The major conflict of Great Expectations revolves around Pip’s ambitious desire to reinvent himself and rise to a higher social class. His desire for social progress stems from a desire to be worthy of Estella’s love: “She’s more beautiful than anybody ever was, and I admire her dreadfully, and I want to be a gentleman on her account.” The plot gets underway when Pip is invited to go to Satis House, and first encounters Estella and Miss Havisham. The inciting action, however, has actually been earlier when Pip had a seemingly random encounter with an escaped convict; neither he nor the reader will know for a long time that this encounter will actually determine the course of his life. The rising action progresses as Pip becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the prospect of living a simple life as a country blacksmith. As he explains, “I never shall or can be comfortable … unless I can lead a very different sort of life from the life I lead now.”
Pip receives news that he is going to be financially supported by an anonymous benefactor and moves to London, where he becomes more refined and sophisticated while also becoming extravagant and self-absorbed. After some years, Pip is astonished to discover that his benefactor is actually Magwitch the convict. This discovery intensifies the conflict around Pip’s desire to be perceived as a gentleman and be loved by Estella, since he is now tainted by an association with a criminal. The rising conflict forces Pip to declare his love to Estella, since he is planning to leave England in order to cover up his secret. He tells her that “you are part of my existence, part of myself,” but she explains that she plans to marry another man. This conversation resolves part of the conflict, making it clear to Pip that Estella is incapable of loving him.
The conflict surrounding Pip’s shame at his social background and desire to be a gentleman continues as he struggles to protect Magwitch and get him to safety. Along the way, Pip realizes that Magwitch is Estella’s father. This discovery transforms Pip’s understanding of social position and criminality. Up to this point, Pip has considered Estella and the criminal underworld Magwitch represents as oppositional to one another, but now Pip understands that Estella and Magwitch have always been interconnected. At the novel’s climax, Pip confides to a dying Magwitch that his lost child “is living now. She is a lady and very beautiful. And I love her!” By showing kindness to a criminal and describing Estella as a both a lady and the daughter of a convict, Pip shows that he no longer thinks about social position in a black or white way. The conflict resolves with Pip letting go of his social aspirations in order to focus on reconciling with the characters who have been loyal to him all along, paying off his debts, and earning an honest living.