The First Stage of Pip’s Expectations
Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations opens as seven-year-old Philip Pirrip, known as “Pip,” visits the graves of his parents down in the marshes near his home on Christmas Eve. Here he encounters a threatening escaped convict, who frightens Pip and makes him promise to steal food and a file for him. Pip steals some food from his brother-inlaw, the blacksmith Joe Gargery, and his cruel sister “Mrs. Joe,” with whom he lives, and takes it to the convict the next day. The convict is soon caught and returned to the “Hulks,” the prison ships from which he had escaped.
Pip is invited to visit the wealthy Miss Havisham, and to play with her adopted daughter, Estella. Miss Havisham lives in the gloomy Satis House, and Pip discovers her to be an extremely eccentric woman. Having been abandoned on her wedding day many years earlier, Miss Havisham has never changed out of her wedding dress since that time, and nothing in the house, including the rotting wedding cake covered with spider webs, has been touched since she discovered that her fiance had left her and had cheated her out of a great deal of money. Miss Havisham has raised Estella to be a cold and heartless woman who will avenge her adopted mother by breaking the hearts of men.
Pip continues to visit Satis House to play with Estella, and he begins to fall in love with her, despite the fact that she is rude and condescending to him. Because of Miss Havisham’s interest in him, Pip’s family and friends speculate on his future prospects, and Pip attempts to improve those prospects by asking his friend, the orphaned Biddy, to tutor him. Eventually, Miss Havisham gives Pip some money, tells him his services are no longer needed, and that it is time for him to be apprenticed to his brother-in-law, Joe. Pip is disappointed.
One day Pip learns that someone has broken into his home and that his sister, Mrs. Joe, has been injured with a great blow to the back of the head. Biddy moves in to help take care of her and the household and continues to tutor Pip, with whom she is falling in love. Biddy believes that it was Orlick, a contemptuous employee of Joe’s, who injured Mrs. Joe. Biddy also fears that Orlick is falling in love with her. Pip continues to work for Joe, visiting Miss Havisham every year on his birthday, and constantly regretting his desire for a more comfortable lifestyle and his infatuation with Estella.
Some time later a stranger visits Pip and informs him that an anonymous benefactor would like to transform him into a gentleman. The stranger, a lawyer named Jaggers, will administer Pip’s new income and suggests that Pip move to London and take a man named Matthew Pocket as his tutor, who happens to be a relative of Miss Havisham. Pip assumes that Miss Havisham is his mysterious benefactor. Pip buys himself some new clothes and bidding his family farewell, slips out of town on his own, embarrassed to be seen in his new outfit with Joe.
The Second Stage of Pip’s Expectations
In London, Pip lodges with Pocket’s son Herbert. Pip also becomes friends with John Wemmick, Jaggers’ clerk, and learns that Jaggers is a famous lawyer who is noted for his work in defending prisoners and thieves who face execution. Wemmick takes Pip home to dinner one night, and Pip is intrigued by his house, which resembles a tiny castle, complete with drawbridge and moat, where Wemmick lives with his elderly and stonedeaf father, whom he calls “the Aged P.” Pip is also invited to dine at Jaggers’ house, where he meets Jaggers’ sullen housekeeper, Molly.
Joe comes to London to bring a message to Pip, who is embarrassed to have Joe visit him. The message is from Miss Havisham, who invites Pip to come to see Estella, who is visiting her mother. Going to Satis House at once, Pip is surprised to find that Orlick is now Miss Havisham’s watchman, and he tells Jaggers that the man should be dismissed. Not long after this, Pip learns that his sister has died, and he returns home for her funeral. While he is there, he promises Biddy that he will visit Joe often in the future, but Biddy expresses her doubt that he actually will do so.
The Third Stage of Pip’s Expectations
One day Pip is visited by a stranger, and soon recognizes him to be the convict to whom he had brought food years ago. The convict, Abel Magwitch, has made a fortune as a sheep farmer in New South Wales, Australia, and he has prided himself on having used his money to make a gentleman out of the little boy who had helped him long ago. Pip is shocked and embarrassed to learn that it is the convict who has given him his “great expectations” and not Miss Havisham.
Magwitch tells him of his history, and how he became involved with another more gentlemanly criminal who got him into trouble, and yet was punished less severely when they were both caught. Pip and Herbert deduce that this criminal is Compeyson, the man who schemed with his partner, Arthur, to swindle Miss Havisham of her money. Arthur was supposed to marry Miss Havisham to get her money, but his conscience caused him to abandon her at the altar when he couldn’t go through with the plan. Because Magwitch faces certain death if he is discovered in England, Pip and Herbert concoct a plan for helping him escape unnoticed.
Planning to leave the country with Magwitch, Pip pays Miss Havisham a call. The old lady admits that she allowed Pip to believe that she was his benefactress, and Pip asks her to help him with a plan he has to set Herbert up in business anonymously. Pip is shocked to learn that Estella plans to marry his doltish acquaintance Bentley Drummle. Dining one night with Jaggers, Pip learns more about the housekeeper Molly’s history. Having been accused of killing another woman involved with her husband and having threatened to murder her own daughter, Molly was successfully defended by Jaggers. Recognizing her face and hands, Pip realizes with astonishment that Molly is the mother of Estella.
Pip is summoned to Miss Havisham’s again, where the old lady begs Pip to forgive her. After leaving her, Pip is disturbed and decides to return to the house to look in on her. He finds the poor old woman ablaze, having sat too close to the fire, and he is burned while trying to put out the flames. Later Pip learns of Miss Havisham’s death, and that she has left money to Herbert, as he had requested. Returning to London, he learns the story of Magwitch’s wife, and deduces that Magwitch was married to Molly, and therefore is Estella’s father.
Summoned back to the marshes near his old home by a mysterious note, Pip narrowly escapes death when he is attacked by a vengeful Orlick and rescued just in time by some local villagers. He returns to London where he and Herbert carry out their plan to sneak Magwitch onto a steamer on the Thames. Their plans fail, however. They are attacked by another boat, and Magwitch is severely wounded. As the kind old Magwitch is dying, Pip tells him of his daughter Estella.
After being nursed out of a serious illness by the devoted Joe, Pip joins the business partnership he has established for Herbert in the East. After eleven years, he returns to England and visits Joe and Biddy, who have married and have a family. He also meets Estella, who has left her husband, on the property of the now demolished Satis House. This time, Pip says that “I saw no shadow of another parting from her.”
In Dickens’ original version, Pip and Estella part with the understanding that they will probably never see each other again, but in the revised version, Dickens’ makes the ending more optimistic by implying that they will, indeed, have a future together someday.
Marie Rose Napierkowski, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 4, Charles Dickens, Gale-Cengage Learning, 1998