Great Expectations Summary

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is a novel about an orphan named Pip who becomes a gentleman.

  • Pip grows up in Kent with his older sister and her husband, Joe. One day, he aids an escaped convict.
  • Pip meets the wealthy Miss Havisham and falls in love with her adopted daughter, Estella.
  • After receiving a mysterious fortune, Pip moves to London to become a gentleman. His benefactor is revealed to be the convict he aided, Magwitch, who dies after Pip attempts to help him escape.
  • Pip goes to work abroad for his friend Herbert Pocket and is later reunited with Estella.

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Last Updated on July 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 865

Great Expectations follows the young protagonist Pip, a lower-class orphan who lives with his sister and her husband in Kent. At the beginning of the novel, Pip is visiting his parents’ graves when a mysterious stranger—clearly an escaped prisoner—grabs ahold of him and makes several demands of the young boy. Following these demands, Pip steals food and a file (items the prisoner requests), but the man is caught by authorities anyway. This deed serves as the inciting incident of the novel, as it is later revealed in the text that this escaped prisoner, Magwitch, is Pip’s anonymous benefactor.

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As a young boy, Pip is taken by his kindly brother-in-law, Joe, on a visit to Satis House—the abode of the eccentric spinster Miss Havisham. Pip becomes enamored with Estella, Miss Havisham's young ward. Estella is beautiful yet cruel, and Pip makes it his life’s mission to become a wealthy gentleman worthy of being her husband.

Pip visits Satis House regularly after his first encounter with Estella, only to discover that Miss Havisham wants him to become Joe’s apprentice as a blacksmith. Pip had secretly hoped that Miss Havisham would help him become an educated gentleman instead.

Pip reluctantly works under Joe and is unhappy there. He especially hates the violent Orlick, another worker in the forge who beats Pip’s sister so savagely that she becomes an invalid. While working in the forge, Pip struggles to continue his self-directed education, until a lawyer named Jaggers appears and tells Pip about a large sum of money that has been gifted to him by an anonymous benefactor.

Pip mistakenly believes that Miss Havisham is his mysterious benefactress, still clinging to the dream that he will marry Estella. He travels to London to transform himself into the ideal gentleman. Once there, Pip becomes friends with Herbert Pocket, whose father, Matthew, serves as Pip’s academic tutor, while Herbert shows Pip how to play the part of a gentleman. Although Pip is not granted access to his fortune until age twenty-one, he continues to run up debts about town with Herbert.

After several years, Pip is surprised to find the escaped convict from his childhood in his room in London. The convict says his name is Magwitch. Magwitch explains that he built himself a fortune in Australia so that he could one day gift Pip with a large sum of money to transform the poor boy into the gentleman Pip so longed to be—all because Pip had been kind to Magwitch in that graveyard.

Magwitch asks Pip for help, as he is now being hunted down by London police and his former criminal accomplice, Compeyson. Pip finds out that Compeyson is the man who jilted Miss Havisham, leaving her at the altar, and that Magwitch is Estella’s father. Miss Havisham only raised Estella to spite Compeyson, and she purposefully taught the young girl to break men’s hearts. Pip was just one of Estella’s earliest victims, as Miss Havisham instructed her ward to toy with Pip’s emotions when they first met.

Estella marries an upper-class gentleman, Bentley Drummle, who is brash and unkind. Miss Havisham invites Pip to Satis House to seek his forgiveness for the past, only to accidentally set herself on fire shortly after his visit. While Pip says he forgives her, Miss Havisham spends the rest of her days as an invalid, constantly asking for Pip’s absolution.

Shortly after Miss Havisham’s accident, Pip and Herbert arrange Magwitch’s escape from London. Orlick nearly kills Pip in the marshes before Herbert saves his friend, after which the two comrades go to meet Magwitch at the river, where they have secured a boat for him.

The police arrive and thwart the escape plans, however, because Compeyson notified the police of Magwitch’s location. Compeyson is also at the river, where an altercation with Magwitch ensues, resulting in Compeyson’s drowning.

The police arrest Magwitch, who is sentenced to death. While Magwitch dies at peace, believing that his punishment will absolve him of his sins, his execution leaves Pip penniless.

Even though Pip shunned his family and friends back in Kent, thinking his fortune made him superior to them, his estranged brother-in-law, Joe, rushes to London when Pip falls gravely ill. Joe reveals to Pip that Orlick is now in prison and Miss Havisham has died, leaving her fortune to the Pockets. Pip realizes how foolish he has been and returns to Kent, hoping to marry Biddy—a childhood friend who had helped him with his education during his time as Joe’s apprentice.

Biddy, however, is already married to Joe, once again foiling Pip’s plans for himself. Instead, Pip travels with Herbert Pocket to learn the mercantile business. Many years pass before Pip returns to Kent, where he comes across Estella at the now-abandoned Satis House. No longer cruel and manipulative, Estella is melancholy and cordial, a change likely caused by the poor treatment she received from her now-deceased husband. The novel ends with Pip and Estella holding hands. Pip believes that he has finally received his happy ending with the woman he has always wanted.

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