On Christmas Eve a 7-year old orphan known as 'Pip' visits his family's graves in a Kent churchyard. It is early evening and fog is drifting in from the nearby marshes. Suddenly a terrifying escaped convict, with shackles still on his leg, seizes him. He threatens to kill Pip if he does not return with food and a file early the next morning. Pip runs in terror back to the forge that he lives in with Mrs. Joe (his strict sister) and her simple, kind-hearted husband, the blacksmith Joe Gargery. That evening Pip manages to smuggle some of his supper away from the table and, together with some other sustenance stolen from the pantry, he presents it to the man at dawn on Christmas day, after encountering another escapee. Later that day soldiers capture both convicts as they grapple in a ditch, and Pip's assailant generously takes the blame for taking the food. Pip is too scared to tell the truth.
Shortly afterwards Pip is summoned to Satis House (in the nearby town) by its owner, Miss Havisham. The pompous seed merchant Uncle Pumblechook drives him there. He is conducted into Havisham's presence by her haughty but beautiful young companion Estella. Havisham is an old lady who lives perpetually in her rotting wedding dress, surrounded by a decayed wedding feast that went uneaten when she was jilted at the altar years earlier. She loathes the male sex and has sent for Pip in order to enjoy the spectacle of Estella bullying him. In particular Estella ridicules his social class. On a subsequent visit he meets and fights Herbert Pocket, a young relation of Miss Havisham.
When Pip becomes old enough to be apprenticed to Joe, Havisham pays his premium. Soon afterwards Mrs. Joe is violently assaulted and gravely injured by an unknown assailant; Pip suspects the culprit to be Joe's surly assistant Orlick. Joe is obliged to employ a housekeeper, Biddy, as Mrs. Joe has been largely incapacitated by the attack. As time goes by, Pip confides in Biddy his ambition to better himself, and his growing dislike of the simple lifestyle at the forge. Without his admitting as much Biddy infers that Pip's dreams of betterment centre on Estella.
Towards the end of Pip's four-year apprenticeship Jaggers, an enigmatic lawyer from London whom Pip has encountered at Satis House, visits the forge to reveal that Pip has acquired an anonymous benefactor whose name he must never attempt to discover. The name will remain 'Pip', but in other respects he is to become a gentleman. His apprenticeship at the forge is cancelled, he buys new clothes and takes leave of Havisham before travelling to London and presenting himself to Jaggers at his chambers. Wemmick, Jaggers's clerk, takes him to Barnard's Inn. He recognises his flat-mate as Herbert, the boy he fought at Satis House years earlier, and they become fast friends. Herbert tells Pip the sorry story of Miss Havisham, explaining that the man who jilted her had plotted to extract her fortune from her under pretence of loving her, in order to split the proceeds with her half-brother. He also reveals that Estella's origins are unknown. Pip becomes increasingly convinced that Miss Havisham is his benefactress.
Pip is to be tutored by Matthew Pocket, Herbert's father and Miss Havisham's cousin. Visiting the Pocket family, Pip meets his fellow students- Startop, and the graceless oaf Bentley Drummle. He conceives an instant dislike for the latter. Certain members of the extended Pocket family resent Pip as they assume that he is spending the inheritance they expect from Havisham. He also becomes friendly with Wemmick, who entertains him to tea at his peculiar home, known as 'the Castle', where he lives with his deaf but cheery father, 'the Aged Parent'. Invited to dinner at Jaggers's, Pip is advised by Wemmick to pay close attention to his housekeeper. Pip is humiliated when Joe pays him a visit, and is glad when he leaves, having informed him that Miss Havisham wishes to see him again.
At Satis House, Pip notes that Orlick is now the porter. He meets Estella again, back from her education in France and more beautiful than ever. However, she informs him that she is incapable of feeling emotion. Pip is baffled by a resemblance in her that he cannot identify. Havisham implores him to love Estella even if she is brutal to him. Returning to London, Pip confides his love to Herbert, and the two decide to watch a production of "Hamlet" put on by Mr. Wopsle, a pompous man from Pip's village. The next day he receives word that Estella is coming to London, where he meets her (after being shown around Newgate prison by Wemmick) and conducts her to Richmond. She is polite but reserved, and Pip realises that he is miserable both with and without her. Just before he comes of age, Pip's sister dies. He returns home for the funeral and is annoyed when Biddy tells him of Orlick's unwanted attentions. He informs Jaggers that Orlick is unfit for Havisham's employment, and he is thus dismissed. Jaggers gives Pip £500 from his benefactor (well-timed given his mounting debts) and he arranges secretly with Wemmick to give half of it to Herbert, to help him in business. He also visits Estella several times, remonstrating with her for encouraging the attentions of Bentley Drummle.
One night Pip has a visitor at his chambers; he is horrified to discover that it is the convict of his childhood, introducing himself as Abel Magwitch, alias Provis. He is further horrified to learn that Magwitch, and not Miss Havisham, is his benefactor, grateful for the help Pip gave him years earlier. He has grown rich as a sheep-farmer in Australia and devoted his wealth to Pip, who resolves to accept no more of it. He explains to Pip and Herbert that his presence in England is a capital offence, and they decide to hide him. He describes his history to them. He was involved in crime with a man named Compeyson (the second convict encountered by Pip in the graveyard) and Arthur Havisham, Miss Havisham's half- brother. Magwitch explains that he received a 14-year sentence, as opposed to Compeyson's 7 years, as he lacked the superficial gentility of the latter.
Pip visits Miss Havisham and explains the discovery, asking her to support Herbert. He declares his love to Estella, who tells him that she is to marry Bentley Drummle. Pip flees back to London, where he learns that Magwitch has been observed. Wemmick arranges for him to be moved to a safer location, the home of Herbert's fiancée Clara Barley, and her father. A plot is hatched to convey Magwitch onto a foreign vessel by boat. Pip visits Miss Havisham, who is profoundly distressed at what she has done to Pip and Estella and undertakes to help Herbert. Her clothes catch fire, and despite Pip's efforts to save her, she dies begging his forgiveness. As Pip recovers from his own burns in London, Herbert reveals that Estella is the daughter of Jaggers's maid, a murderess whom he rescued from punishment, and that her father is Magwitch.
Pip is mysteriously asked to a night appointment in an old lime kiln on the Kent marshes. Orlick is there, misguidedly bent on killing him for being a rival for Biddy's affections and engineering his dismissal from Satis House. He admits to the attack on Mrs. Joe, to having tracked down Magwitch in Pip's chambers, and to being in league with Compeyson to prevent Magwitch's escape. Pip is rescued in the nick of time by Herbert and others. The operation to spirit Magwitch away is foiled when the boat conveying Pip, Herbert and him towards the foreign steamer is stopped by a customs boat containing Compeyson. Magwitch attempts to board it and attack him, but the steamer runs them down and Compeyson is mashed to death. Magwitch survives with terrible injuries. Brought to trial and convicted, he is too ill for incarceration and is visited in a prison hospital by Pip, where a new closeness arises between them. Pip is grateful towards him, and ashamed of his earlier attitude. Magwitch dies shortly after Pip tells him that his daughter (whom he had thought dead) is alive.
Pip falls seriously ill and comes out of a fever to learn that Joe has been tending to him for weeks and has paid his debts. Again, Pip is ashamed at his conduct. His 'expectations' have done him little good and he is not sorry to be rid of them. When Joe leaves, Pip decides to visit Kent and propose to Biddy. He arrives to find that it is the wedding day of her and Joe. Selling up, he leaves England to join Herbert in his business in the East. Returning 11 years later, Pip pays a nostalgic visit to Satis House one evening, and finds it in ruins and Estella walking in its grounds. She is an unhappy widow, having married Drummle, and has at last learnt the importance of sympathy and tenderness. Asking Pip to be her friend and to leave her, he does; but as he departs the evening mist rises and he realises that he is not to be parted from her again.