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.
Overwhelmed by anxiety, Pip goes to the theater to escape his troubles. After the show, Wopsle , who was acting in the performance, tells him that one of the convicts they had seen in the marsh so many years ago was sitting behind him during the play. Pip maintains his composure and deduces that the convict, Compeyson , is following him.
Weeks pass as Pip waits for Wemmick's signal to take Magwitch down the river to escape. Pip's debts accumulate rapidly, as he feels he should no longer spend the fortune Magwitch has left him. Pip falls into a deep depression, which is worsened by his recollection of Estella's marriage to Drummle . Surely, he thinks, they are married by now. He tries to forget the pain Estella has caused him so that he may focus on Magwitch. Overwhelmed by anxiety, Pip goes to the theater to escape his troubles. There, Wopsle tells him that one of the convicts from the marsh was sitting behind him during the performance. Pip does not reveal his concern or the depth of his involvement to Wopsle, but deduces that the convict was Compeyson , who must be following him. Shaken, Pip informs Herbert and Wemmick of the dire situation.
Jaggers invites Pip to dinner and gives him a note from Miss Havisham , who requests that he visit her on a matter of business. At Jaggers' house, Pip is stricken by the conviction that Molly , Jaggers' housekeeper, is the woman who Estella resembles. Later, Wemmick tells Pip that Jaggers had defended Molly when she was on trial for the murder of a woman who she suspected was having an affair with her husband. Molly, who was acquitted of the charge, is also suspected to have killed her young daughter (who Pip presumes is Estella).
Jaggers sees Pip on the street and invites him to dinner at his house. He gives Pip a note from Miss Havisham, which requests that he visit regarding a matter of business, and Pip decides to go the next day. Jaggers toasts to Estella's marriage to Drummle, but is interrupted by his housekeeper, Molly. Pip observes Molly and thinks that she is the person who Estella resembles, and he is certain that she is Estella's mother. After the meal, Pip questions Wemmick about Molly, who went to work for Jaggers after he won her acquittal in a murder trial. Wemmick explains that she had been accused of murdering a woman out of jealousy over her husband, and of killing her young daughter (presumably Estella) to spite him.
Pip goes to see Miss Havisham, who breaks down in tears and begs his forgiveness for causing him heartache, as a result of raising Estella to be a cold, heartless woman. He questions her adoption of Estella, and though she offers no new information, she confirms Pip's suspicion that Molly is Estella's mother. As Pip is departing from Satis House, he has a morbid vision of Miss Havisham hanging, dead, from the beams of the brewery. He goes to check on her and finds her on fire. Pip saves her life, but she is now invalid.
Pip goes to see Miss Havisham at Satis House, and finds the place changed in Estella's absence. Miss Havisham herself seems different, now a weak and lonely old woman who begs Pip for his forgiveness. She is deeply sorry that she has raised Estella as a cold, heartless woman. What have I done, she exclaims, I stole her heart away and put ice in its place. The dowager is full of remorse for the heartache she has caused him, and breaks down sobbing at his feet, pleading for his forgiveness. Miss Havisham begins to tell Pip the story of her own heartache, but Pip delicately allows that he has already heard it. He asks her how she came to adopt Estella, but all she knows is that Jaggers brought Estella to her when the girl was two or three. This further convinces Pip that Molly is Estella's biological mother.
Walking through the cold, dreary garden to depart, Pip has a morose vision of Miss Havisham hanging, dead, from a beam in the brewery. Worried, Pip goes to check on her before he leaves. He finds her sitting by the fire, and in the instant that he looks in, she catches aflame. Pip leaps onto her, smothering the flames with his coat. Miss Havisham survives, but is now bed-ridden. Repeatedly, she urges Pip to write I forgive her under her name, though Pip does not directly offer his forgiveness. He stays the night by her side, and departs for London the following morning, badly burned, himself.
Herbert helps nurse Pip, who is badly burned after rescuing Miss Havisham, back to health. Magwitch tells Herbert (who tells Pip) the story of the woman he had loved. Pip is convinced, given the details of the story, that the woman is Molly, and that Magwitch is therefore Estella's father.
Tenderly, Herbert changes the dressings on Pip's burns and helps nurse him back to health. Initially, they avoid the subject of Magwitch, but agree that they have grown fond of him when Herbert brings him up in conversation. The previous evening, Herbert had spoken intimately with Magwitch, who told him the story of the woman he had once loved, who he had mentioned in passing once before. The story of the woman is identical to the story of Molly, Jaggers' housekeeper, who was acquitted for the murder of another woman, and who had mothered a young girl child. Thus, Magwitch is Molly's former husband, and therefore Estella's father.
Pip tells Jaggers the story of Estella's parentage, and manages to shock him with the news. Jaggers will not reveal any more information regarding the matter until Wemmick interjects, revealing his human side in the office for the first time. Heartened, Jaggers confirms that Molly is Estella's mother. He had not known, however, that Magwitch is her father.
Pip confronts Jaggers with the true history of Estella's parentage, and manages to shock him with the news. Pip tries, in vain, to squeeze more information from Jaggers, but the lawyer will not relent until Wemmick interjects, suddenly revealing his human side for the first time in the office. Jaggers, who seems delighted to learn of Wemmick's pleasant side, expresses a humanness of his own, and confirms in a hypothetical tense that Molly is Estella's mother. It is news to him, however, that Magwitch is her father.
Pip secures his anonymous donations to help Herbert's business, and thinks it is the only good thing he has done since his great expectations were first apprised. Herbert is soon to leave for Egypt on business, and Pip feels he may leave soon, too. A note arrives from Wemmick advising that Magwitch escape early in the week. Another note arrives from an anonymous sender, urging Pip to meet him in the marshes if he wants to be provided information concerning his Uncle Provis. Pip returns home to meet with the sender in the marshes, overcome with guilt for his ungratefulness of Joe .
Pip visits the accountant who is managing his anonymous donations to Herbert's business partnership. He secures the deal, and thinks that his aid to Herbert was the only good thing I had done, and the only completed thing I had done, since I was first apprised of my great expectations. Herbert tells Pip that his business will take him and Clara to Egypt, and Pip thinks that his own anchor [is] loosening its hold.
At long last, Wemmick sends a note that Pip and Herbert should help Magwitch escape on the river in a few days. He advises that they put the plan into action early in the week, and they decide to do it on Wednesday.
Shortly thereafter, Pip finds an ominous note from an anonymous sender instructing him to go alone to the marshes for information concerning his Uncle Provis. Pip cannot resist this mystery, and returns to his town to meet with the letter's sender. There, in the town of his birth, he is overcome by guilt and regret, particularly for his cruel treatment of Joe and Biddy. Pip thinks that of all his losses, his loss of Joe's friendship is his greatest regret. He is deeply ashamed of having been so ungrateful for Joe's kindness to him. With these thought, Pip sets off into the dark marshlands, his arm impaired by burns suffered during his rescue of Miss Havisham.
The novel's most dramatic display of irony occurs in Chapter 50, when Pip concludes that Magwitch, the low-born convict and his benefactor, is the father of his unattainable beloved, Estella. This is the most shocking of Pip's discoveries, as it serves as the final blow to his idealization of social status and wealth. Pip's feelings for Estella and his feelings for Magwitch have, until now, been in extreme contrast to one another. Since his youth, Pip has idolized and adored Estella, likening her to an ethereal blond goddess, and pining for her as he did for status and the life of a wealthy, respectable gentleman. Conversely, Pip has remained terrified of and disgusted by the convict, likening him to an untamed animal, and feeling deep shame upon learning of his close association with Magwitch when he reveals he is Pip's benefactor.
In Chapter 50, as both Pip and Herbert are eventually warming to Magwitch and his uncouth ways, the truth of her parentage knocks Estella from the pedestal that Pip has placed her atop. In effect, his great expectations, of which Estella is the foundation and the ultimate fantasy, are finally and completely extinguished. Estella's biological parents, Molly the brooding housekeeper and Magwitch the convict, reveal that she is even more common than Pip, for she was born to parents who hold even lower social status than his own family. This revelation, however, does not seem to deter Pip's passion for Estella. Despite his own severe insecurity about his social status and commonness, he forgives Estella her poor parentage without hesitation. Pip's lack of criticism of Estella's true status is due in part to his growing affection for Magwitch, who he is gradually realizing is a good, kind man, though without a gentleman's manners.
Yet another essential development in Great Expectations occurs in Chapter 49, when Miss Havisham repents for her ill intentions and pleads for Pip's forgiveness. Like Pip and Magwitch, Miss Havisham's character undergoes a major transformation, signifying revelation and growth. As Pip walks through the garden of Satis House to depart after his visit to a repentant Miss Havisham, he has a morbid vision of the dowager hanging from a beam in the dilapidated brewery, as he did once before as a young boy, on his very first visit. Instead of feeling terror at the sight, he is suddenly stricken with panic, and worries for the safety of the old woman.
Miss Havisham's unused wedding garments are burned in the blaze, and their destruction symbolizes the death of the dowager's bitterness towards men, after he lover, presumably Compeyson, abandoned her on their proposed wedding day. The end of her bitterness is evidenced by her actions toward Pip, who has suffered the brunt of her cruel vendetta. Close to her own death, Miss Havisham wants desperately to be forgiven for the heartbreak she has caused Pip, and for the damage she has done to Estella, having raised her to have no heart at all.