The novel begins with the main character, Pip, encountering a runaway convict. Pip procures supplies for the man from his house. The convict then gets into a fight with another runaway convict and is take back to jail. Pip is soon after invited to the house of Miss Havisham, a rich, eccentric old lady who lives in isolation. Pip gets to know her adopted daughter Estella during his visit and begins to have feelings of love for her. However, it is not easy for him to deal with these feelings because he becomes self-conscious about his own low social standing. He wishes to be more polished and better mannered, and strives for his goal of becoming a gentleman. One day, amidst many tragedies and hardships, a lawyer, named Jaggers, approaches Pip. He informs Pip that he is the benefactor of a great fortune. Pip believes his sudden thrust into high society is an action of Miss Havisham. Pip, seeing the opportunity to become a gentleman, turns his back on his loving family, even Joe, the gentle, caring husband of his older sister who used to be Pip’s best friend. His family embarrasses him because they are commoners.
Estella reenters his life in London when she comes to live there. She has numerous men that are courting her and torments each one of them as she was taught by Miss Havisham. Of all the suitors, she chooses Bently Drummel, an aristocratic man born into great wealth. Pip is outraged but she assures him that she is not capable of loving anyone. One night, Pip receives a visit from a gruff looking man. The man turns out to be the convict that Pip helped in the beginning of the story and he tells Pip that he has been the secret benefactor all along. Pip is disheartened because he had always believed that it was a plot by Miss Havisham for him to marry Estella. He is also mortified that the source of his wealth is neither legal nor aristocratic. Magwitch, the convict, tells Pip the story of how he was able to amass his wealth.
Pip learns that Magwitch once had a baby girl, but she was abandoned by her mother. By piecing evidence together, Pip discovers that the baby girl was actually Estella. Pip returns to his hometown where he is attacked by Orlick. Herbert rescues him, but he is battered pretty badly. He leaves with Magwitch the morning after. Magwitch spots Compeyson and knocks him overboard. Magwitch is taken away to prison and Pip stays with him until he dies. Pip falls ill and Joe takes him back and nurses him back to health and leaves suddenly, not wishing to be in Pip’s way. Pip now sees what is truly important in his life and can appreciate Joe’s loving loyalty.
Pip returns to England many years later and goes to Miss Havisham’s house. He sees Estella and she is suffering just as he is. Due to her suffering, she has finally learned to submit to human emotions and feels she can now love someone. They walk away hand in hand, finally together after all of these years
The major theme of the novel is perhaps found in the title itself, “Great Expectations”. The novel is riddled with expectations, mainly those of Pip. Pip’s hopes make him resent his loyal family because of their low class standing and financial inadequacies. He goes through an immense amount of suffering for the goal of escaping his common life and become something that he is not. Dickens emphasizes the error of striving to be something that you are not and shows that attempting to do so will only result in suffering and disappointment. When people become obsessed with an unattainable dream, they are corrupted and ultimately destroyed. Pip even turns his back on what is truly important for superficial social standing.
The major characters of the novel are Pip, Estella, Joe, Magwitch, and Miss Havisham. Pip is the main character and the focal point of the novel. He is the main avenue through witch Dickens displays his theme of how expectations lead to dissapointment. He turns his back on his family to realize his dream of becoming a gentleman. Estella is the girl that he dreams of being with. She is a woman who is uncapable of loving anyone and has been raised to by Miss Havisham as such. Joe is the most honorable man in the story even though he is on the low end of the financial spectrum. He wants nothing but the best for his brother in law, Pip, and helps him when he is in trouble. Magwitch is Pip’s benefactor and father of Estella. He gives Pip money in return for his help early in the novel. Miss Havisham is a secluded woman with deep psychological scars from her failed marriage. Because of her experience, she tries to ruin as many lives as possible and trains Estella to be the same way.
The setting of the novel begins in the marsh country in Kent, where Dickens grew up. The marsh is bleak but retains a general air of wholesomeness. It may not be the best place to live, but at least it is true just as Joe is. When Pip is older, the setting shifts to London. London is representative of the dark, distant feeling that Pip is going through at the time. It is busy and faceless and lacks any real sense of feeling or attachment. It is the place where Pip is corrupted by his need to succeed.