Great Expectations's single most obvious literary predecessor is Dickens's earlier first-person narrator-protagonist David Copperfield. The two novels trace the psychological and moral development of a young boy to maturity, his transition from a rural environment to the London metropolis, the vicissitudes of his emotional development, and the exhibition of his hopes and youthful dreams and their metamorphosis, through a rich and complex first person narrative. Dickens was conscious of this similarity and, before undertaking his new manuscript, reread David Copperfield to avoid repetition.
The two books both detail homecoming. Although David Copperfield is based on much of Dickens personal experiences, Great Expectations provides, according to Paul Schlicke, "the more spiritual and intimate autobiography." Even though several elements hint at the setting — Miss Havisham, partly inspired by a Parisian duchess, whose residence was always closed and in darkness, surrounded by "a dead green vegetable sea," recalling Satis House, and the countryside bordering Chatham and Rochester — no place name is mentioned,[N 4] nor a specific time period, which is indicated by, among other elements, older coaches, the title "His Majesty" in reference to George III, and the old London Bridge prior to the 1824–1831 reconstruction.
The theme of homecoming reflects events in Dickens's life, several years prior to the publication of Great Expectations. In 1856, he bought Gad's Hill Place in Higham, Kent, which he had dreamed of living in as a child, and moved there from faraway London two years later. In 1858, in a painful divorce, he separated from Catherine Dickens, his wife of twenty-three years. The divorce alienated him from some of his closest friends, such as Mark Lemon. He quarrelled with Bradbury and Evans, who had published his novels for fifteen years. In early September 1860, in a field behind Gad's Hill, Dickens burned almost all of his correspondence, sparing only letters on business matters. He stopped publishing the weekly Household Words at the summit of its popularity and replaced it with All the Year Round.
The Uncommercial Traveller, short stories, and other texts Dickens began publishing in his new weekly in 1859 reflect his nostalgia, as seen in "Dullborough Town" and "Nurses' Stories." According to Paul Schlicke, "it is hardly surprising that the novel Dickens wrote at this time was a return to roots, set in the part of England in which he grew up, and in which he had recently resettled."
Margaret Cardwell draws attention to Chops the Dwarf from Dickens's 1858 Christmas story "Going into Society," who, as the future Pip does, entertains the illusion of inheriting a fortune and becomes disappointed upon achieving his social ambitions. In another vein, Harry Stone thinks that Gothic and magical aspects of Great Expectations were partly inspired by Charles Mathews's At Home, which was presented in detail in Household Words and its monthly supplement Household Narrative. Stone also asserts that The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices, written in collaboration with Wilkie Collins after their walking tour of Cumberland during September 1857 and published in Household Words from 3 to 31 October of the same year, presents certain strange locations and a passionate love, foreshadowing Great Expectations.
Beyond its biographical and literary aspects, Great Expectations appears, according to Robin Gilmour, as "a representative fable of the age." Dickens was aware that the novel "speaks" to a generation applying, at most, the principle of "self help" and believed to have increased the order of daily life. That the hero Pip aspires to improve, not through snobbery, but through the Victorian conviction of education, social refinement, and materialism, was seen as a noble and worthy goal. However, by tracing the origins of Pip's "great expectations" to crime, deceit and even banishment to the colonies, Dickens unfavourably compares the new generation to the previous one of Joe Gargery, which Dickens portrays as less sophisticated but especially rooted in sound values, presenting an oblique criticism of his time.