The story begins in England during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The setting in the early part of the story is the Chaptham district, where Dickens roamed as a boy. The orphan Pip is a blacksmith’s apprentice in a village in the marsh country. One afternoon Pip has a frightening adventure in the marshes when an escaped convict forces him to supply food and a file for his leg irons. The convict is captured the next day.
Shortly after this experience, Pip receives a summons from old Miss Havisham to visit her decaying mansion, a Gothic structure of mystery and gloom surrounded by high walls. She requests that Pip entertain her and her adopted daughter. Miss Havisham’s real motive, however, is sinister: she plans for Estella to break the boy’s heart. The old house symbolizes death, decay, and the inner desolation of its inhabitants, who change Pip’s life forever.
Some months later, an unknown benefactor supplies Pip with a sum of money to be used for his education in London as an English gentleman of “great expectations.” London now becomes the principal setting, richly described by Dickens in all its multiplicity: shop after shop, winding streets, an endless stream of traffic and movement, Gothic cathedrals, teeming slums, the fearsome Newgate Prison. In this mighty metropolis, Pip is transformed into a snobbish English gentleman. It is also in London that Pip again meets the convict, with fateful consequences for both.