As a bildungsroman, or novel of maturation, the reader follows the protagonist Pip from his innocent childhood at the Forge on the marshes of England's countryside to his youthful arrogance and experiences in London, and, finally to his maturation into an experienced, loving, and humble man.
In a poignant opening scene in which Dickens employs pathetic fallacy, the orphaned child Pip, regards the graves of his parents and five baby brothers "who gave up trying to get a living exceedingly early in that universal struggle." Suddenly, a gray and "fearful man," appears and terrifies Pip into bringing him food and drink the next day. Later, Pip learns that the man is an escaped convict for the prison ship on the water.
In another eventful episode of his childhood, Pip goes to Satis House where a decaying brewery once provided wealth for the Havishams. However, now it is haunted by ghosts, one of whom seems to be Miss Havisham herself, an eccentric and melancholy woman dressed in a decaying wedding dress, with only one shoe on. All the clocks have been stopped at the house she was left at the altar. There Pip is told to play with a beautiful but arrogant and disparaging girl named Estella; she insults Pip, mocking his boots and crudely fashioned clothing. Estella calls him "coarse and common," and for the first time, Pip is ashamed of his clothes and his environment. Moroever, he wishes to be a young gentleman so Estella will not ridicule him.
Then, one night the lawyer Mr. Jaggers, whom Pip has met at Satis House, comes with the news that Pip has "great expectations" and informs Pip that a mysterious person is his benefactor, but he must never ask who it is. Elated that he is now afforded the opportunity to become a gentleman and abandon his apprenticeship to the blacksmith Joe and be acceptable to Estella, Pip leaves his home, and a melancholic Joe waves good-bye because Pip refuses to let him accompany Pip to the stage.
In this stage, Pip becomes snobbish and rejects those who love him. When Pip arrives in London, he finds it markedly different from what he has anticipated because it is dirty and "rather ugly." Pip reports to the office of Mr. Jaggers on a 'gloomy street." In this dismal place, he encounters Mr. Wemmick, the clerk, whose mouth Pip describes as like a post office. When he does talk to Mr. Jaggers, the lawyer tells Pip, "Of course you'll go wrong somehow, but that's no fault of mine."
Later, Pip moves into Barnard's Inn, a dingy collection of shabby buildings, and re-encounters the pale young gentleman who fought him at Miss Havisham's years before. Herbert Pocket is to be Pip's roommate, and the two are compatible, albeit not able to manage their finances. From Herbert, Pip learns the circumstances of Miss Havisham's eccentricities, and why she wears her aged wedding gown. Pip also walks home one night and delights in the home of Wemmick, whose creative little farm and garden and cannon that he sets off for Aged Parent. He makes friend with Wemmick.
One night at dinner at Mr. Jaggers's home, Pip meets Bentley Drummle, an upperclass lout. Also, one of the servants, Molly, the housekeeper has powerful wrists which Jaggers displays, boasting of her strength. On another day, Pip is visited by Joe, who loves and misses him. But, Pip is embarrassed by Joe's country manners and awkward appearance--even ashamed before Herbert. So, Joe leaves her early, apologizing to Pip that he has come. When Pip reads this letter, he feels guilty, but he does not chase after Joe as he should.
While in London, Pip becomes snobbish, ashamed of his dear Joe and reckless with his allowances and he goes into debt. He learns from Herbert the history of Miss Havisham and how Uncle Pumblechook has taken credit for his good fortune. His romantic vision of becoming a gentleman so he can marry Estella does not seem to be developing. Then one night, to his dismay, the old convict visits Pip. Pip is both frightened and appalled. When he learns that Magwitch is his benefactor rather than Miss Havisham, Pip is disgusted and dismayed because appearances and what people are is important to him.
Miss Havisham's intentions toward me, all a mere dream. Estella not designed for me; I only suffered in Satis Hous as a convenience....But the sharpest and deepest pain of all--it was for the convict, guilty of I know not what crimes, that I had deserted Joe.
In this final stage of the novel, Pip begins his moral regeneration. After having learned of the tragic life of Matwitch, he and Herbert try to help Magwitch escape London, but his old partner in crime, Compeyson, has alerted the authorities. Magwitch is mortally wounded, and Pip tends to him, informing him that his daughter is alive and beautiful. "I felt that that was my place henceforth while he lived."
Pip also helps Herbert by asking Miss Havisham to provide that he gets a job in a bank. Then he accompanies Wemmick on a walk and he finds himself the best man at Wemmick's wedding to Miss Skiffins. Shortly after this, Pip learns that Magwitch is mortally wounded, and Pip tends to him, informing him that his daughter is alive and beautiful. "I felt that that was my place henceforth while he lived."
One night Pip visits Miss Havisham, and she asks him to forgive her for her cruelty by signing his name beneath what she has written. Pip does so, but her dress catches fire and Pip rescues her. Later, while he is ill and delirious, Pip does not realize that Joe cares for him. When he realizes that Joe has taken care of him, Pip is so ashamed of his cruelty to this man who has always loved him as a father, but Joe replies, "Look'ee here, old chap....Ever the best of friends, ain't us, Pip?"
Finally, Pip returns to the forge and is told by Biddy and Joe that they have married. So, too, have Herbert and Clara. Pip encounters Estella one day and learns that her marriage to Drummle has been tragic and she has been abused. Pip and Estella reconcile.