Great Expectations is a tale of a boy's maturation into a man as he moves from a country boy to being a gentleman.
In the beginning, a strange incident occurs near the graves of Pip's parents: a coarse man in grey takes hold of Pip and shakes him upside down to find whatever is in his pockets. Shivering, he orders Pip to bring him food the next day and a file so he can remove the chain on his leg. The following day Pip brings food and drink that he has stolen from the cupboard; the man eats and drinks, then he makes a strange clicking sound in his throat as he looks oddly at Pip. Shortly thereafter, the convict is recaptured, and Pip leaves his home on the marsh for the first time because his uncle Pumblechook takes him to play with the beautiful young Estella at the wealthy Miss Havisham's home, Satis House. There he is quickly made to feel inferior as Estella calls him "coarse" and "common." Hurt and ashamed, Pip returns home to view his beloved Joe in a diminished light because now he yearns to become a gentleman. But, after some time, one dark night the burly man that Pip encountered at Satis House appears to inform Pip that he has "great expectations." Pip now has a benefactor who will finance his education, so he says good-bye to Joe and his sister and travels to London.
In London Pip meets his roommate, Herbert Pocket, the son of his tutor, Matthew Pocket. Pip and Herbert become fast friends, but they soon get into financial trouble. Even so, Pip becomes haughty and when the good and kind Joe visits, Pip is embarrassed by Joe's backward ways. So, Joe leaves a note for Pip and departs; after reading it, Pip feels guilty, but he does not contact Joe or visit his home on the marshes. Instead, he continues to try to impress Estella who is still cruel to him. Estella goes to France to study; when she returns she is even colder, and Pip learns that Estella has not been groomed for him, but only to be cruel to all men. Sadly, Estella is also cruel to Miss Havisham, whose heart is broken a second time. "But to be proud and hard to me!" she tells her ward in disbelief after she has doted upon Estella for years.
One night a dangerous-looking man appears at Pip's lodging and reveals that he is the convict Provis (really Magwitch), and it is he who has been financing Pip's evolution to a gentleman. Having believed that Miss Havisham has been his benefactor all this time, Pip is appalled to know he has been spending a criminal's money, and vows to take no more.
In this stage Pip begins his moral regeneration after having lost sight of his values in the second stage. He returns to Satis House and asks Miss Havisham for some money in order to put Herbert in business; while there, he learns that Estella will marry the brutal Bentley Drummel. Pip begs her not to, but she will not listen. So, Pip departs but returns to check on Miss Havisham, who has moved too close to the fire, causing her decaying dress to be consumed in flames. Pip rescues her, but she dies and he is badly burned himself. While he is delirious with fever, Joe sits beside Pip's bed speaking to him lovingly about old times.
Some time later, Magwitch tells Pip his life story, and Pip begins to feel pity for the ophaned boy who had to survive by stealing and was exploited by Compeyson; so, he and Herbert devise a plan to get Magwitch out of the country. On the day they rent the rowboat, Compeyson, who was a second convict that night on the marsh, is in another boat and points Magwitch out to the police. In the ensuing struggle, Magwitch is hurt and never recovers, but Pip is able to tell him of his daughter, who is, ironically, Estella.
Since the money Magwitch possessed is that of a convict, it is confiscated by the British crown, so Pip returns for a time to the forge where Joe and Biddy have married. Like the prodigal son, Pip begs forgiveness of his true friend Joe, who merely replies, "Ever the best of friends, Pip." Later, Pip is offered a job with Herbert and returns to London; back on the marsh Biddy gives birth to a boy that she and Joe christen Pip. Some years later, Pip and the tragic Estella meet and reconcile.