Great Expectations contains the elements of a variety of different literary genres, including the bildungsroman, gothic novel, crime novel, as well as comedy, melodrama and satire; and it belongs—like Wuthering Heights and the novels of Walter Scott—to the romance rather than realist tradition of the novel.
Complex and multifaceted, Great Expectations is a Victorian bildungsroman, a German literary genre from the eighteenth century, also called an initiatory tale. This genre focuses on a protagonist who matures over the course of the novel. Great Expectations describes Pip's initial frustration upon leaving home, followed by a long and difficult period where he gradually matures. This period in his life is punctuated with conflicts between his desires and the values of established order, that allow him to re-evaluate his life and therefore re-enter society on new foundations.
However, if viewed as a primarily retrospective first-person narrative, the novel differs from the two preceding pseudo-autobiographies, David Copperfield and though only partially narrated in first-person, Bleak House (1852), as it falls within several subgenres popular in Dickens' time, as noted by Paul Davis and Philip V. Allingham.
Great Expectations contains many comic scenes and eccentric personalities, which play an integral part in both the plot and the theme. Among the notable comic episodes are Pip's Christmas dinner in chapter 4, Wopsle's Hamlet performance in chapter 31, and Wemmick's marriage in chapter 55. Many of the characters have eccentricities: Jaggers with his punctilious lawyerly ways; the contrariness of his clerk, Wemmick, at work advising Pip to invest in "portable property", while in private living in a cottage converted into a castle; and the reclusive Miss Havisham in her decaying mansion, wearing her tattered bridal robes.
Great Expectations incorporates elements of the new genre of crime fiction, which Dickens had already used in Oliver Twist (1837), and which was being developed by his friends Wilkie Collins and William Harrison Ainsworth. With its scenes of convicts, prison ships, and episodes of bloody violence, Dickens creates characters worthy of the Newgate school of fiction.
Great Expectations contains elements of the Gothic genre, especially with Miss Havisham, the bride frozen in time, and the ruins of Satis House filled with weeds and spiders. Other characters that can be linked to this genre include the aristocratic Bentley Drummle, because of his extreme cruelty, Pip himself, who spends his youth chasing a frozen beauty, the monstrous Orlick, who systematically attempts to murder his employers. Then there is the fight to the death between Compeyson and Magwitch, and the fire that ends up killing Miss Havisham, scenes that are dominated by horror, suspense, and the sensational, such as are found in gothic novels.
Silver fork novel
Elements of the silver fork novel are found in the character of Miss Havisham and her world, as well as Pip's illusions. This genre, which flourished in the 1820s and 1830s, presents the flashy elegance and aesthetic frivolities found in high society. In some respects, Dickens conceived Great Expectations as an anti silver fork novel, attacking Charles Lever's novel A Day's Ride, publication of which began January 1860, in Household Words. This can be seen in the way that Dickens satirises the pretensions and morals of Miss Havisham and her sycophants, including the Pockets (except Matthew), and Uncle Pumblechook.
Though Great Expectations is not obviously a historical novel Dickens does emphasise differences between the time that the novel is set (c. 1812–46) and when it was written (1860–1).
Great Expectations begins around 1812 (the date of Dickens' birth), continues until around 1830–1835, and then jumps to around 1840–1845, during which the Great Western Railway was built. Though readers today will not notice this, Dickens uses various things to emphasise the differences between 1861 and this earlier period. Among these details—that contemporary readers would have recognised—are the one pound note (in chapter 10) that the Bank Notes Act 1826 had removed from circulation; likewise, the death penalty for deported felons who returned to Britain was abolished in 1835. The gallows erected in the swamps, designed to display a rotting corpse, had disappeared by 1832, and George III, the monarch mentioned at the beginning, died in 1820, when Pip would have been seven or eight. Miss Havisham paid Joe 25 guineas, gold coins, when Pip was to begin his apprenticeship (in chapter 13); guinea coins were slowly going out of circulation after the last new ones were struck with the face of George III in 1799. This also marks the historical period, as the one pound note was the official currency at the time of the novel's publication. Dickens placed the epilogue 11 years after Magwitch's death, which seems to be the time limit of the reported facts. Collectively, the details suggest that Dickens identified with the main character. If Pip is around 23 toward the middle of the novel and 34 at its end, he is roughly modeled after his creator who turned 34 in 1846.