A six-year-old boy named Pip lives on the English marshes with his sister (Mrs. Joe Gargery) and his sister's husband (Mr. Joe Gargery). His sister is about as bossy and mean as most older sisters are—but his brother-in-law Joe is pretty much the best thing that's happened to Pip.
One Christmas Eve, Pip meets a scary, escaped convict in a churchyard. Pip steals food from Mrs. Joe so that the convict won't starve (and also so that the convict won't rip his guts out). Soon after, in apparently unrelated events, Pip gets asked to play at Miss Havisham's, the creepy lady who lives down the street. And we mean creepy: her mansion is covered in moss; she still wears the wedding dress she was wearing when she was jilted at the altar decades ago; and the whole place is crawling with bugs. It's like Beauty and the Beast, only without the singing tableware.
The only good thing about the mansion is Estella, Miss Havisham's adopted daughter. Estella is cold and snobby, but man is she pretty. Pip keeps getting invited back to play with her, and he develops quite the little crush on her. This crush turns into a big crush, and that big crush turns into full-blown, all-consuming L-O-V-E, even though there's no way that orphan Pip can ever have a chance with Estella, the adopted child of the richest lady in town.
When Pip is old enough to be put to work—you know, early teens or so—he starts an apprenticeship at his brother-in-law's smithy, thanks to Miss Havisham's financial support. You'd think he'd be thrilled (fire, swinging heavy things around), but he hates it: all he wants is to become a gentleman and marry Estella.
Then, surprise! He comes into fortune by means of a mysterious and undisclosed benefactor, says goodbye to his family, and heads to London to become a gentleman. And it's pretty sweet at first. Mr. Jaggers, Pip's caretaker, is one of the biggest and baddest lawyers in town. Pip also gets a new BFF named Herbert Pocket, the son of Miss Havisham's cousin.
Herbert shows Pip around town, and they have a busy city life: dinner parties in castles with moats, encounters with strange housekeepers, trips to the theater, etc. Two teeny problems: he spends way too much money, and whenever he goes home he's ashamed of Joe. Meanwhile, Estella, who's been off touring the world, comes back to London and is even more gorgeous than ever.
On his 21st birthday, Jaggers gives Pip a huge 500-pound annual allowance, which he uses to help Herbert get a job. Aw, good friend! This goes on for a couple of years—Pip is a man about town; Estella keeps rejecting him—until, on his 23rd birthday, a stranger shows up. The stranger is Pip's benefactor. The stranger is… the convict that Pip helped when he was only six years old!
Here are the deets: the con's name is Abel Magwitch/Provis. The courts exiled him to New South Wales under strict orders never, ever to return to England, so not only is Pip super bummed to find out that his benefactor isn't Miss Havisham after all, as he's assumed, but a criminal—he's also harboring a convict. Obviously, Pip decides that he's got to get Magwitch out of the country, but not before Pip rescues Miss Havisham from a fire that burns down her house and eventually kills her.
Pip devises a plan to get Magwitch out of the country, but he's uneasy—and with good reason: just as they get ready to make their great escape, Estella goes and marries Pip's nemesis and Pip is almost thrown into a limekiln by a hometown bully who claims to know about Magwitch. And then the two are ratted out by Magwitch's nemesis Compeyson, who is, coincidentally, Miss Havisham's ex-lover. Magwitch is thrown in jail and dies, but not before Pip tells him the shocking truth: Estella is his daughter.
After these traumatic events, Pip gets really sick, and Joe comes to the rescue. As soon as Pip recovers, however, Joe leaves him in the middle of the night, having paid off all of Pip's debts. Obviously, Pip follows him home, intending to ask for Joe's forgiveness and to propose marriage to his childhood friend, Biddy. Upon arriving home, however, he finds that Joe and Biddy have just married, which is… a little weird, if you ask us. He says he's sorry he's been such a butthead, and then he moves to Cairo.
For eleven years, Pip works at Herbert's shipping company in Cairo, sending money back to Joe and Biddy. He finally returns to England, and then has one of two different fates, depending on whether you read the original ending or the revised ending:
Original ending: Pip is hanging out in London a few years later with Joe and Biddy's son, baby Pip, when he runs into Estella. She's had a hard life: her husband was abusive, and when he died she married a poor doctor.
Rewritten ending: Pip visits Miss Havisham's house once more. Estella is walking the grounds, being all single, beautiful, and sad about having thrown Pip's love away. Aw. They're going to be together forever, you guys!