Beginnings: Charles Dickens and the Imaginative Child

If you want to learn how to begin a novel, look at how Charles Dickens begins Great Expectations:

“My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister,—Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, “Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,” I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine,—who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle,—I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.”

Dickens was a master of vivid images: you can see Pip as a small boy, standing before a row of gravestones on a grey heath in the rain and imagining his five little brothers lying in a row on their backs, hands in their pockets, all dead. 

But there is much more than an image. Look at how much information Dickens gives us in these two paragraphs:

  • We learn narrator’s name, Philip Pirrip, and his nickname “Pip.” (Pip’s nickname suggests that he is small, doesn’t it?).  
  • Pip is an orphan, and his parents died before he was old enough to remember them.  
  • He was raised by his older sister, his only remaining relative
  • Pip is from the working class: his stepfather is a blacksmith
  • He’s from a small town—we know this because he describes his stepfather as “the blacksmith,” not “a blacksmith.” In other words, he grew up in a town that has only one blacksmith—and in the early 19thcentury, when horses were widespread and most tools were worked by hand, a single blacksmith could only support a couple of hundred people. 
  • The narrator was born before photography, but now he knows what it is. That gives us a pretty precise sense of when he was born: photography was invented in France in the 1820s and was widespread in England by 1850. 
  • Speaking of photography, this statement also tells us that Pip is not going to speak to us as a child, but as an adult reflecting back on his childhood. 

And that’s just Pip’s biography. Dickens also tells us a lot about his character: 

  • Pip’s reference to photography tells us that our narrator is an older man reflecting on his childhood; he understands things now that he did not understand at the time.  
  • Pip is imaginative, and his imagination often runs ahead of him, as when it gives him this vivid, but entirely false, image of his family.
  • He is susceptible to suggestion: he knows that his brothers could not have been born with their hands in their trousers’ pockets, but he cannot shake the image. 
  • He is melancholy. Pip could have opened his account with any one of countless memories, but he chooses to begin with a scene of himself as a young child, looking at his family’s graves.  

I want to pay special attention to Pip’s description of his brothers’ deaths: they “gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle.” He writes this line tongue in cheek, making a joke of his brothers’ deaths. He shows himself to be witty—but also that he uses his wit to deflect attention from serious subjects. Pip uses humor to cover up his pain, and this novel will often be most serious when it is funniest. And he thinks naturally of money: unlike his brothers, he will not easily give up trying to get a living. 

You can think of Pip’s self-introduction in three concentric circles. In the center are the images: Pip’s family’s graves, his brothers lying in a row with their hands in their pockets, and himself, as a little boy, looking at all this. This central circle also contains the emotions in this scene—all of which are powerful, but none of which are named. 

The second circle contains Pip’s character, his imagination and tendency to sadness. The outermost circle consists of all the biographical information we learn about Pip. 

When we read this passage, we pay attention to the first circle, which is the most vivid. We notice some elements of Pip’s character from the second circle, but a lot of our response to circle 2 is likely to be unconscious. We know more about who Pip is than we verbalize. And nearly all of the information in the third circle—essential biographical information about Pip and his world—comes into our minds unconsciously. Dickens uses Pip’s memory of the graveyard to place him in a quite clear and significant social world—but biographical facts are boring, and he slips them in unawares.    

Pip on the marsh is a vivid image—but it is the work of a master because of how much emotion and information Dickens conveys through, in, and under that image. What’s more, everything we learn about Pip underpins the story we are about to read. Pip is a poor boy from the country with a vivid imagination who moves to the city and tries to live a gentleman’s life. His imagination will often run ahead of him, sometimes getting him into trouble. He wants to make his fortune and his way in the world, and he is going to run up against the difference between the world as he imagines it and the world as it is. Pip’s dreamy ambition and his melancholy are suggested all at once in this image of the tombstones.

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Beginnings: Frederick Douglass and the Self-Introduction

The simplest way to start a story is to introduce yourself. Your narrator states his name, tells us where he is from, when he was born, and describes his background. And yet, you can do so many things with a self-introduction. Here’s how Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist author, begins his autobiography:

“I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit. The nearest estimate I can give makes me now between twenty-seven and twenty-eight years of age. I come to this, from hearing my master say, some time during 1835, I was about seventeen years old.” (Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845

Douglass’s Narrative tells us where he was born, but immediately runs into a problem: Douglass cannot tell us when he was born, because he was born enslaved. In 19th Century America, births had long since been recorded; there’s something unsettling about not knowing your birthday. It’s even more unsettling that he learns his best estimate of his age only because his owner told him. 

Douglass wants to unsettle us. Many of his first readers were white northerners who disliked slavery but didn’t know much about it. He aims to show them what slavery is really like. He doesn’t start with beatings or torture (he’ll get there soon enough), but with a hidden privation. Most free people would not even think about it. It is as if he says: there are terrible things about slavery that you know about. There are also terrible things that you have never heard of. I escaped from slavery to tell you, and I will be your guide. 

Douglass establishes his credibility by surprising us. That is a key point for writers, whether of fiction or nonfiction: readers begin to trust us when they learn from us. A powerful way to earn trust is to show readers something that was right there in front of them—but which they did not see, and would not have seen, without the writer. 

What’s more, this small-seeming observation—that enslaved people do not know their birthdays—makes the world of enslaved people alive for Douglass’s readers. He makes that world real and concrete by fixing on an overlooked difference between life in slavery and life outside of it. 

Douglass’s ignorance of his age does one more thing: it introduces Douglass’s quest to understand himself and his world. A major conflict in this story occurs between Douglass, who wants to understand the world, and the slave owners who want to keep their slaves ignorant. Douglass relates his growing understanding of the sick logic of slavery, from the beating of his aunt to the slaveowners who encourage their slaves to drink so that they remain ignorant. Many of the book’s famous scenes revolve around Douglass’s attempts to learn. When Douglass is a child, his master’s wife tries to teach him to read, but her husband berates her for it. Later, he finally learns to read by tricking white sailors into teaching him. All throughout, he argues that slaveowners’ most powerful weapon is their ability to keep slaves ignorant about themselves and their condition, and that their best way of fighting back is to learn. Douglass doesn’t say any of this in the first paragraph, but his desire to know his birthday reverberates through the whole book. 

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