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 goes to the marshes to meet the secret sender of the note regarding Uncle Provis. The sender is Orlick , who attacks Pip and blames him for interfering in his courtship (of Biddy ). Orlick also reveals that he is Mrs. Joe's killer, and that he is connected to Compeyson , and has knowledge of Magwitch . Just as Orlick is about to murder Pip, Herbert and a group of other men burst in and rescue him. Orlick escapes, and Herbert and Pip rush back to London to enact Magwitch's escape.
Shrouded by mists and darkness, Pip travels to the limekiln in the marshes to meet the unnamed sender of the note regarding Uncle Provis. When he arrives at his destination, his candle is extinguished by a sudden gust, and a noose is thrown over his head. His attacker bounds him to a chair and threatens to kill him if he cries for help. The burn on his arm causes Pip excruciating pain. The attacker strikes a flint, and in the glimpse of light, Pip sees that it is Orlick. Orlick claims that he has accosted Pip to get revenge on him for stealing his beloved.
Orlick reveals that he killed Mrs. Joe, but blames Pip for her death, saying that he it also as revenge. Orlick also reveals his unexplained connection to Compeyson, saying that he has knowledge of Magwitch, and that he was the man crouching on Pip's stairs.
Pip fears that Orlick will kill him, and that his friends, namely Joe, Herbert, and Magwitch, will never know his good intentions and new outlook.
As Orlick advances toward Pip with a stone hammer, Herbert bursts in with a group of other men, having heard Pip's cry. He had found Orlick's note to Pip, and, fearing his friend's safety, followed him to the marshes. Orlick escapes, and Pip and Herbert hurry to London to prepare for Magwitch's escape on the river.
Pip and Herbert elect their friend Startop to help them enact Magwitch's escape. They retrieve Magwitch from Clara's house and set out on the river. Initially, the escape goes smoothly, but it fails when the police arrest Magwitch just as they row toward his final means of escape: a German steamer. Magwitch sees Compeyson on the police boat, and jumps into the water to attack him. Compeyson drowns in the tussle, though Magwitch is not responsible for his drowing.
Pip and Herbert elect their friend Startop to help them enact Magwitch's escape. Pip is unable to row because of the severe pain of his burned arm. They retrieve Magwitch from Clara's house and set out on the river, which is bustling with activity. Initially, the rowing is easy, but it grows more difficult as they reach the marshes. They stay overnight at a seedy inn, where a servant warns that he has seen a mysterious boat lurking in the harbor by the inn. Pip fears that the boat may belong to either Compeyson or the police, and later that night, sees two men inspecting his boat.
The next morning, Herbert and Startop row away from the inn and pick up Magwitch and Pip further downriver for safety. Just as they approach the German steamer on which Pip and Magwitch plan to make their final escape, they are caught by the police. Magwitch sees Compeyson on the police boat, and dives into water to seek his revenge. The men struggle against one another, and both disappear under the water. Magwitch resurfaces, though Compeyson does not. Magwitch claims that he did not drown Compeyson, though he says he'd have been satisfied to have done so. The police arrest Magwitch, but Pip vows to remain faithful to him.
Pip maintains his faith in Magwitch, who is now imprisoned. Jaggers , who is convinced that Magwitch will be convicted, tell Pip that all of the convict's fortune, including his shares, will be appropriated by the state. Wemmick marries Miss Skiffins , and Herbert and Clara plan their own wedding. Herbert offers Pip a job, but Pip defers his reply.
Pip continues to stand by Magwitch, despite Jaggers' conviction that the convict will be found guilty. Jaggers tells Pip that Magwitch's fortune, including the money left for Pip, will be appropriated by the state, though this news troubles Jaggers more than it does Pip. Wemmick marries Miss Skiffins, and The Aged and Pip serve as witnesses. Meanwhile, Herbert and Clara make wedding plans. Herbert offers Pip work, but Pip graciously defers his answer.
Pip goes to visit Magwitch in prison, where he finds the convict very ill, awaiting his death at the gallows. He tells the convict of his daughter, Estella , moments before his death. Magwitch declares his death sentence an act of God-sent forgiveness, and he dies from his illness on the day he is sentenced to hang.
Pip goes to visit Magwitch in prison, where he finds the convict very ill, suffering from injuries that resulted from his fight with Compeyson. Magwitch is sentenced to death, and Pip earnestly writes to heads of government to petition the sentence. Magwitch declares the sentence an act of God-sent forgiveness, and he dies from his illness on the day he is sentenced to hang at the gallows. Moments before his death, Pip tells Magwitch of Estella, the daughter he thought had perished, saying that she is living and beautiful, and that he loves her. Pip cannot believe that he had once wanted to flee from Magwitch, and prays to God for his forgiveness.
Pip becomes very ill. He is arrested for his debts, but is not led to prison on account of his illness. Feverish, Pip suffers hallucinations of Orlick, Miss Havisham, and Joe . Joe comes to London to nurse Pip back to health. He tells Pip that Miss Havisham has died, and that Orlick has been arrested for robbing Pumblechook. Once Pip is nearly recovered, Joe returns to the country, leaving Pip a note and a receipt for his debts, all of which Joe has paid. Pip rushes home to reconcile with Joe and marry Biddy .
Pip becomes extremely ill, and is arrested for his debts. He is not led to prison, however, on account of his poor health. Feverish, Pip lies in bed and suffers hallucinations, imagining times past, and recalling Orlick, Miss Havisham, and Joe. Pip's final vision of Joe, however, is real, for he has come to nurse Pip back to health. Joe tells Pip that Miss Havisham has died, and has left the remainder of her fortune to the Pocket family. He divulges that Orlick has been imprisoned after ransacking Pumblechook's home. Joe pens a note for Pip, and Pip surmises that Biddy has taught him how to read and write.
Pip's health improves, and Joe takes him out about the town on Sunday, as he did when Pip was a boy. Pip attempts to tell Joe the details of his relationship with Magwitch, but Joe resists, not wanting to discuss the upsetting subject. Joe is unhappy in London, and, after asking Pip if his health is renewed, leaves Pip a note explaining that he has returned to the country. With the note is a bill for Pip's debts, which Joe has paid in full. Warmed by gratitude and emotion, Pip goes home immediately to reconcile with Joe and apologize for his past behavior, which he deeply regrets. He also resolves to marry Biddy and live simply, perhaps as a blacksmith.
After an unpleasant encounter with Pumblechook at the inn, during which Pip defends himself, Pip goes to find Joe and Biddy. He finally finds Joe and Biddy in the parlor of his childhood home, and they tell him they have just been married. Though Pip is disappointed, he congratulates them for their happiness and resolves to take the job Herbert has offered him.
Upon arriving home, Pip finds Satis House restructured and ready for auction. He encounters Pumblechook at the inn where he is staying, but defends his position when Pumblechook condescends and berates him for his ingratitude. Pip goes to find Biddy and Joe, but finds Biddy's schoolhouse is empty, as is Joe's smithy. Finally, Pip finds them in the parlor of his boyhood home, and is surprised to find that they have been married that day. Though he is disappointed, he congratulates the couple and is glad for their happiness. Given this unexpected news, Pip decides to take the job that Herbert has offered to him.
Pip returns home after eleven years and tells Joe and Biddy that he is content with his humble work at the mercantile firm, and that he is content to remain a bachelor. Joe and Biddy have a child who they have named after Pip. Pip visits Satis House, but finds it has been demolished. There, he sees Estella, whose husband, Drummle , has died. They reminisce, and leave the garden holding hands. Pip is certain that they will never part again.
Pip remains in contact with Joe and Biddy, but does not see them again for eleven years. He returns to find that the couple has had a child, who they have named after him. Pip says that he is content with his work and modest income from his work at the mercantile firm with Herbert. When Biddy inquires about Pip's prospects for marriage, he tells her that he is happy to remain a bachelor.
Pip goes to visit Satis House but finds that it has been demolished. Pip recalls Estella as he walks through the unkempt garden, the air thick with mist. He relates that he had heard rumors that Estella was unhappy with Drummle, but that Drummle has died. Pip encounters Estella walking through the garden, and she tells him that her experiences have changed her. The mists rise as they walk, holding hands, and Pip thinks that they shall never part again.
There is a strong sense of justice that pervades the final chapters of Great Expectations. The actions of each of Dickens' characters seem to result in their ultimate sentence, be it contentedness or demise. Orlick, who reappears in Chapter 53, serves as a continuous representation of evil throughout the novel. Although his role is understated, Orlick's character proves a powerful contrast to Pip's, particularly during their confrontation in Chapter 53. Pip, who, despite his flaws, is overall a good man, is ever self-aware and self-critical. Orlick, however, is bumbling and totally unconscious of his own faults, evidenced by his blind, unfounded hatred of Pip. Orlick mistakenly believes that Pip has interfered with his courtship of Biddy, and expresses jealousy over his relationship with Joe. Further, Orlick continually refers to himself in the third person, as if he is a separate entity altogether. It is likely that Orlick knows of Pip's connection to Magwitch because he has conspired with Compeyson, the probable organizer of the Orlick's attack on Pip.
Both Orlick and the detestable Pumblechook are brought to justice at the close of the novel, Pumblechook having been robbed by Orlick, and Orlick serving prison time for the crime.
Dickens brings Compeyson's character to justice when he drowns during the tussle with Magwitch. Although Magwitch is not responsible for Compeyson's drowning, he attacked his former partner-in-crime to get revenge for Compeyson's final betrayal of him; given the circumstance, it is clear that Compeyson betrayed Magwitch to the police, which ultimately led to his final arrest.
Magwitch's death, by contrast, is far more dignified, as he dies in peace, Pip by his side, of his own illness just before he is scheduled to hang at the gallows. He takes comfort in the conviction that, despite the crimes he has committed in the past, his death is an act of mercy and forgiveness by God. Throughout the course of the novel, Magwitch has transformed from the primary antagonist -- Pip's most feared, detestable foe to one of the novel's most sympathetic characters. In his kindness to Pip, he has redeemed himself, and he dies content, knowing that Pip, who he has loved as a son, cares for him as passionately as he would his father.
Similarly, Miss Havisham begins as an antagonist in the novel, but is transformed and redeemed by her repentance before her death.
Both Pip and Estella's characters have been transformed, too. By the close of the novel, Pip realizes that friendship and loyalty not wealth and status -- are of prime importance, and are the only goals worth striving for. During Pip's encounter with her in the overgrown garden of Satis House, Estella admits to him that she is a changed woman, having suffered an unhappy marriage to Drummle, now deceased, and other unmentioned experiences.
The novel's happy ending is a controversial one. Dickens first penned a different ending, more congruent with the tone of the novel, in which Pip hears that Estella has married another man after Drummle's death, then sees her in London as he walks through the city with Joe and Biddy's young son. In this version, his meeting with Estella is brief and polite. They shake hands, and Dickens' resolves their relationship in Pip's revelation that Estella's suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham's teaching and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be. Dickens changed the ending to the current version at the suggestion of his friend, fellow writer Edward Bulwer Lytton, who suggested he change the ending to satisfy his readers, who preferred a neat, happy ending to one that is merely vague and lukewarm in tone.