Dickens is a master of plot, characterization, humor, setting, and atmosphere. The blend of these elements in Great Expectations raises the novel to lofty narrative art. The author provides a three-dimensional portrait of Pip, skillfully using his words, gestures, thoughts, appearance, and actions to reveal his complex personality. Pip undergoes four distinct stages of physical and moral development. He is first a small child, relating his feelings and experiences in a rich, authentic picture of childhood; then an adolescent; next a young man; and finally an adult with a mature understanding of himself and society. Dickens also draws Estella in some depth. She is not the typical soft, sentimental heroine of romance. Although finally softened by adversity, she remains haughtily aloof and indifferent to Pip’s ardor during most of the story. Dickens renders a fine portrait of Joe Gargery as the village blacksmith. Less successful is the portrait of Miss Havisham. She is too strange and eccentric, too weird and extreme to be convincing with her tattered satin bridal dress, moldering wedding cake, and stopped clocks. Like Miss Havisham, Dickens’s minor characters sometimes verge on caricature.
One of the most perfectly plotted of Dickens’s novels, Great Expectations stands beside David Copperfield as a masterpiece. The story is dramatic rather than episodic, with a clear causal connection linking most events. Dickens logically manipulates the plot to promote character development. Pip goes through a cycle of being initially attractive as a sensitive orphan boy, then unattractive as a London gentleman, and finally attractive again when he returns with chastened spirit to his friends. The structure of the novel, however, is not without its faults, mostly because Dickens worked under pressure to publish it in monthly installments. Serial publication had a number of repercussions on the artistry of Great Expectations as well as on Dickens’s other novels. To meet deadlines, he had to write hastily, with little time for planning and almost no opportunity for revision. Since each installment ended on a high note, the plots often consist of a series of climaxes rather than of a single dramatic climax at the height of the story’s rising action. Although this flaw is not prominent in Great Expectations, the public outcry for a happy ending subverted Dickens’s artistic purpose. To satisfy public demand, Dickens had to revise the original ending in which Pip and Estella remain apart. Equally serious flaws are a few coincidences that make the plot seem contrived. Dickens strains the readers’ credulity when the convict that Pip has helped in the marshes turns out to be Estella’s father and when Compeyson, the convict’s worst enemy, is revealed as the very man who deserted Miss Havisham.
Great Expectations sustains a marvelous atmosphere of suspense. The most memorable opening of all Dickens’s novels is that first terrifying scene in which the orphaned Pip, alone in the cemetery, kneeling and weeping over his parents’ graves, is frightened by a figure emerging from the mists. It is the runaway convict Magwitch. From this moment onward, the sinister note of criminality taints every major character. Indeed, the pervading mood of the entire novel is one of mystery, tension, and thrilling suspense. Part of the poetry of Dickens’s work lies in its vitality, its supercharged emotional atmosphere. Yet Dickens knew the value of comic relief and amuses the reader with many fine touches of humor. Among the most amusing of the characters are the flirtatious Wemmick, the outlandish and grotesque Old Bill Barley, and the self-righteous, hypocritical Mr. Pumblechook. Even Joe Gargery and Mr. Jaggers take part in memorably comic scenes.