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 falls over a man hiding on his staircase, but the man flees before he and the watchman can question him. He goes to see Jaggers , who confirms Magwitch's story and identity. Magwitch, who goes by the alias of Uncle Provis, disguises himself, but looks to Pip like the convict who terrified him in his boyhood. Pip dreads Herbert's return home, as he will have to explain Magwitch's presence and his relation to him.
Pip falls over a shadowy figure as he descends the stairs from his apartment. The figure is a man crouching in a corner, and he does not answer Pip when addressed. Pip runs to retrieve the watchman, and asks him to come quickly, but when they return to the stairs, the mysterious man is gone. The watchman tells Pip that when the convict, who Pip says is his uncle, had entered the previous evening, he was accompanied by another man. This news alarms Pip, but when he confronts the convict, who says his name is Abel Magwitch, he claims to have come alone. He tells Pip that he now goes by the alias of Uncle Provis, and that Jaggers served as his defense lawyer during his trial. Pip orders a change of clothes as a disguise for Magwitch, so that he will not be identified and exiled back to Australia. Despite the disguise, Magwitch still looks to Pip like the convict who terrified him in the marshes.
Pip goes to Jaggers to discuss the appearance of Magwitch, and to confirm that what Magwitch says is indeed true. Jaggers confirms Magwitch's story, and says that a man named Provis had written him, requesting Pip's address, which Wemmick then sent.
Pip dreads Herbert's return to the apartment, when he will have to explain Magwitch's presence. However uneasy, Herbert is understanding upon his return home and swears to keep Magwitch a secret. Pip is exceedingly disgusted by Magwitch, who refers, in a paternal, affectionate way, to Pip as his gentleman.
Herbert returns home and is understanding, however uneasy, of Magwitch's presence there. He and Pip agree that Pip must sever his ties to Magwitch, and that he must cease to use his fortune. Further, they agree that they must convince Magwitch to leave England.
Upon Herbert's return home, Pip must explain to him Magwitch's presence there, and his relationship to him. Magwitch leaves the apartment in his disguise, and Pip feels immense relief upon his departure. Herbert, ever a loyal friend, is understanding, but agrees that Pip should no longer rely on his inheritance from Magwitch, and should severe all ties with the convict. The friends decide that they must convince Magwitch to leave England, where he will be safe from arrest, and that Pip will escort him abroad.
Magwitch recounts the tragic story of his life to Herbert and Pip. Born a poor orphan, he stole to survive. As a young man, he partnered with a criminal named Compeyson , who had driven his first partner, Arthur, into madness. In a note, Herbert tells Pip that Arthur was Miss Havisham's half brother, and that Compeyson was her beloved fianc. Magwitch, with his coarse manners and low status, was sentenced to a much harsher prison term than Compeyson when they were convicted, and it was Compeyson who Magwitch had been fighting with in the marsh when the men were recaptured.
Magwitch returns to Pip and Herbert's apartment, and recounts the story of his life. A poor orphan, he stole to survive his earliest memory is of stealing turnips out of hunger. Desperate and impoverished, he partnered with a sly criminal named Compeyson, who incriminated him and led Magwitch to prison. Compeyson's received a far lighter sentence than Magwitch because of his gentlemanly good manners and breeding. He reveals that Compeyson was the other convict who Pip had seen in the marsh, the one Magwitch had been in fisticuffs with when they were recaptured.
Compeyson's previous partner, Arthur, had fallen into an abyss of alcoholism and insanity, driven mad by the memory of a wealthy woman he and Compeyson had swindled. Magwitch alludes that he was once in love with a woman, but does not divulge any details about her.
Herbert passes Pip a note informing him that Arthur was Miss Havisham's half brother, and that Compeyson was her beloved fianc.
Pip is deeply ashamed that his benefactor is a lowly criminal, and resigns his pursuit of Estella . He decides to visit her and Miss Havisham one last time, and departs for Satis House. Beforehand, he has an unpleasant encounter with the loathsome Drummle at the local inn, and is disgusted to learn that his courtship with Estella is serious.
Pip is more miserable than ever, and is greatly shamed that his benefactor is a coarse, common man of low social standing, let alone a convicted criminal. Considering this, Pip resigns his pursuit of Estella, but decides to visit her and Miss Havisham one final time. However, he has no intention of ever revealing to her his relations with Magwitch. Before he departs for Satis House, he encounters Drummle at the local inn. They pretend not to notice one another, but, inevitably, engage in a tense, competitive exchange, which further confirms Pip's hatred for Drummle. Most injurious to Pip is Drummle's mention of his serious courtship with Estella.
Miss Havisham admits that she had falsely allowed Pip to believe that she was his anonymous benefactor, but agrees to help him support Herbert's business now that Pip cannot use his own fortune. At last, Pip passionately confesses his love for Estella, who shows no emotion at his outburst. Her only reply is that she never led Pip to believe she shared his feelings, and that she will soon marry Drummle. Strangely, Miss Havisham seems to pity Pip. At home in London, Pip receives a note from Wemmick, delivered by the watchman, which reads, Don't go home.
Pip arrives at Satis House, uninvited and unannounced. He confronts Miss Havisham, and she admits that she had falsely let him believe that she was his secret benefactor. Pip asks her financial support in helping Herbert with his business, as he no longer feels justified in using his own fortune, and Miss Havisham agrees. Estella sits by the fire, knitting, and expresses no emotion even when Pip at last passionately announces his love for her. Coldly, Estella defensively replies that she does not share his feelings, and that she never gave him reason to believe so. She further injures Pip when she reveals that she will soon marry Drummle. In a strange show of pity and remorse, Miss Havisham covers her heart with her hand as she witnesses the charged exchange between Pip and Estella.
Pip returns to home to London, where the night watchman hands him a note, written in Wemmick's handwriting, which reads: Don't go home.
Pip spends the night at a shabby hotel and, in the morning, sees Wemmick, who tells him that Compeyson has been following Magwitch, and that the convict is now safely hidden at Clara's house.
Pip spends the night at a shabby hotel, on the advice of Wemmick's note. Worried, he hardly sleeps, and goes to see Wemmick immediately the next morning. Wemmick explains that Compeyson is following Magwitch, and has probably been spying on him at Pip's apartment. Wemmick says he has accidentally heard this information while working at Jaggers' office. He then tells Pip that Herbert has escorted Magwitch to Clara's house, where he is safely hidden, and Pip resolves to go there that night.
Clara's house is loud with the grumblings of her father, who is grouchy and bed-ridden. Pip is relieved to find that Magwitch is hidden safely upstairs, but does not tell him about Compeyson. Herbert and Pip plot to help Magwitch escape, planning to row him away on the river.
Pip arrives at Clara's house to check on Magwitch. Clara's father is an ill-tempered old man who remains in his bedroom, and will not allow anyone but Clara to see him. Pip can hear him shouting and grumbling from his room. Pip is relieved to find Magwitch safe upstairs, though he does not mention Compeyson's pursuit of him. Pip purchases a rowboat, plotting with Herbert to help Magwitch escape on the river. Pip, surprised by his concern for the convict's safety, even considers staying with him after his planned escape. Pip is saddened by thoughts of Estella, and made paranoid by thoughts of Compeyson.
Upon the sudden reappearance of Magwitch in his life, Pip is presented with the same inner conflict he experienced as a boy, stealing from Joe and Mrs. Joe to aid the suffering convict in the marsh. At once, Pip is fearful of Magwitch, yet fearful for the convict's safety, as he risks recapture to reveal himself to Pip. Pip is disgusted by the unkempt, haggard old man, as terrified and repulsed by him as he was during his youth. But, as in his boyhood, Pip's terror is overcome by his compassion for the man, and he does not cast him off, as he easily could. Instead, he worries about his well-being and plots to help him escape, for a second time. Pip's continued and acute fear of consequence for his aid of the convict has foreshadowed the convict's reappearance in his life. Now, Pip must suffer the consequence of his actions, long after his offence.
This section also brings about another major conflict that urges Pip to reexamine his romantic ideals. As Magwitch's story reveals, his life is even more intertwined with the convicts than he first imagined. Unaware of Pip's association with Miss Havisham, Magwitch unknowingly informs Pip that Compeyson is the man who broke Miss Havisham's heart. Thus, Compeyson is the cause of Miss Havisham's bitterness, and the reason she seeks revenge on the hearts of men, having raised Estella as a weapon against them. Indirectly, Compeyson's cruel actions were the catalyst for Pip's heartbreak over Estella, for had it not been for his desertion of Miss Havisham, Pip's own fragile heart would not have been pummeled by Estella's coldness.
This revelation confuses Pip, for it challenges his once black-and-white views of good and evil, of guilt and innocence, poor and rich.
Also confusing to Pip is Miss Havisham's unprecedented display of pity during his heartwrenching confession of his love to Estella. As Pip is riddled with guilt for the mistakes he has made and the injustices he has done unto those he cares for, Miss Havisham is suddenly stricken with guilt and remorse for turning Estella against Pip, using the boy as an experimental play thing for Estella's cold, unfeeling heart. Miss Havisham seems to genuinely care for Pip, showing such emotions for the first time in the novel, and deeply regrets raising Estella as a cruel tormentor of men's hearts. Like Pip, her expectations have ended in disappointment and disaster.
Throughout Pip's difficulties, he relies on crucial support from his faithful friends, namely Herbert and Wemmick. Their unflinching loyalty and kindness towards Pip, particularly during his time of struggle, emphasize the importance of human goodness and fidelity, one of the novel's most prominent themes. Gradually, through his hardship, Pip realizes the importance of human relationships, and comes to see that kindness and friendship are superior to social and economic rank.
The bitterness Magwitch feels toward his former partner-in-crime Compeyson further illustrates the recurring theme of differences in social status. Magwitch, with his coarse manners, lack of education, and low status result in a much longer and harsher prison term than the term required of Compeyson, who wins a light prison term with the exhibition of his gentlemanly manners, education, and breeding.