Great Expectations is a novel about a poor boy named Pip, who lives with his cruel sister and her blacksmith husband. After years of helping a wealthy reclusive woman named Miss Havisham, he receives a small fortune from an anonymous benefactor. After learning to live like a gentleman and many attempts to court Miss Havisham's daughter, Estella, Pip learns that his fortune was not from Miss Havisham, as he had assumed, but a convict he had helped save when he was a child.
Pip returns home from meeting with the convict in the marsh, overwhelmed by guilt and paranoia. He fears that the police await him at his house, though he finds only Mrs. Joe cooking Christmas dinner in the kitchen. Mr. Wopsle , the church clerk, and Pip's Uncle Pumblechook come over for the holiday dinner, which Pip endures quite miserably. Pip's terror peaks when a group of police officers come to the house wielding handcuffs. He is certain they have come to take him away.
Pip returns home from his meeting with the convict, his conscience overwhelmed by guilt for helping an outlaw and for stealing from Mr. and Mrs. Joe. In his terror, Pip is paranoid that police await him at his home, ready to arrest him for helping to hide the escaped convict. Upon his arrival home, however, Pip finds only Mrs. Joe, preparing Christmas dinner in the kitchen. Pip and Joe eat breakfast together, then go to church at the demand of Mrs. Joe, who does not accompany them.
Mr. Wopsle, the church clerk, and Pip's pompous Uncle Pumblechook join the Joes for Christmas dinner. Mrs. Joe is decidedly more gracious in the company of guests, particularly Mr. and Mrs. Hubble. Pip spends much of Christmas dinner worrying about his ill fate after helping the convict. He is utterly terrified by his circumstance, and unshakably paranoid about the consequences in his future. Pip is especially fearful when Pumblechook requests a glass of brandy, which he discovers has been diluted with tar-water. Pip's terror peaks when a group of police officers barge into the house wielding a pair of handcuffs. He is certain they have come for him.
The police have not arrived to arrest Pip, but to solicit Joe's help with a broken pair of handcuffs. The police report that they are searching for two escaped convicts, and invite Pip and Joe to join them on their hunt. Joe repairs the handcuffs, and he and Pip join the police in their search. Following a long hunt, they find the two convicts one of them Pip's fighting with one another in the marsh. Pip's convict does not reveal his prior meetings with the boy, but instead confesses that he had stolen the file and the food himself. The convicts are arrested and led back to the prison ship.
Although Pip is certain that the police have arrived to arrest him for his dealings with the convict, they have come instead for Joe, soliciting his blacksmithing expertise. The policemen explain that they are hunting two escaped convicts, and need Joe's help to fix a pair of handcuffs. The police ask Joe and Pip if they'd like to come along in the search for the convict, and they agree. Amidst his terror, Pip feels suddenly worried for the well-being of the convict he had helped that morning.
Pip, Joe, and the police come upon the two convicts in the marsh, engaged in a brutal fight with one another. Pip's convict does not acknowledge that he recognizes Pip. Instead, he protects him by claiming he has stolen the food and the file himself. Pip watches as the police escort the convicts back to the prison ship, and thinks that it is all over for his convict.
Although Pip does not feel exceptionally guilty about stealing from his brutish sister, he loves Joe dearly and feels immensely guilty for lying to him about his dealings with the convict. Following the convict's capture, Pip and Joe return to Christmas dinner, whereupon Joe relays the exciting details to the dinner guests. Pip, however, is sick with guilt, and remains in a haze of misery.
Pip admits he does not harbor any tenderness for his brutish sister, but he does truly love Joe. He does not feel guilty for stealing from his sister's pantry, but for keeping the truth about his escapades with the convict from kind, trusting Joe.
After the capture of the convicts, Joe carries Pip home in his arms and they return to their Christmas dinner. Joe relays the exciting story of the capture to the dinner guests, all of whom make various guesses as to how the convict had broken entry into the pantry. Pip, sickened by guilt, remains uninterested in the conversation.
Pip is a student at Mrs. Wopsle's school, where he earnestly tries to learn to read and write. At the school, he befriends Biddy , Mrs. Wopsle's granddaughter. Joe, who is illiterate, praises Pip for his scholarly endeavors. Mrs. Joe and Mr. Pumblechook arrive at the house as Pip is practicing his letters, and announce that Miss Havisham , a wealthy old spinster who lives nearby, wishes for Pip to come play at her dilapidated estate. The adults, thrilled by the prospect that Miss Havisham might secure Pip's fortune, seem far more excited by this than young Pip. Mrs. Joe dresses and bathes Pip hastily, so that he may be presentable to see Miss Havisham the next day, and sends him home with Pumblechook.
Following the capture of his convict, Pip attends Mrs. Wopsle's school, where he tries in earnest to learn how to read and write. There, he finds a companion in Biddy , the granddaughter of Mrs. Wopsle. One evening, as they sit together in the parlor, Joe, who is illiterate, praises Pip's unsophisticated scrawl. Mrs. Joe and Pumblechook enter, clearly excited over something, and announce that Pumblechook has arranged for Pip to visit Miss Havisham, a wealthy old spinster who lives in a dilapidated estate nearby. Pumblechook reports that Miss Havisham had requested the Pip come over and play. The opportunity is hardly presented to Pip as an opportunity, but is decided by his sister and Pumblechook, that he will most definitely go. Pip is sent home with Pumblechook, after Mrs. Joe has dressed and bathed him hastily, so he will look presentable for his visit to Miss Havisham's the following day. Pumblechook and Mrs. Joe are hopeful that the wealthy Miss Havisham will eventually bequeath part of her fortune to Pip.
The introduction of Miss Havisham, the wealthy old spinster, in chapter 7 is a key development in the plot, as her character will play a central role throughout the course of the novel. Although Pip has yet to meet Miss Havisham, her potential importance in his life is undisputed. Mrs. Joe and Uncle Pumblechook seem far more excited by the prospect of Pip's visit to Miss Havisham's than the boy himself, as they hope that the rich old woman will leave Pip an inheritance and thus raise his social respectability. As they mention, Miss Havisham could change Pip's life dramatically.
Pip, in his youthful innocence of economic and social power, cannot grasp why his invitation to Miss Havisham's is cause for such excitement. It is not long, however, before his innocence of this matter is corrupted. Pumblechook and Mrs. Joe's social and economic ambitions for Pip serve as the first distinct appearance of one of the novel's most prominent themes: the differences in and the desire for status and social class.
Dickens illustrates the humble social standing of Pip and his family in numerous ways early in the novel. For supper, Mrs. Joe serves only a meager slice of bread with hardly a smear of butter, indicating that the family barely manages to survive on what little they have. Also indicative of the Joe's low social class is their unrefined manners. Mrs. Joe is ogre-like and coarse, while Joe, though kind and gentle, is inarticulate and uneducated. He has a poor, bumbling way of speaking, and does not know how to read or write. Joe's illiteracy is made both sad and somewhat comical when he compliments Pip's writing, which is so riddled with mistakes it is hardly readable. Although Pip struggles with his schoolwork, he craves knowledge and is intent upon getting an education. He will be even more dedicated to this pursuit when he realizes that he must have an education in order to elevate his social standing.
Pip and Joe share a special friendship, which is best illuminated by the scenes in which they spend the evenings together, relaxing and talking by the fireside. Aside from Pip, Joe seems to be the only character who is not thrilled by the prospect of the boy's visit to Miss Havisham. Unlike Pumblechook and Mrs. Joe, Joe is not driven by social ambition or greed. He is a simple, kind, and deeply caring man who loves Pip, though he is of no relation to him, and adores his wife, though she treats him cruelly. The complex relationship between Pip and Joe is fundamental to many elements of the novel, reappearing most notably at its finale, when Pip, as a young man, at last realizes how upstanding and respectable Joe is, despite his humble simplicity. In the beginning of the novel, when Pip is a boy, he is aware of Joe's goodness, and thus feels guilty for keeping secrets from him. When he is introduced to greed and the prospect of social mobility, however, he forgets the importance of what Joe embodies: honesty, kindness, and compassion.