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 turns twenty-one years of age and will now be paid five hundred pounds annually from his fortune, and may spend the money as he pleases. He hopes that Jaggers will reveal to him his secret benefactor, but is disappointed when Jaggers says that the person may remain secret for many more years. Pip remains convinced that Miss Havisham is his benefactor, and that she intends him for Estella .
Pip and Herbert continue to accrue serious debt. Pip is relieved, however, upon the arrival of his twenty-first birthday, signifying his adulthood. Now, he will no longer have to go to Jaggers to access his inheritance, but will instead be paid five hundred pounds a year from it, allowing Pip control over his fortune. Pip hopes that Jaggers will finally reveal the identity of his secret benefactor, now that he is an adult, but is disappointed when Jaggers reveals nothing, saying that it may be years more until the person appears. Pip remains convinced that Miss Havisham is his benefactor, and that she intends Estella for his wife. Herbert continues to discourage Pip's expectations, but Pip cannot suppress his hopes. Something about his meeting with Jaggers reminds Pip of the convict from the marshes, though he cannot discern exactly what. He invites Jaggers to his birthday celebration, though his presence there makes Pip melancholy. Pip asks Wemmick's advice about the possibility of his investing some of his finances in a friend, presumably Herbert, but Wemmick discourages him from doing so.
Pip uses the first payment from his fortune to buy Herbert a partnership with a merchant (Herbert's desired career). He does so anonymously, so that Herbert has no idea of Pip's involvement. When Pip first asks Wemmick's advice on the matter, Wemmick discourages him from investing in a friend. Later, however, at Wemmick's home, he gives Pip the opposite advice, and helps him find a partner for Herbert.
Pip receives his first payment from his fortune and intends to use it to help Herbert become a successful merchant by buying his entrance into the business. Although, earlier, Wemmick had discouraged Pip from doing this, when Pip had asked his advice in Jaggers' office, Wemmick gives Pip the opposite advice over dinner at his castle in Walworth. At his home, Wemmick encourages Pip to help Herbert and agrees to help him with his plan. He also introduces Pip to his fianc, Miss Skiffins . Together, Wemmick and Pip find a merchant to partner with Herbert, and arrange the partnership anonymously. Pip wishes to remain unknown to Herbert, as his benefactor is unknown to him.
Although Pip spends ample time with Estella, she does not consider him a serious suitor, which injures Pip very much. She flirts with other suitors in his presence, but ignores Pip almost completely. Pip accompanies her to see Miss Havisham at Satis House, where, for the first time, he sees the two women argue. Miss Havisham accuses Estella of treating her with the same coldness with which she treats her suitors. Estella retorts that it is Miss Havisham who has taught her to behave so heartlessly. Soon after, Pip learns that the loathsome Drummle has been courting Estella. He tries to warn her that Drummle is a boorish dolt, but she will not heed his warning. Pip leaves her feeling extremely depressed.
Pip often visits Estella in Richmond, where she is staying at the home of Mrs. Brandley. Although Estella calls on him to accompany her on her travels, she does not treat Pip as a legitimate suitor. Pip is tortured when he must witness Estella's cruel flirtations with her other suitors, but continues to cling to the hope that Miss Havisham intends he and Estella to marry.
Pip accompanies Estella to Satis House, and for the first time, sees Estella and Miss Havisham argue. The women are tense as Miss Havisham dotes on Estella's beauty and urges her to break men's hearts. On the ride to Satis House, Estella again warns Pip not to be attracted to her. Miss Havisham shouts at Estella, furious that she treats her as coolly as she treats her suitors. Estella retorts that Miss Havisham is the one who taught her to be heartless and unfeeling.
Pip is a member of a men's club, called The Finches, of which Bentley Drummle is also a member. At one of the club's meetings, Drummle reveals, to Pip's horror, that he is courting Estella. Pip is so upset by the news that he finds Estella, and warns her about Drummle. Estella coolly replies that her suitors, like moths and other ugly creatures, are drawn to her, an irresistible flame. She does not heed Pip's advice to stay away from Drummle. Estella tries to convince Pip that he is the only one of her suitors who she is honest with. However, Pip takes no comfort in her words, and leaves her feeling dejected and depressed. In bed that night, he imagines that a slab of rock hangs threateningly overhead, about to fall and crush him.
Late one night, when Pip is aged twenty-three years, a haggard sailor comes to his door during a terrible thunderstorm. The sailor reveals that he is the convict who Pip aided in the marshes during his boyhood, and that he is Pip's secret benefactor. Pip is horrified and repulsed by this revelation, realizing that Miss Havisham is indeed not his benefactor, and that he was never intended for Estella.
Pip is now twenty-three, and the identity of his benefactor remains secret. On the night of a terrible thunderstorm, Pip is stricken with fright upon hearing heaving footsteps ascending the stairs to his apartment. The footsteps belong to a haggard old sailor who, initially, Pip does not recognize, but who later reveals himself as the convict Pip aided in the marshes when he was a boy. Pip is as repulsed by and fearful of the convict as he was in his youth, but tries his best to remain composed. The convict reveals that he was exiled to Australia, and worked there on a ranch, tending sheep. He earned a fortune ranching, which he used to make Pip a gentleman. The convict was so moved by Pip's boyhood kindness, having delivered him food and a file in the marshes, that he bequeathed his hard-earned fortune to the young man. Pip is in disbelief, horrified that the convict is his secret benefactor. He is also deeply upset when he realizes, by default, that Miss Havisham is indeed not his benefactor, and that she never intended for him to marry Estella.
Pip's twenty-first birthday signifies his official transition from adolescence to adulthood, and triggers the ultimate destruction of the great expectations he imagined in his nave boyhood. Pip expects that Jaggers will reveal the identity of his secret benefactor now that he is an adult, but is disappointed and somewhat confused by the lawyer's refusal to do so. In Chapter 36, Jaggers' adamant refusal to admit the identity of Pip's anonymous benefactor, who Pip still mistakenly believes is Miss Havisham, foreshadows the events of Chapter 39, when the convict returns and reveals he is, in fact, Pip's true benefactor. Ironically, Pip decides to serve as Herbert's secret benefactor in Chapter 37, though he is still tormented by the anonymity of his own benefactor.
Pip's conviction that Miss Havisham is his secret benefactor, and that she intends him for Estella seems implausible to all but Pip, whose reason is clouded by his hopefulness and passion for Estella. The initial catalyst for Pip's greatest expectations was not his desire for wealth or high social status, or even his eagerness to be a gentleman; all of these aspirations sprung from Pip's desire for Estella, and his determination to make himself worthy of her. Ultimately, Pip is not so concerned with the identity of his benefactor (presumably Miss Havisham), as he is with the prospect of his being intended to marry Estella. He is so clouded by his unfounded convictions that he legitimizes Jaggers' refusal to divulge the identity of his benefactor by concluding that Jaggers' must be jealous of him. That Jaggers' is jealous of Pip's situation is a ludicrous summation, particularly because Jaggers is relatively emotionless, and possesses great power and authority. Pip, by contrast, is quite the opposite, for he is merely a young man whose faculties of logic and reason are overcome and disabled by passionate emotion, and he exhibits no control over his future, only reveling in dreamy fantasies of it.
Pip's long-time aspirations for high social rank and obsessive strides toward social improvement explode and crumble when he learns that the true identity of his benefactor is not Miss Havisham, as he had long suspected, but the terrifying convict to whom he had delivered food and a file in the marsh when he was a young boy. This development is foreshadowed at numerous points in the novel, as Pip's memory of the convict is kept alive long after their encounter in the marshes during his youth. Ironically, the man who provided the means to elevate Pip's social status is himself of a status even lower than Pip's was originally. Worse, he is not only a pauper, but a convicted criminal. Upon this discovery, Pip experiences the most severe shame and disappointment of his young life.
As an orphan, Pip was raised by Joe , his adoptive father, who was far more caring and loving than Pip's own sister, Mrs. Joe . Although the relation between Pip and Joe is tenuous, Pip feels more tenderness toward Joe in his boyhood than he does toward any other person in his life. Pip shuns Joe, particularly after the inheritance of his fortune, for his commonness, and harbors disdain for his simple and unrefined ways. He is deeply ashamed that Joe, despite his irrepressible goodness, is the man who has served as his father. His shame of Joe, however, does not compare to the humiliation he feels when he learns that the convict is his benefactor. Dickens injects more irony into the story with this discovery, as Pip abandoned Joe and relinquished his position as Joe's apprentice in order to accept the convict's offer of fortune and the life of a gentleman. To Pip's horror, the convict tells him that he is the boys' second father, and that Pip is his son. Pip is not only disgusted by the convict, but by how closely their lives are connected, and how much the convict has shaped his life thus far.