The format of the weekly periodical more-or-less limited Dickens, notes Paul Davis. It required short chapters, centred on a single subject, and an almost mathematical structure. Pip's story contains three stages: his childhood and early youth in Kent, dreaming to rise above his humble station; his time in London after receiving the eponymous "great expectations"; and his final disillusionment when he discovers the source of his fortune and slowly realises the vanity of his false values. The novel further divides each stage into twelve parts of equal length. This symmetry contributes to the impression of completion, underlined by a number of commentators, including George Gissing, who, when comparing Joe Gargery and Dan'l Peggotty (from David Copperfield), preferred the former, as he was a stronger character who lives "in a world, not of melodrama, but of everyday cause and effect."
G. B. Shaw called the novel "compactly perfect"; similarly, Algernon Swinburne stated, "The defects in it are as nearly imperceptible as spots on the sun or shadow on a sunlit sea." This impression of excellence also comes from, according to Christopher Ricks, "the briskness of the narrative tone."[N 5] Pip's thoughts while he is in London, preparing for a visit from Joe, his oldest friend and protector demonstrates this:
Not with pleasure, though I was bound to him by so many ties; with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity. If I could have kept him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money.
Similar brevity is key to the "decantation", stated Ricks, particularly in the second sentence, showing Pip's chilling, pitiless indifference but "without making a terrific demonstration of mercilessness."
Further, as explained by Henri Suhamy in his course on Great Expectations, beyond the chronological sequences and the weaving of several storylines into a tight plot, the sentimental setting and morality of the characters form a consistent "pattern". He describes this pattern with two central poles, that of "foster parents" [parents adoptifs] (Miss Havisham, Magwitch, and Joe) and that of "young people" [jeunes gens] (Estella, Pip and Biddy) between two other poles called "Dangerous Lovers" [dangereux amants] (one of Compeyson, the other of Bentley Drummle and Orlick). Pip is the centre of this web of love, rejection and hatred [amour, rejet, haine]. Biddy and Joe grow from friendship [amitié] to love [amour], in their relationship over the course of the story.
This is "the general frame of the novel", as of the overwhelming crisis when Pip realises his and Estella's situations. Suhamy specifies that the term "love" is generic, applying it to both Pip's true love for Estella and the social attraction Estella harbours for Drummle, the former of which she cannot feel and the superficiality of the latter she does not conceal. Similarly, Suhamy adds, Estella's "rejection" of Magwitch becomes a matter of interpretation; the young lady does not know he is her father but still holds contempt for everything that appears below her station.
Great Expectations appears then as a tragedy, since the characters suffer physically, psychologically or both, or die, often violently, while suffering. Happy resolutions of the web of love remain elusive, while the web of hate thrives throughout the novel. The only happy ending is Biddy and Joe's friendship sealed in marriage by the birth of two children, since the final reconciliations, except that between Pip and Magwitch symbolising Pip's maturation, do not alter the general order. Though Pip extirpates the web of hatred, the first ending denies him happiness and the second leaves his future uncertain, punctuating his storyline with a question mark.