The sense of location in the novel is one of its strongest points. Dickens' imagery when describing area and place is powerful — as George Orwell suggests, his "power of evoking visual images . . . has probably never been equaled. When Dickens has once described something you see it for the rest of your life."
The story has a three-part structure similar to that of a play, which is fitting, given that Dickens was involved in the theater for many years, writing, producing, and acting in plays. The first part of the story covers Pip's childhood from the time he meets the convict in the graveyard until the time he receives his expectations; the second examines his young manhood, learning to become a gentleman and living extravagantly in London; and finally, the third part visits Pip in his adulthood, from the time he tries to help Magwitch escape until his return from Egypt at the end of the story. The three parts in this story have a moral implication as well as time and space implications. Pip's childhood is viewed as a time of innocence and goodness while living in the Garden of Eden. His young manhood is the fall from grace when he sins and must seek an end to his suffering, and his adulthood is seen as a time of redemption when he achieves forgiveness and inner peace.
The plot is complicated and twisting, full of surprises and complexities (part of the requirement of keeping magazine audiences interested from week–to-week). Dickens includes a tremendous number of and detail for his characters, and although some critical reviewers have suggested that his characters were one-dimensional, out of control, and therefore not true representations of real people, reviewer Thomas Connolly suggests that Dickens was at a high point for character development in Great Expectations: "Dickens had learned how to make his characters complex so that they function economically both in the basic plot and in the thematic presentation."
Other elements to be aware of include Dickens' use of humor and satire, irony, repetition to create tension, and the use of inanimate objects to convey emotion.
You can find multitudes of interpretations as to what the novel "means;" however, most reviewers place the major themes of the novel into three broad categories: moral, psychological, and social.
Moral themes include good versus evil, moral redemption from sin, wealth and its equal power to help or corrupt, personal responsibility, and the awareness and acceptance of consequences from one's choices. Psychological themes, explored through Pip's personal and moral growth, include abandonment, guilt, shame, desire, secrecy, gratitude, ambition, and obsession/emotional manipulation versus real love. Social themes that show up in the book include class structure and social rules, snobbery, child exploitation, the corruption and problems of the educational and legal systems, the need for prison reform, religious attitudes of the time, the effect of the increasing trade and industrialization on people's lives, and the Victorian work ethic (or lack thereof). With regard to work, it is interesting that the story takes place in people's "off time." Rarely is anyone ever shown working, especially the gentlemen of the story. Herbert seems to be able to take a lot of time off from work to do things with Pip. George Orwell attributes this to Dickens' Victorian view of life. A gentlemen, in Dickens' view, should strive to get a lot of money, then settle down in an ivy-covered house with servants and children all around. The desire is complete idleness except for the activities of sitting around the fire talking to friends, eating, or making more children. Cultural trends aside, the turbulence, abandonment, and insecurity of his childhood years no doubt made the theme of family hearth and home a strong one for Dickens.
An additional feature of Great Expectations is its autobiographical nature. H.M. Daleski, in his book on Dickens, notes that Great Expectations is "one of Dickens' most personal novels . . . it bears the marks of his own cravings to an unusual degree." Before writing the novel Dickens reread his autobiographical story, David Copperfield. While one object of this rereading was to avoid duplication in his new novel, Dickens was also reviewing his life at age forty-eight. In David Copperfield, Dickens focused on his own self-pity for his humble beginnings and his pride in rising above the shoe-polish factory to fame and wealth. Great Expectations, however, has a more mature analysis of life. Pip and Dickens undergo a humbling self-analysis that results in the wisdom that fortune does not equal personal happiness.
There are some differences between Dickens and Pip, though. While Pip never earns his fortune, Dickens did. Dickens worked intensely throughout his life while Pip rather has an aversion to working too hard. Also, Dickens loved his work, working passionately in his writing and theatrical pursuits. Pip seems fairly unemotional when describing his work with Herbert's firm — to him, it is a means to survive — and he lacks passion for anything in the novel except Estella, and even with her, his emotions are repressed, rather the antithesis of Dickens' and his fire for life.