Philip Pirrip, known as Pip, is the story’s central figure whose experiences symbolize the problems of growing up. Pip is reared by his unkind sister and her long-suffering husband Joe Gargery, the blacksmith to whom the boy is apprenticed. When Pip receives assistance from an unknown benefactor for his education as an English gentleman, he believes his patron to be Miss Havisham. He loves Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter, Estella, and thinks the old woman is arranging for her to marry him. A revolution in his life occurs when Pip learns to his dismay that his benefactor is really the escaped convict Magwitch. He then realizes how false his dreams of social superiority and marriage with Estella have been. Magwitch is captured and dies in prison, and the Crown confiscates the wealth he intended for Pip. Humbled and lowered to the status of a minor clerk, Pip returns to his old friends in the village whom he has snobbishly abandoned. There he also encounters Estella.
Estella is the beautiful, haughtily distant girl whom Pip has adored and tried vainly to win as his wife. Unfortunately, Miss Havisham has twisted and warped her to despise and break the hearts of men. Although she has been a vision of all the glitter, social distinction, and respectability for which Pip yearns, he discovers that she is really the daughter of the convict Magwitch and Molly, Mr. Jaggers’s housekeeper. Yet he still cannot forget her. Years later when they meet again, Estella has lost her coldness and found maturity. There is a hint that she and Pip will marry.
Miss Havisham is the wealthy, strange old woman who hires Pip to amuse her. Her mind became unhinged when the man she was supposed to marry left her at the altar, and she has lived ever since in a state of limbo: she still wears her white bridal dress, the wedding cake still molders on the reception table, the clocks in the house are stopped at the very moment she learned she had been jilted. Miss Havisham has adopted the girl Estella as an instrument to break men’s hearts. The spinster’s pretended interest in Pip’s welfare causes him to think she is the patron anonymously supplying funds for his education. When the old house in which she lives catches fire, Pip tries to save her, but she dies of burns after begging Pip to forgive her deception and cruelty.
Abel Magwitch, the escaped convict whom Pip befriends in the marshes, is recaptured and transported to Australia, where he makes a fortune as a sheep farmer. Meanwhile, through the agency of the lawyer Jaggers, he sends money secretly to educate Pip as a gentleman. Risking his life to return to England in order to see his “son,” Magwitch reveals himself as Pip’s benefactor and Estella’s father. At first repelled by Magwitch, Pip acquires a real affection for the rough old convict while unsuccessfully trying to get him safely out of the country.
Joe Gargery, a blacksmith and husband to Pip’s sister, remains the youth’s best friend throughout the story. He is “nature’s gentleman”-kind and tenderhearted, and although illiterate, always right, decent, and dignified. In the novel he serves admirably as a foil to Pip when the youth becomes an “English gentleman,” a type of snobbish fop that Dickens scorns and Pip eventually rejects. After the death of his shrewish wife, Joe marries the gentle Biddy and finds happiness.
In his treatment of the themes of false ambition, social class and elitism, materialism, and appearance versus reality, Dickens reveals himself to be a serious social critic and student of human nature. He imaginatively fleshes out these important themes in the figure of Pip. One of the most fully rounded of Dickens’s characters, Pip undergoes four stages of development: innocence, false ambition, revelation and fall, and redemption. Dickens first shows Pip as an innocent orphan boy, lonely, sensitive, and mistreated by his sister. His attraction to Estella, however, makes him dissatisfied with his life at the forge. When he goes to London to become educated as a gentleman, he soon loses his innocence. Through depicting this episode in Pip’s life, Dickens condemns the institution of the “English gentleman” based on indolence, materialism, hypocrisy, and class privilege. Blinded by his ambition, Pip adopts a way of life symbolizing all the cruelty and corruption of modern society.
Pip’s fall stems from revelations that his wealth has come from a criminal and that his idealized Estella has a criminal father. He is now ashamed of his false ambitions, his intoxication with wealth, his foolish pride, and his abandonment of old companions. Truly contrite, he accepts Magwitch and returns to his friends. Although his innocence has been lost forever, Philip Pirrip finds redemption.