Little Pip was left an orphan when he was a small boy, and his much older sister grudgingly rears him in her cottage. Pip’s brother-in-law, Joe Gargery, on the other hand, is kind and loving to the boy. Pip often wanders alone in the marsh country where he lives with his sister and Joe. One day, he is accosted by a wild-looking stranger who is an escaped prisoner. He frightens Pip and demands that the boy secretly bring him food and a file to cut the iron chain that binds his leg. When Pip brings him a pork pie and file, he sees another mysterious figure on the marsh. This man engages in a desperate struggle with the escaped prisoner, then escapes into the fog. The man Pip aids promises that he will somehow repay the boy for helping him. He is later apprehended.
Mrs. Joe sends Pip to the large mansion of strange Miss Havisham upon that lady’s request. Miss Havisham lives in a gloomy, locked house where all the clocks were stopped on the day her bridegroom failed to appear for the wedding ceremony. She often dresses in her bridal robes; a wedding breakfast molds on the table in an unused room. Pip goes there every day to visit the old lady and a beautiful young girl, named Estella, who delights in tormenting the shy boy. Miss Havisham enjoys watching the two children together, and she encourages Estella in her haughty teasing of Pip.
Living in the grim atmosphere of Joe’s blacksmith shop and the uneducated poverty of his sister’s home, Pip is eager to learn. One day, a London solicitor named Jaggers presents him with the opportunity to go to London and become a gentleman. Both Pip and Joe accept the proposal. Pip imagines that his kind backer is Miss Havisham and that perhaps she wants to make a gentleman out of him so that he will be fit someday to marry Estella.
In London, Pip finds a small apartment set up for him. Herbert Pocket, a young relative of Miss Havisham, is his living companion. When Pip needs money, he is instructed to go to Mr. Jaggers. Although Pip pleads with the lawyer to disclose the name of his benefactor, Jaggers advises the eager young man not to make inquiries; when the proper time arrives, Pip’s benefactor will be made known.
Soon Pip becomes one of a small group of London dandies, among them a disagreeable chap named Bentley Drummle. To Pip’s dismay, Joe comes to visit; Pip, who has outgrown his rural background, is ashamed of Joe’s simple manners, but Herbert cheerfully helps Pip to entertain Joe in their apartment. After he leaves for the evening, Pip feels ashamed of himself. Joe had brought word that Miss Havisham wants to see the young man, so Pip returns to his old home with his brother-in-law. Miss Havisham and Estella note the changes in Pip, and when Estella leaves Pip alone with the old lady, she tells him he must fall in love with the beautiful girl. She also says it is time for Estella to come to London, and that she wishes Pip to meet her adopted daughter when she arrives. This request makes Pip feel even more certain that he was sent to London by Miss Havisham to be groomed to marry Estella.
Estella is not in London long before she has many suitors. Of all the men who court her, she seems to favor Bentley. Pip sees Estella frequently. Although she treats him kindly and with friendship, he knows she does not return his love.
On his twenty-first birthday, Pip receives a caller. It is Abel Magwitch, the man whom Pip helped in the marsh many years earlier. He tells Pip that it is he who has been financing him ever since he came to London. At first, the boy is horrified to discover he owes so much to this crude, coarse man, a former criminal. Magwitch tells Pip that he was sent to the Colonies, where he grew rich. Now he wants Pip to enjoy all the privileges that he himself had been denied in life. He returned to England to see the boy to whom he has tried to be a second father. He warns Pip that he is in danger should his presence be discovered, for it is certain death for a prisoner to return to England once he has been sent to a convict colony. Pip detests his plight. He realizes that Miss Havisham had nothing to do with his great expectations in life, but he is too conscious of his debt to consider abandoning the man whose person he dislikes. He determines to do all in his power to please his benefactor. Magwitch, who is using the name Provis to hide his identity, tells Pip that the man with whom Pip saw him struggling long ago in the marsh is his enemy, Compeyson, who has vowed to destroy him. Herbert, a distant cousin of Miss Havisham, informs Pip that the lover who betrayed her on her wedding day was named Arthur Compeyson.
Pip goes to see Miss Havisham to denounce her for having allowed him to believe that she is helping him. On his arrival, he is informed that Estella is to marry Bentley. Since Miss Havisham suffered at the hands of one faithless man, she reared Estella to inflict as much hurt as possible upon the many men who would fall in love with her. Estella reminds Pip that she warned him not to fall in love with her, since she has no compassion for any human being. Pip returns once more to visit Miss Havisham after Estella is married. An accident starts a fire in the old, dust-filled mansion; although Pip tries to save the old woman, she dies in the blaze, which also badly damages the gloomy house.
From Provis’s story of his association with Compeyson and from other evidence, Pip learns that Provis is Estella’s father; he does not reveal his discovery to anyone but Jaggers, whose housekeeper is Estella’s mother. Pip also learns that Compeyson is in London and plotting to kill Provis. In order to protect the man who tried to befriend him, Pip arranges to smuggle Provis across the channel to France with the help of Herbert. Pip intends to join the old man there. Elaborate and secretive as their plans are, Compeyson manages to overtake them as they are putting Provis on the boat. The two enemies fight one last battle in the water, and Provis kills his enemy. He is then taken to jail, where he dies before he can be brought to trial.
When Pip falls ill shortly afterward, it is Joe who comes to nurse him. Older and wiser from his many experiences, Pip realizes that he no longer needs to be ashamed of the kind man who gave so much love to him when he was a boy. His sister, Mrs. Joe, had died and Joe had married again, this time very happily. Pip, still desolate and unhappy because of his lost Estella, returns to the blacksmith’s home to recuperate. Later, Herbert and Pip set up business together in London.
Eleven years pass before Pip goes to see Joe again. Curiosity leads him to the site of Miss Havisham’s former mansion. There he finds Estella, now a widow, wandering over the grounds. During the intervening years, she lost her cool aloofness and softened a great deal. She tells Pip she has thought of him often. Pip is able to foresee that perhaps he and Estella will never have to part again. The childhood friends walk hand in hand from the place that had once played such an enormous part in both of their lives.