Pip, the narrator of the novel, explains that his full name is Philip Pirrip, but that as a young child he could only pronounce his name as Pip, which is what everyone now calls him. Pip is an orphan, who never knew his parents or any of his five brothers who never lived out of infancy. He lives with his older sister, and her husband, Joe Gargery, the town blacksmith. They live in southeast England, in "marsh country," near the sea.
As an orphaned boy living with his sister and town blacksmith, Pip is established as belonging to a low social class. The deaths of his parents and siblings make clear how tough life can be for that class. Even the name "Pip," which means spot or seed, signifies something small. Yet a seed can grow, hinting that Pip will develop into more than he is.
On the dreary afternoon of Christmas Eve, 1860, Pip sits sadly in the churchyard outside town where his parents and siblings are buried. Suddenly a terrifying man, dressed in rags and shackled in a leg-iron, jumps out from a hiding spot behind a grave and grabs Pip. When the man learns that Pip lives with Joe Gargery the blacksmith, he warns Pip that he has a friend, the young man, who will kill Pip unless he returns in secret the next morning with food and a metal file. Pip, terrified, swears that he will, and the man lets him go.
Pip is terrified and alone, completely vulnerable. The man's behavior and chains mark him as an escaped criminal, which begins to introduce the theme of justice. Yet despite the man's cruel comments, the reader can see how desperate he is—after all, he's dependent on Pip helping him! Although Pip doesn't realize that "the young man" is a fake, Pip's adult narration looking back on the event allows the reader to see the truth.