Delicious Passages from 'Great Expectations'

September 21, 2020

Citing his favorite delicious passages from chapters 1 and 2 from Great Expectations, Dickens Project Director, John O. Jordan, underscores how the oral and aural pleasures of reading Dickens aloud can provide more clues to the story. 



Hi, I’m John Jordan from UC Santa Cruz and the Dickens Project with more favorite passages of mine from Dickens as part of our on-going series, Dickens-to-Go.

The passages I want to share with you today—and there are actually two of them—come from the early chapters of Great Expectations. The first is from the scene of Pip’s encounter with the convict on the marshes in chapter one. The second is the scene in chapter two where Pip steals food from the pantry to take to the convict the following morning.

The first passage comes near the end of the opening chapter, at the point where the convict tells Pip to bring him a file and what he calls “wittles.” The convict then goes on to deliver one of the most unforgettable threats in all of literature about what will happen to Pip if he doesn’t obey.

Here is what the convict says:

“You bring me, to-morrow morning early, that file and them wittles. You bring the lot to me, at that old Battery over yonder. You do it, and you never dare to say a word or dare to make a sign concerning your having seen such a person as me, or any person sumever, and you shall be let to live. You fail, or you go from my words in any partickler, no matter how small it is, and your heart and your liver shall be tore out, roasted, and ate. Now, I ain’t alone, as you may think I am. There’s a young man hid with me, in comparison with which young man I am a Angel. That young man hears the words I speak. That young man has a secret way pecooliar to himself, of getting at a boy, and at his heart, and at his liver. It is in wain for a boy to attempt to hide himself from that young man. A boy may lock his door, may be warm in bed, may tuck himself up, may draw the clothes over his head, may think himself comfortable and safe, but that young man will softly creep and creep his way to him and tear him open. I am a keeping that young man from harming of you at the present moment, with great difficulty. I find it wery hard to hold that young man off of your inside. Now, what do you say?”

It’s a wonderful passage in many ways, not least for the vividness with which the convict is able to conjure up the figure of the horrible young man and bring him alive—not just as an abstract idea, but as the embodiment of his listener’s worst nightmares. It’s important to recognize the power of the convict’s imagination here, his ability—not unlike that of a novelist—to use language in order to create a fictional character and a small story line about him. Like a novelist, or a dramatist, the convict imagines a physical scene with two actors—the horrible young man “softly creeping, creeping” and the other young man in bed and pulling the covers over his head in an effort to stay safe. In its way, it is a brilliant piece of rhetoric, and it has a powerful effect on its immediate audience, the young Pip, as well as on us as readers. Dickens of course stands behind the convict, ventriloquizing him and taking pleasure in their joint performance.

In fact, we might even stop and think about Dickens rehearsing this scene in the privacy of his study and speaking these words himself in front of the mirror before writing them down, which, according to his daughter, was his frequent method of composition. We should also think about what fun it is to hear these words and even to speak them ourselves—the sheer physical and oral pleasure we get from rolling the convict’s words around in our mouth and almost chewing on them, so to speak. (After all, it’s a passage about food!) This is why it’s so important to read Dickens aloud and not always just on the page. It’s just so much fun! And a lot of the fun is in our mouths and in our ears!

Pip is understandably terrified by this threat, and he immediately agrees to come back the following morning with the food.

The next day, he waits until the crack of dawn to undertake his dangerous errand. Here is how he describes it in chapter two.

As soon as the great black velvet pall outside my little window was shot with grey, I got up and went downstairs; every board upon the way, and every crack in every board calling after me, "Stop thief!" and "Get up, Mrs. Joe!" In the pantry, which was far more abundantly supplied than usual, owing to the season, I was very much alarmed by a hare hanging up by the heels, whom I rather thought I caught, when my back was half turned, winking. I had no time for verification, no time for selection, no time for anything, for I had no time to spare. I stole some bread, some rind of cheese, about half a jar of mincemeat (which I tied up in my pocket-handkerchief with my last night’s slice), some brandy from a stone bottle (which I decanted into a glass bottle I had secretly used for making that intoxicating fluid, Spanish-liquorice-water, up in my room: diluting the stone bottle from a jug in the kitchen cupboard), a meat bone with very little on it, and a beautiful round compact pork pie. I was nearly going away without the pie, but I was tempted to mount upon a shelf, to look what it was that was put away so carefully in a covered earthenware dish in a corner, and I found it was the pie, and I took it in the hope that it was not intended for early use, and would not be missed for some time.

What I particularly enjoy in this paragraph is Dickens’s masterful control of language and narrative pacing. The passage opens with a short description of the early morning light: “As soon as the great black velvet pall outside my little window was shot with grey . . . .” The language here clearly belongs to the adult Pip who is remembering a scene that he experienced as a boy, But as the passage develops, the distance between the adult narrator and the young Pip shrinks, and the narrative focus tightens in on the boy.

What I like most about this paragraph is the way that Dickens manages to convey both the boy’s fear of being caught in the act of stealing, and his growing excitement and pleasure in that very act. Dickens does this through the language he has Pip adopt and through the structure of the sentences he gives to him.

At first, the sentences are short, and the tempo is rapid: “I had no time for verification, no time for selection, no time for anything, for I had no time to spare.” Pip has no time to think, only to act. Then gradually the sentences expand and slow down. Explanatory parentheses appear, not all of which are directly related to the action being described. Why do we need to know about Spanish liquorice water, for example, unless perhaps it’s because that pleasurable memory is tied to the increasing pleasure Pip takes in stealing from his tyrant of a sister? Again, if he really has no time to spare, we may wonder how he can afford to spend the several minutes it must take for him to decant liquid carefully not just from one bottle into another, but from a third one into the first, so that the level in the brandy bottle remains the same. Apparently, he has more time than he first claims, or at least he takes the time to do what he wants.

Then, just as he grabs the meat bone and seems about to make a hurried exit, he spots another item, a pork pie—or rather a container that he thinks just might contain a pie—and the sentence slows down again as he decides to investigate.

We should stop and remember that Pip is not stealing food for himself, but for the convict, and that he does so under duress, and out of his fear of the convict and the horrible young man. But the syntax of his account tells a different story. By this point, Pip has fully entered into the act of stealing, both as a way of getting back at his sister, and because he wants that pie for himself. He not only wants it; he also stops to admire and appreciate the pie aesthetically. He calls it ”a beautiful round compact pork pie.” The series of adjectives slows the sentence down once again and signals a moment of contemplation before the action resumes. You can almost sense him eyeing the pie, holding it, and licking his lips in anticipation of eating it. And this is before he has even laid hands on it. Again, we have to learn to read Dickens kinesthetically, not just with our minds, but with the entire body.

The final sentence of the paragraph sets the story back into motion. The language here mimics Pip’s careful, deliberate action as he climbs up to a top shelf in the pantry, lifts the cover of an earthenware dish, tucked away “in the corner,” peeks inside to see what it contains, before announcing triumphantly, “and I took it,” in a voice that confirms his pleasure in the deed. This is no longer the frantic action of a frightened boy acting under compulsion; it’s the successful completion of a challenging task that required considerable daring and skill and in which the older Pip still takes a certain measure of pride.

The passage as a whole is almost cinematic in the way that it changes speeds, alternating between acceleration and pause, between hesitation and desire. It also successfully combines suspense with comic self-revelation. Pip’s language exposes him as a criminal, and thus aligns him more closely with the convict out on the marshes.

There is one other little detail in the passage that deserves notice-- the hare hanging up by its heels that Pip spots in the pantry and thinks he may have seen winking at him when his back was half turned. The hare is of course dead, but I’m convinced that the wink Pip thinks he may have seen when his back was turned, really comes from Dickens. It’s a sly metafictional wink on the part of the author and directed at the reader, a signal telling us not to miss the comedy in this little episode of domestic larceny.

Well, that’s all for now. I hope you enjoyed these two delicious passages from Great Expectations. Please check back with us again for more favorite passages from Dickens-to-Go.



john-jordan.jpgJohn O. Jordan is Research Professor of Literature at UC Santa Cruz and Director of the Dickens Project. He is the author of Supposing Bleak House (2010) and co-editor, with Robert Patten and Catherine Waters, of the Oxford Handbook of Charles Dickens (2018).



Dickens-to-Go is a weekly program of short videos designed to whet the viewers' appetite for "more" of their favorite author. You can join Dickens Project faculty, friends, and students as they share a favorite passage from Dickens and say a few words about why they selected it.

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