’. Here the tension builds up because the reader can get an image of the sea invading the land and hence being hazardous for a young child.

Furthermore, Dickens also personifies the weather to build up tension in Chapter thirty nine. For example this is what he stated, ‘wretched weather; stormy and wet, stormy and wet; and mud, mud, mud deep in all’. From this quote, we see that by Dickens using the word ‘wretched’, he is indicating that the weather is very harsh. To put emphasis to the point, he uses alliteration which adds to the tension. Furthermore, in the same line he says, ‘stormy and wet, stormy and wet’. Here we see Dickens using repetition to reinforce the unbearable weather conditions hence creating tension. Moreover he also states, ‘mud, mud, mud’. Here he uses repetition to emphasize devastation and evil which maybe present. It also reminds the reader of the marshes in Chapter one.

He is indicating danger for Pip and foreshadowing the convict. In addition, soon after he writes, ‘vast heavy veil’. Here he is using a metaphor to describe the clouds and how it seems like the entire town is trapped in it which could build up tension for the reader. What’s more, Dickens keeps building up tension when he says,’ Eternity of cloud and wind. So furious had been the gusts’. In the first part of the sentence Dickens is signifying the unstopping rush of rain and wind. This quote can also be connected with, ‘In every rage of wind and rush of rain’. Additionally, in the second part of the sentence Dickens uses personification to depict the weather which could the build up anxiety. Overall Charles Dickens has used the weather to great effect by us, the reader, wonder about how the weather conditions will either harm Pip or build up to more catastrophic events.

Additionally, Dickens also builds up tension in Chapters one and thirty nine by the way he portrays the lead character, Pip. In chapter one, Dickens uses descriptions to depict a sympathetic Pip which could hence lead to the build up of suspense. There is an immediate build up of tension as soon as Pip is introduced in Chapter one where it says, ‘I never saw my father or my mother’. Here there is a build up of tension because instantly the reader gets to know that Pip is an orphan and therefore has no one to look after him or guide him to the right path. Here we can also see that Dickens wants the reader to express sympathy for him. Furthermore, Dickens also shows Pip to be a boy with crystal-clear imagination because of what it says in the chapter, ‘vivid’. From this word, the reader gets to know that Pip thinks very clearly, therefore getting scared easily. What’s more, this word can be associated to the phrase Dickens writes later on in the chapter, ‘as if he were eluding the hands of the dead people’. Yet again, we see Pip getting very fearful because of his vivid thoughts. Moving on, there is another moment in the Chapter when the reader is gets a bit anxious when it states, ‘small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip’. For a second here, the reader becomes Pip and experiences what he is going through.

This creates tension because the reader gets a glimpse of what Pip has felt. The Chapter then moves on and nervousness develops when Pip is seen begging for his life, ‘O! Don’t cut my throat, sir. I pleaded in terror’. The story then progresses as tension rises even more when Dickens writes ’tilted me back as far as he could hold me; so that his eyes looked most powerfully down into mine and mine looked helplessly up into his’. From this quote we see Dickens is using imagery to portray an idea of a victim (Pip) and a villain (Convict). The use of adverbs, ‘powerfully and ‘helplessly’ give even more emphasis to the idea. Subsequently, Dickens ends the Chapter effectively with tension still up when he states, ‘I was frightened again, and ran home without stopping’.

Similarly to Chapter one, Dickens also builds up tension in Chapter thirty nine by the way he portrays Pip, only this time Pip is an adult as proven in the Chapter,’ three-and-twenty years of age’. Dickens instantly increases apprehension when he says, ‘dull sense of being alone. Dispirited and anxious’. Once more, anxiety rises because the reader knows whenever Pip is ‘alone’ bad things happen to him which means just like Chapter one, the convict will return. The pressure is increased even more for the reader because of the adjectives used in the phrase, ‘Dispirited’ and ‘anxious’. The use of the strong adjectives here represents Pip’s emotional frame of mind and mentality.

Similarly to Chapter one, Pip again is described as having a vivid imagination, ‘and awfully connect it with the footstep of my dead sister’. Therefore because of his dramatic thoughts, Pip as an adult will still be panicky which means more tension for the reader. The tension rises to its peak when Pip suddenly realizes he knew this intruder, ‘I knew him! Even yet, I could not recall a single feature, but I knew him!’ Here the uses of the exclamation mark highlights the emotional rollercoaster Pip is experiencing. The use of repetition is also very useful and creates tension. With the chapter coming to an end, Dickens increases restlessness for the reader when he states, ‘With my heart beating like a heavy hammer of disordered action’. Here the use of simile stresses on the fact that Pip’s heart is beating erratically.

The final technique Dickens uses to build up tension in Chapters one and thirty nine is the way he describes the appearance, language and the behaviour of the convict. Right away, Dickens tries to develop anxiety in Chapter one when the convict speaks, ‘Pint’. Here we see the Convict using broken English which could be suggesting that he comes from a poor society or background. Dickens then goes on describing the behaviour of the convict, ‘he was so sudden and strong’. This quote can be related with, ‘seized me by the chin’. Both quotes show the immense power the Convict possesses. Here Dickens portrays the Convict as an ogre or a beast for the first time. Furthermore, we also get to know that the Convict has not eaten for a while because of what it says in the Chapter, ‘he ate the bread ravenously’.

Once more, Dickens gives the Convict an image of an animal. Dickens now builds up tension by describing the appearance of the convict, ‘a man started up from among the graves’. Here the reader may get an image of the dead because of the way he is described to be rising. This could also lead to the build of nerves. The reader then gets to know that the convict is a very hostile and unapproachable criminal, ‘Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!’ The story then moves on as Dickens starts to describe the appearance of the convict, ‘soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones…cut by flints…stung by nettles…torn by briars’. Here the use of descriptions and aggressive verbs give the reader the impression that the convict is a very desperate man. His desperation highlights his determination to escape. The convict seems intimidating which increases the element of tension in the chapter.

Moreover, just like in Chapter one, Dickens also builds up tension in Chapter thirty nine by the way he describes the appearance, language and the behaviour of the convict. The first thing Dickens does to build up tension in the chapter is the way he describes the look of the convict, ‘like a voyager by sea’. Here the reader can get an image of a person who is violent and perhaps a pirate. This is then reinforced as Pip describes him as a ‘pirate’. This builds up suspense because pirates are always known as people who commit offences. The reader then gets to know that the Convict is quite religious or spiritual, ‘Lord strike me dead!’ The convict then touches Pip, ‘He laid his hands on my shoulder’. Here Pip reacts negatively with the contact he has made with the Convict so tension is rising. Near the ending of the chapter the reader gets to know that the convict has a weapon, ‘thought he had a pistol lying on the pillow’. Here tension rises because a pistol is a symbol of death. Hence this makes the chapter end on a fearful note.

In conclusion, I think Charles Dickens uses a variety of techniques to build up tension to in Chapters one and then later on in Chapter thirty nine. We see that the skills used by Dickens to build up tension have a major influence in how the reader feels and their perception on the book. In my opinion the most effective technique Dickens has used to build up suspense is his vivid descriptions of the scenery. I think this because he uses lots of detail to describe the landscape which gives an atmosphere. Hence by doing this he builds a lot of tension which has a major impact on the reader.

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