The narrative structure of Great Expectations is influenced by the fact that it was first published as weekly episodes in a periodical. This required short chapters, centred on a single subject, and an almost mathematical structure.
Pip's story is told in three stages: his childhood and early youth in Kent, where he dreams of rising above his humble station; his time in London after receiving "great expectations"; and then finally his disillusionment on discovering the source of his fortune, followed by his slow realisation of the vanity of his false values. These three stages are further divided into twelve parts of equal length. This symmetry contributes to the impression of completion, which has often been commented on. George Gissing, for example, when comparing Joe Gargery and Dan'l Peggotty (from David Copperfield), preferred the former, because he is a stronger character, who lives "in a world, not of melodrama, but of everyday cause and effect." G. B. Shaw also commented on the novel's structure, describing it as "compactly perfect", and Algernon Swinburne stated, "The defects in it are as nearly imperceptible as spots on the sun or shadow on a sunlit sea." A contributing factor is "the briskness of the narrative tone."
Further, beyond the chronological sequences and the weaving of several storylines into a tight plot, the sentimental setting and morality of the characters also create a pattern. The narrative structure of Great Expectations has two main elements: firstly that of "foster parents", Miss Havisham, Magwitch, and Joe, and secondly that of "young people", Estella, Pip and Biddy. There is a further organizing element that can be labelled "Dangerous Lovers", which includes Compeyson, Bentley Drummle and Orlick. Pip is the centre of this web of love, rejection and hatred. Dickens contrasts this "dangerous love" with the relationship of Biddy and Joe, which grows from friendship to marriage.
This is "the general frame of the novel". The term "love" is generic, applying it to both Pip's true love for Estella and the feelings Estella has for Drummle, which are based on a desire for social advancement. Similarly, Estella rejects Magwitch because of her contempt for everything that appears below what she believes to be her social status.
Great Expectations has an unhappy ending, since most characters suffer physically, psychologically or both, or die—often violently—while suffering. Happy resolutions remain elusive, while hate thrives. The only happy ending is Biddy and Joe's marriage and the birth of their two children, since the final reconciliations, except that between Pip and Magwitch, do not alter the general order. Though Pip extirpates the web of hatred, the first unpublished ending denies him happiness while Dickens' revised second ending, in the published novel, leaves his future uncertain.
Orlick as Pip's double
Julian Monayhan argues that the reader can better understand Pip's personality through analyzing his relationship with Orlick, the criminal laborer who works at Joe Gargery's forge, than by looking at his relationship with Magwitch.
Following Monayhan, David Trotter notes that Orlick is Pip's shadow. Co-workers in the forge, both find themselves at Miss Havisham's, where Pip enters and joins the company, while Orlick, attending the door, stays out. Pip considers Biddy a sister; Orlick has other plans for her; Pip is connected to Magwitch, Orlick to Magwitch's nemesis, Compeyson. Orlick also aspires to "great expectations" and resents Pip's ascension from the forge and the swamp to the glamour of Satis House, from which Orlick is excluded, along with London's dazzling society. Orlick is the cumbersome shadow Pip cannot remove.
Then comes Pip's punishment, with Orlick's savage attack on Mrs Gargery. Thereafter Orlick vanishes, only to reappear in chapter 53 in a symbolic act, when he lures Pip into a locked, abandoned building in the marshes. Orlick has a score to settle before going on to the ultimate act, murder. However, Pip hampers Orlick, because of his privileged status, while Orlick remains a slave of his condition, solely responsible for Mrs Gargery's fate.
Dickens also uses Pip's upper class counterpart, Bentley Drummle, "the double of a double", according to Trotter, in a similar way. Like Orlick, Drummle is powerful, swarthy, unintelligible, hot-blooded, and lounges and lurks, biding his time. Estella rejects Pip for this rude, uncouth but well-born man, and ends Pip's hope. Finally the lives of both Orlick and Drummle end violently.