Structure and narrative

The narrative structure of Great Expectations can be described in three different ways.

The volume structure: three volumes

    • Dickens divides the novel into three parts or volumes:
      • Volume 1 (19 chapters) up to Pip's departure for London
      • Volume 2 (20 chapters) up to the return of Magwitch
      • Volume 3 (20 chapters) from there until the end
    • in the text these are announced as the first, second and third stages of Pip's expectations
    • when the novel was first published as a book, it appeared in these three volumes.

The instalment structure: 36 weekly sections

The earliest readers of Great Expectations would have received it in weekly numbers, published in Dickens' own journal All the Year Round.

  • Dickens began work on the novel in the autumn of 1860
  • the first instalments appeared in December of that year
  • by August 1861 the entire novel had been published
  • Dickens must have been writing the later instalments while the earlier ones were being published
  • some weekly editions of All The Year Round contained just one chapter, some two, but the instalments were of roughly equal length
  • Dickens also had to bear in mind that he must end each instalment on a note that would make his readers eager to buy the next issue.

For a novel of this length, this means of composition and publication required considerable effort and self-discipline on Dickens' part – but he was well used to working under pressure of time and at some points in his life he was writing two novels at once, besides editing magazines.

The effect of serialisation

In the early years of his career Dickens effectively invented a new method of publishing novels in separate monthly or weekly parts, followed by volume publication as the serialization ended.

This means of publication makes certain demands on novelists:

  • at the most basic level they had to ensure that each number or instalment was of the correct length
  • they must remember that their readers would be reading the book over a long period of time (in some cases well over a year)
  • this required them to ensure that they kept all the strands of the plot in motion
  • they needed to be sure that characters were quickly recognizable when they reappeared, by the use of appearance, gesture and speech
  • they also had to ensure that readers were encouraged to read the next instalment, by ending each instalment at a moment of tension or anticipation.

Challenges of serialisation

It is often said – usually by people who have not read many of his novels – that serialization had a damaging effect on Dickens' work, and that he was driven into various kinds of stereotyping and overuse of coincidence to resolve his plots.

This criticism doesn't really stand up to scrutiny, however, for a number of reasons. Here are some of the challenges of serialization and the ways in which Dickens faced up to and overcame them:

  • the need to produce instalments of roughly equal length might lead to padding – unnecessary passages to fill up space:
    • BUT quite early on in his career as a journalist Dickens learned how to produce work quickly and to a required length; once his material was delivered to the printers it was only very rarely that he had to add or cut anything
  • the use of gesture and speech to create characters might lead to caricature and stereotypes
    • BUT Dickens was one of the earliest writers to understand the importance of modes of speech and what we now call ‘body language' in expressing character and personality
  • the need for a crisis or climax every few chapters results in over-packed plots too full of incidents
    • BUT a ‘crisis' does not have to be very critical to make readers want to know more, and indeed, our attention is also captured by characters or plot-lines that run throughout the novel – just as in modern television soap operas
  • the fact that authors were unable to revise the early instalments once they had been published forced them to invent awkward or improbable situations to explain events and bring their stories to a close
    • BUT Dickens began to plan his books at quite an early stage in his career, so he had a clear idea of what was coming
    • even in his earliest novels, when he was writing ‘hand to mouth', he may have made plans than have either not survived or were never written down
    • Dickens believed that coincidence was a more common phenomenon that is usually assumed – and he could point to several remarkable examples in his own life
    • when his plots are closely examined, they contain fewer improbabilities than is sometime suggested.
  • Think about the plot of Great Expectations.
    • To what extent does it depend on coincidence?
  • How would you defend Dickens' portrayal of, say, Mr. Wemmick or Matthew Pocket against the charge that they are caricatures?
  • Choose any one of the instalments (see also Synopses and commentary)
    • Analyse its structure and content in relation to the novel's plot, characters and themes.
      • What kind of a climax does it have?

Serialisation: democratising literature

Dickens was always concerned that his writing should be available to as wide a readership as possible:

  • weekly or monthly instalments at a shilling (5p) were affordable by individual or families who could not buy books (a three volume novel cost ten shillings and sixpence (52½p) per volume and a one-volume reprint seven shillings and sixpence – both prices well above most weekly wages)
  • people sometimes clubbed together to buy the instalments, which were then passed from hand to hand
  • in some cases the instalments would be read aloud in homes or public buildings such as working-men's clubs.

The review of the first instalment of Great Expectations in The Times drew attention to this democratizing element in weekly serialization:

Mr. Dickens has tried another experiment. The periodical which he conducts is addressed to a much higher class of readers than any which the penny journals would reach, and he has spread before them novel after novel specially adapted to their tastes … Altogether, his success was so great as to warrant the conclusion … that the weekly form of publication is not incompatible with a very high order of fiction.

review of Great Expectations in The Times (17 Oct 1861)

The chapter structure: 59 chapters

The instalment or volume structure of Great Expectations were most evident to Dickens' earliest readers, and many modern editions of the novel (see also Resources and further reading: Booklist) retain or indicate these divisions.

But, beginning in Dickens' lifetime, some editions of the novel numbered the chapters straight through without any other division and this way of reading the novel has some advantages:

  • within this three-part structure the chapters are used to keep the various strands of theme and plot at a roughly equal stage of development
  • the chapter is a distinct unit within the novel, a break at a point chosen by the author, and is therefore of some significance
  • reading the novel only with the volumes or the original instalments in mind may obscure other kinds of unit in the structure and development of the plot, such as the period of Pip's regular visits to Satis House, Pip and Herbert's life in London, or the plan for Magwitch's escape.
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