Great Expectations is an account of a young boy’s moral education. A study in human weakness, it depicts the rise in social status of the seven-year-old orphan Pip, the novel’s narrator and chief character and a kind of Everyman. On Christmas Eve in a cemetery, Pip meets Abel Magwitch, an escaped convict who makes him steal some food and a file from the forge where he lives with his sister and her husband, Joe Gargery, a blacksmith. Shortly thereafter, Pip is hired by a wealthy old woman named Miss Havisham to be a playmate for her beautiful adopted daughter, Estella.
Jilted years ago on her wedding day, Miss Havisham is a recluse. She lives in a world of the past at desolate Satis House, a home whose name means “enough”; the ancestor who built it believed that whoever lived there could never want more. During his frequent visits to Miss Havisham’s home, Pip begins to believe erroneously that her fortune will make him a gentleman, will bring him the love of Estella, and will provide him with prosperity. These are his great expectations.
Miss Havisham, however, has no hopes for happiness and no intention of leaving a legacy of happiness to anyone. Rather, she is a schemer who enjoys making nearly everyone around her miserable. She teaches Estella to hate men, exploits Pip, and vexes her ever-hopeful relatives. Although Pip eventually receives money from another source, Estella continues to scorn him and to be as coldly distant as a star. What Miss Havisham does is turn Estella and Pip into snobs.
In London, Pip matures while dealing with many strange situations. From Mr. Jaggers, a criminal lawyer who becomes his guardian, Pip discovers that he does indeed have a benefactor and great expectations. Jaggers gives Pip some money, and his clerk John Wemmick helps him. Pip takes up lodgings with Herbert Pocket, a relative of Miss Havisham from whom he learns her story and the manners of a gentleman. Soon, Pip feels superior to others, neglects his friends back home, and falls into debt. Proud and selfish, he feels ashamed to have the patient and polite but unpolished Joe Gargery visit him. When Magwitch drops by unexpectedly, Pip finds out that he is his benefactor. The felon tells him that the money he has been sending to Jaggers is part of a fortune he has made as a sheep farmer in Australia. Although aghast, Pip resolves to protect the escaped convict.
As Pip learns more about Magwitch, he begins to redeem himself. He finds out that Molly, Jaggers’ housekeeper, was Magwitch’s lover. Wemmick tells him that Molly strangled a rival in a fit of jealousy over Magwitch. Jaggers gained her release, and she has been working for him since then. Estella, ironically, is the daughter of Molly and Magwitch—not the genteel maiden of Pip’s fantasies. During one of Pip’s visits to Satis House, Miss Havisham promises to procure nine hundred pounds for Pip so that he can purchase a business partnership for Pocket at Clarriker’s. Shortly thereafter, Miss Havisham dies in a fire at Satis House. With his act of generosity toward Herbert and an excursion to smuggle Magwitch out of England, Pip overcomes his selfishness. The latter, however, is unsuccessful. Wounded in a scuffle with the convict Compeyson, Miss Havisham’s former lover and his former partner in crime, Magwitch is captured and taken to a prison infirmary. Pip visits the dying convict there and tells him that he has a beautiful daughter, a lady whom Pip loves. He is referring to Estella.
Although she does not care for him, Estella marries a sulky oaf named Bentley Drummle. When he returns from an eight-year sojourn in India, Pip hears that Drummle has died from an accident involving the ill-treatment of a horse and that Estella has remarried a Shropshire doctor with whom she is living prosperously on the fortune that she inherited from Miss Havisham. One day, Pip sees Estella in Piccadilly. Her carriage stops and the two talk briefly, shake hands, and part. The novel originally ends with Pip estranged from all who were associated with his great expectations.
When Great Expectations was published in book form, Dickens rewrote the ending, offering some hope for his main character. Pip visits Satis House and finds Estella still a widow; she is kinder to him, and Pip again envisions a future together.