Dickens originally intended Great Expectations to be twice as long, but constraints imposed by the management of All the Year Round limited the novel's length. Collected and dense, with a conciseness unusual for Dickens, the novel represents Dickens's peak and maturity as an author. According to G. K. Chesterton, Dickens penned Great Expectations in "the afternoon of life and fame." It was the penultimate novel Dickens completed, preceding Our Mutual Friend.
It is set among the marshes of Kent and in London in the early to mid-1800s. From the outset, the reader is "treated" by the terrifying encounter between Pip, the protagonist, and the escaped convict, Abel Magwitch. Great Expectations is a graphic book, full of extreme imagery, poverty, prison ships, "the hulks," barriers and chains, and fights to the death. while George Bernard Shaw praised the novel as "All of one piece and Consistently truthfull." Dickens felt Great Expectations was his best work, calling it "a very fine idea," and was very sensitive to compliments from his friends: "Bulwer, who has been, as I think you know, extraordinarily taken by the book."
Great Expectations has a colourful cast that has entered popular culture: the capricious Miss Havisham, the cold and beautiful Estella, Joe the kind and generous blacksmith, the dry and sycophantic Uncle Pumblechook, Mr Jaggers, Wemmick with his dual personality, and the eloquent and wise friend, Herbert Pocket. Throughout the narrative, typical Dickensian themes emerge: wealth and poverty, love and rejection, and the eventual triumph of good over evil. Another evokes a house full of "Toadies and Humbugs," foreshadowing the visitors to Satis House in chapter 11. Margaret Cardwell discovered the "premonition" of Great Expectations from a 25 September 1855 letter from Dickens to W. H. Wills, in which Dickens speaks of recycling an "odd idea" from the Christmas special "A House to Let" and "the pivot round which my next book shall revolve." The "odd idea" concerns an individual who "retires to an old lonely house…resolved to shut out the world and hold no communion with it."
Publication in All the Year Round
Dickens was pleased with the idea, calling it a "such a very fine, new and grotesque idea." He planned to write "a little piece," a "grotesque tragi-comic conception," about a young hero who befriends an escaped convict, who then makes a fortune in Australia and anonymously bequeaths his property to the hero. In the end, the hero loses the money because it is forfeited to the Crown. In his biography of Dickens, Forster wrote that in the early idea "was the germ of Pip and Magwitch, which at first he intended to make the groundwork of a tale in the old twenty-number form." Dickens presented the relationship between Pip and Magwitch pivotal to Great Expectations but without Miss Havisham, Estella, or other characters he later created.
As the idea and Dickens' ambition grew, he began writing. However, in September, the weekly All the Year Round saw its sales fall and its flagship publication, A Day's Ride by Charles Lever, lose favour with the public. Dickens "called a council of war," and believed that to save the situation, "the one thing to be done was for to strike in." The "very fine, new and grotesque idea" became the magazine's new support: weeklies, five hundred pages, just over one year, thirty-six episodes, starting 1 December. The magazine continued to publish