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 , an orphaned boy, lives with his sister, Mrs. Joe , and her husband, Joe Gargery , in the marsh country of southeast England. As he stands in the marshes examining his parents' headstones, he is approached by an escaped convict , who threatens the terrified boy and demands he bring him food and a file the following day. Pip does so, and when the convict is later recaptured by the police, he does not reveal his association with the boy, but claims he has stolen the food and file himself.
Pip's Uncle Pumblechook arranges for him to visit Satis House, home of the wealthy, eccentric spinster Miss Havisham . Her adoptive ward, Estella , is the same age as Pip. Pip is immediately entranced by the girl's beauty, despite her harsh criticism of his common social status. Estella's criticisms motivate Pip to pursue a higher social status, so that he may be worthy of her. He hopes the Miss Havisham will make him a gentleman, and imagines that she intends him for Estella's future husband. Pip's expectations, however, are crushed when Miss Havisham helps to officiate Pip's apprenticeship to Joe, who is a simple country blacksmith. Pip feels that he is above such work, and loathes the job.
While working as Joe's apprentice, Pip attempts to improve his education by taking lessons from Biddy , his friend from school. During this time, Mrs. Joe and Orlick , the cruel, menacing laborer who works in Joe's forge, get into a disagreement, after which Mrs. Joe is brutally attacked and rendered invalid. Orlick is the suspectedand, later, the confirmedattacker.
One night, as Pip and Joe sit in the local pub, they are approached by Jaggers , a lawyer. Jaggers announces that Pip has a secret benefactor who wishes for him to move to London and become a gentleman. Elated, Pip agrees, assuming that Miss Havisham is his secret benefactor.
In London, Pip studies under Matthew Pocket , who is Miss Havisham's cousin. His son, Herbert Pocket , becomes Pip's closest friend. Pip also befriends Wemmick , Jaggers' law clerk. Pip relishes his elevated social status and treats his friends and family from the country with the utmost disdain. When Joe comes to visit him in the city, Pip is deeply ashamed of his coarse manners and low social status, though he regrets his poor treatment of Joe immediately after he departs. Upon Mrs. Joe's death, Pip feels immense guilt, and goes home for the funeral. He returns to London depressed and ashamed of himself.
Pip accrues severe debts, spending his fortune with abandon. He resolves to help Herbert enter his chosen profession as a merchant, and acts as his friend's secret benefactor.
Pip confesses his love for Estella, but she coldly replies that she does not return his affection, for she has no feeling in her heart. She also tells him that she will marry Bentley Drummle , a detestable member of the nobility who was once Pip's fellow student. Estella has been raised by Miss Havisham as a tool for revenge against men, as Miss Havisham was jilted by her lover on their wedding day and has suffered heartbreak since.
Now a young man, Pip is suddenly confronted by his past: Magwitch, the convict from the marshes, finds Pip in London and reveals that henot Miss Havishamis his secret benefactor, the source of all his fortune. The convict had earned a fortune while exiled in Australia, and, out of gratefulness for Pip's help in the marshes, resolved to make him a gentleman. Initially, Pip is horrified by this revelation, but eventually develops a great affection for Magwitch once he realizes the man's integrity and strength of character. Pip and Herbert plot to help Magwitch escape from London, where he will surely be recaptured by the police, or by Compeyson, his former partner in crime. Pip uncovers that Compeyson is also Miss Havisham's former lover.
Meanwhile, the mystery of Estella's true parentage unfolds. Through his associations with Magwitch and Jaggers, Pip discovers that Magwitch is Estella's father, and that Molly, Jaggers' housekeeper, is her mother.
Pip visits Satis House, where Miss Havisham begs his forgiveness, as she feels responsible for his heartache over Estella. Miss Havisham catches fire, and Pip rescues her. As a result, she is rendered invalid, but continues to repent.
Pip grows increasingly fond of Magwitch, and decides that he will leave London with him. The day before they are to depart, Pip receives a note from an anonymous sender advising him to meet in the marshes for information about Magwitch. The sender is Orlick, who attempts, unsuccessfully, to murder Pip. His plan is thwarted when Herbert and a group of men stop the attack, and they return to London to enact the Magwitch's escape. They attempt to escape on the river in a rowboat, but they are intercepted by the police. Compeyson had been spying on Magwitch, and had betrayed him to the police. Furious, Magwitch fights Compeyson, and Compeyson drowns, though not at the hands of Magwitch.
Magwitch is sentenced to hang at the gallows, and Pip's fortune is appropriated by the state. Magwitch dies peacefully from an illness on the day he is scheduled to hang, and feels that his sentence is God's forgiveness. In his last moments of life, Pip reveals that Estella is his daughter. After Magwitch's death, Pip falls seriously ill, and Joe comes to London to nurse him to health. Joe tells him that Miss Havisham has died and has left her fortune to the Pockets. Pip notices that Biddy has taught Joe to read and write. When Pip has recovered, Joe departs for the country, but pays off all of Pip's debts before leaving. Immediately after Joe leaves, Pip rushes home to the country, intent on reconciling with Joe and marrying Biddy. But when he returns, he finds that Joe and Biddy have married. Thus, Pip decides to take the job Herbert has offered him.
Eleven years after his departure, Pip returns to his hometown. On a visit to Satis House, he encounters Estella, who he finds changed. After her miserable marriage to Drummle, now dead, she understands suffering and is capable of emotion. They have a pleasant reunion and leave the garden holding hands, Pip certain that they shall never again be apart.