Explore how Charles Dickens portrays women in his novel Great Expectations.
Great Expectations is a bildungsroman that unfolds the life of an orphan called Pip who is also the protagonist. It illustrates the personal growth and development of Pip. It was written in the Victorian era which was the period of Queen Victoria’s reign which saw the spread of political movements, most notably socialism, liberalism and organised feminism. There was a strong view on women being the property of men and obeying them. Dickens’ women characters are very different and many hence, each woman plays a different role in developing the novel. Charles Dickens also expresses his hatred towards the Victorian society in this novel. There are about four main female characters in great expectations; Mrs. Joe Gargery, Miss Havisham, Estella and Biddy. However, there are a few other minor female characters like Estella’s birth mother (Molly) and Pip’s birth mother (Georgiana).
Similarly, the first woman that we are introduced to is Mrs. Joe Gargery who is the wife of Mr. Joe Gargery. Dickens identifies a woman’s character with her husband and this is seen as Mrs. Joe is given her husband’s name and does not have her own name. Readers can say that Dickens believed that men made women by giving them a name which is why he gives married women the names of their husbands. Mrs. Joe is also a character with the responsibilities of a mother but does she really present motherhood positively? When she is first being introduced, we are told that she brought Pip up ‘by hand’. In this case, ‘by hand’ could mean she literally brought him up using her hand in that she would beat him up and hit him all the time for any small mistake made. We are also told that she had a ‘habit of laying it upon her husband.’ This gives her the title of ‘Man of the house’ as she often does the beating instead of Joe and she is the commanding character. Mrs. Joe also qualifies to be the man of the house as Pip and Joe must obey her orders. This is seen when she forces Pip to go to the Satis house to meet Miss Havisham. Mrs. Joe is brought out as a very fierce character and this helps us understand why nobody tried going against her words ‘she pounced upon me like an eagle on a lamb…’
Charles Dickens also uses vivid description. In the novel, Mrs. Joe’s physical appearance is vividly described in chapter two when Pip says ‘she was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two loops, and having a square impregnable bib, in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles.’ Charles Dickens emphasises on how ugly Mrs. Joe is by using this technique. In this case, the pins and needles stuck in the impregnable bib could be symbolic to her words and actions piercing into the hearts of Pip and Joe. Hence, this description of Mrs. Joe contains some hints about her cruel nature. Society believes that bony people are normally cold-hearted and as we read on, readers see that Mrs. Joe does have a cold-heart.
Charles Dickens liked to have his characters’ physical descriptions match their personalities and indeed, Mrs. Joe’s physical description matches her personality. In this novel, Mrs. Joe is abusive and self-important but some of her behavior is understandable. When she was twenty, before this story begins, she was abandoned with an incapable infant brother who was not even weaned. By the time we are introduced to Mrs. Joe, she has no means of her supporting herself as she has lost both her parents. Because of all the loss in her life early on, she fears abandonment and wants security, so her focus is survival. This perhaps could be the reason why she is so mean. Mrs. Joe communicates these values to Pip hence, Mrs. Joe plays a motherly role in this text but Pip describes his sister in an approachable, far from the loving mother of Victorian fantasy. Mrs. Joe seems to value Joe’s family relations more than she values her own family relations. This is seen as she treats them differently like in chapter 4 when she gives them wine which is something she has never offered to serve Joe and Pip.
Moving on, Miss Havisham also plays a major role in Great Expectations. From the novel, we are told that Miss Havisham was abandoned at the altar by Compeyson. At that very moment when she was jilted, time stopped for her. We can tell that time had stopped for Miss Havisham as all the clocks in her house stopped at twenty minutes to nine. When Pip first sees Miss Havisham, she was in her white wedding dress, Pip vividly describes Miss Havisham’s looks ‘she was dressed in rich materials-satins, and lace, and silks-all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table…’ The first thing Pip sees or rather notices is her wealth in the form of dresses and jewels. It takes Pip time to notice other details such as how yellow her dress had become and how the cobwebs and dirt had made the Satis house filthy. This shows that Pip was amongst other people who only knew Miss Havisham for her wealth.
Miss Havisham helps in the development of social class as a literary movement. She helps readers see that in the Victorian era, reputation was built by wealth and not actions. Although Miss Havisham was jilted, people respect her because she is wealthy and no one talks about this abandonment simply because of her place in the society which is at the top. The events she went through in the past have left her drained, miserable and lonely. Sometimes, readers feel that she is mad because of the things she does. For instance, there is a part in the novel where she makes Pip touch her heart and she uttered the word ‘broken’. This just emphasises on the fact that she is depressed and heartbroken but readers assume that she boasts about it which is very weird and confusing ‘”I’ll tell you” she said, in the same hurried passionate whisper, “what real love is. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving your whole heart and soul to the smiter-as I did!”‘
Likewise, we realise that Miss Havisham’s past events had shaped her. Miss Havisham had a goal which was to seek revenge on men using Estella who was trained to crush their hearts. Miss Havisham believed that all men were evil and bad, hence, she made Estella shatter their hearts into tiny pieces. When Pip as a child met Estella, he was unaware that she was Miss Havisham’s heartbreaker but later on in his life, Herbert Pocket says ‘That girl is hard an haughty and capricious to the last degree, and has been brought up by Miss Havisham to wreak revenge on all the male sex.’ Herbert’s statement emphasises on the amount of hatred Miss Havisham has for men. Because of her sadness and anger, she wants others to suffer the heartbreak that she did.
However, Miss Havisham’s character changes from the beginning of the novel to the end. Towards the end of her life, Miss Havisham realises the hurt and heartbreak she has caused Pip through Estella. She realised that it was wrong for her to make others feel the heartbreak she felt and this is seen when she says ‘…until I saw in you a looking-glass that showed me what I once felt myself, I did not know what I had done. What have I done! What have I done!’ Miss Havisham also shows that in Dickens’ opinion, marriage to a woman was very important and without a husband, a woman was nothing but incomplete. She also helps readers see that back in the days, if you were wealthy and mad, your madness was pardoned because of your wealth. Hence, she brings out the importance of social class.
On the other hand, Estella is the most beautiful girl in the novel. However, her inner beauty fails to match her physical beauty. Just like Pip, Estella is an orphan who is being brought up by Miss Havisham. Estella is portrayed as a mean character at the beginning as we see her referring to Pip as ‘boy’ while he refers to her as ‘Miss’. She makes Pip feel inferior by using her education to talk down to Pip. Pip says ‘though she called me ‘boy’ so often, and with a carelessness that was far from complimentary, she was about my age… she was as scornful at me as if she had been one-and-twenty, and a queen’ which emphasises on the fact that he was not being treated fairly but there was nothing he could do. Estella’s scornful nature is a result of Miss Havisham’s upbringing- she brings Estella up to be a heartbreaker.
Estella as a child does not realise that she is being used by Miss Havisham as an agent for Miss Havisham’s revenge. When Pip and Estella meet at the Satis house, Estella senses that Pip is falling in love with her and she warns him not to fall in love with her ‘You must know that I have no heart’. At that moment, Pip is unaware of Estella’s upbringing as a heartbreaker so he interprets her statement in relation to social class. Pip begins thinking that the way Estella treats him is because of the fact that she is rich but he belongs to the middle-class. He feels that Joe’s occupation as a blacksmith will make Estella look down on him even more so, by the time Estella and Pip part ways, Pip is determined to become rich by working hard so as to impress Estella and perhaps marry her.
Likewise, ‘Estella’ is derived from the old French form of the Latin ‘Stella’ meaning star. Estella can be compared to a star in two different ways: one being her physical appearance and the other her guiding nature. Stars are said to be very beautiful and indeed, Pip’s first description of Estella makes us see her as a very beautiful girl. Pip also says ‘I think you are very pretty.’ Unlike the other women in this book, Estella seems to be a young lady with overwhelming beauty. When Pip goes to the Satis house as a child, he is treated unfairly by Estella and in his mind’s eye, he thinks it is because of social class. Back in the Victorian era, those who were wealthy were treated with respect and could not be disrespected by any commoner. However, those who were poor or rather not very wealthy were treated like slaves and were not respected. In this novel, Pip thinks that Estella does this. By the time Pip leaves the Satis house, he dreams of going to London so as to become rich and make Estella his life partner. Hence, Estella is seen to be guiding Pip.
On the other side, Biddy in Great Expectations seems to have a very different role compared to the other women. Biddy is an orphan just like Pip and when Pip first sees her, he describes her as a girl who needs ‘brushing… washing… and mending’. From this description, we can tell that Pip somehow looks down on Biddy after seeing Estella the beauty queen. Biddy is basically the opposite of Estella: common but kind, pleasant, sweet, thoughtful and attentive. Although Biddy teaches Pip how to read and write, he sees her as a sister figure and still feels that Estella is far better. Because of Biddy’s love for Pip, she desires to see him accomplish his goals, but she is neurotic about his going to London to become a gentleman because she knows that she will most likely lose him forever. However, she wishes for Pip to achieve his dreams and watches him leave without uttering a word because of the love she had for him. Readers wonder why educated Biddy marries uneducated Joe. Biddy might have married Joe because she thought that she would move closer to the love of her life (Pip). Another reason might be because of her kind and loving nature. When Mrs. Joe dies, Biddy sympathises with lonely Joe and she marries him. One thing that never changes about Biddy is her unconditional love for Pip. Even when Joe and Biddy have a child, Biddy names him Pip. Biddy shows that no matter how educated a woman was in the 19th century, she would still have to marry and those who lacked physical beauty never got a chance to be with the ones they loved.
We are also introduced to other women like Pip’s birth mother. Pip says “‘Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,’ I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly”. From this brief description, there is not much we can actually say about his mother but the fact that she was identified as ‘wife of the above’ shows that she was recognised only under her husband’s name and that she had little or rather no personal identity. We tend to assume that every thought that Pip had about his mother was related to his father. This is because his first introduction to his mother was under his father’s name so we expect him to think about his mother in relation to his father. For Pip to see his mother as a ‘freckled and sickly’ woman, he must have had a good reason. Although Dickens does not explain why Pip sees his mother as a weak character who is not very beautiful, this makes readers think that Pip still has a juvenile mind. It also presents motherhood negatively.
Like all of Dickens’ novels, Great Expectations also belongs to more than one genre. Sometimes, it resembles a fairytale or a realistic or a comic novel and at times a melodrama. However, the gothic is a persistent genre in the novel. Although there are many ways in which this genre is presented like in chapter one when Magwitch leaves the graveyard, he looked to Pip ‘as if he was eluding the hands of the dead people, stretching up cautiously out of their graves, to get a twist upon his ankle and pull him in.’ from this, we can tell that Pip thinks that at certain moments, the dead seem to reach up to grab you. Nonetheless, Miss Havisham is introduced hand-in-hand with the gothic genre. When Pip first describes Miss Havisham, she seems to resemble the dead ‘…skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement.’ The fact that Miss Havisham is the gothic element makes us feel a great deal of sympathy for her disappointment. Miss Havisham is haunted by her own dead past which makes her a haunting figure which she uses to reveal her gothic misery and draw others into her half-dead world.
The gothic element also includes the Satis house which is described as a decayed, ruining building ‘some of the windows had been walled up; of those remained, all the lower were rustily barred.’ It also creates dreams and nightmares and this is realised when Pip says ‘I at first ran from it, and then ran towards it. And my terror was greatest of all when I found no figure there.’ This creates fear, horror, death and gloom which are elements of gothic. Charles Dickens uses a gothic genre because during the Victorian era, gothic was a combination of romance and horror hence, Dickens uses this to thrill and terrify the readers. This might be the reason why Dickens decides to make Miss Havisham the gothic element. Miss Havisham was abandoned at the altar. Her past brings in the combination of romance and horror as the love of her life deserted her. This would definitely be a horrific thing for a woman.
Similarly, Great Expectations has been done in a serial form. This means that the novel is published in smaller, sequential installments. Serialized fiction surged in popularity during the Victorian era because of advances in printing, improved methods of distribution and most importantly, a rise in the literacy rates. In the serial form of Great Expectations, there are two chapters in every week’s installment. This could be the reason why Dickens has 59 chapters in his novel. Each chapter ends in tension or suspense. This is through the use of cliffhangers. Back in the Victorian era, this would have persuaded buyers to buy the next installment but for readers now, it makes us want to read on. In the original series, at the end of chapter two, Pip says ‘But I ran no further than the house door, for there I ran head foremost into a party of soldiers with their muskets: one of whom held out a pair of handcuffs to me saying “here you are, look sharp, come on!”‘ Readers ask themselves quite a number of questions such as “will Pip be arrested?” This engages the readers using suspense and tempts readers to continue reading. In the novel, chapter five ends this way.
This novel is a bildungsroman. ‘Bildung’ means education and roman means novel in German. This novel focuses on a central character whose childhood and moral, mental and physical growth is looked at. In the 19th century, these novels were very popular and normally, they explored the journey of a young person from childhood to maturity like Pip in this novel. As a child, the central character (Pip) would have made a lot of mistakes which would have been realised as a mature adult. Pip makes many mistakes such as disowning Joe, running after Estella and even considering Herbert to be inferior to himself. However, by the time Pip becomes wise and understands his actions were wrong, it is too late. As a child, Pip considered Biddy to be his sister and thought that she would never get married because of her physical appearance. Later on in life, Pip realises he was wrong about Biddy all along and goes back to the marshes to marry her only to find out that she is married to Joe hence, it is too late. Towards the end of the novel, Pip says ‘We owed so much to Herbert’s cheerful industry and readiness, that I often wondered how I had conceived that old idea of his inaptitude, until I was one day enlightened by the reflection, that perhaps the inaptitude had never been in him at all, but had been in me.’ This shows that he came to a conclusion that he was wrong to consider Herbert as inferior to himself.
On the one hand, people normally say that you reap what you sow and in the novel, Charles Dickens has proved that theory right by using poetic justice. Every character in Great Expectations gets what they deserve. Mrs. Joe is a good example of Dickens use of poetic justice in Great Expectations. Mrs. Joe is introduced as the man of the house who has a tendency of laying her hands on Pip and Mr. Joe. Unlike other women in the Victorian society, she gets away with it due to Joe’s loving nature and Pip’s inability to stand up for his rights. However, karma gets back to her and she is physically tortured towards the end of her life. Mrs. Joe was beaten up by Orlick till the point where she nothing but vegetative. Miss Havisham also elaborates Dickens use of poetic justice. We see that Miss Havisham treated the male sex inhumanly and used Estella to break the hearts of many innocent young boys and wound them internally. Similarly, Miss Havisham also dies because of wounds only that this time round the wounds are external. She dies a painful and slow death which is seen to cover up for the way she made boys live painful lives. The idea was that works of fiction were only valuable in as far as they conveyed a positive social lesson. This could be the reason why Charles uses poetic justice.
On the other hand, Great Expectations presents the social ills of the Victorian society back in the 19th century. One of these social ills is abandonment of children. Most of the children in the novel are orphans. Pip is an orphan, Estella is an orphan and so is Biddy. From reading the novel, we understand that they are orphans because their parents died. This portrays death as a vital part of the 19th century. Death of such young people could have one main reason which is poverty. It shows us that during Dickens’ time, life was so difficult for the poor. They worked like slaves but almost got nothing from this. This would lead to depression, pressure, diseases and eventually death. Although Pip, Estella and Biddy are orphans, they have been adopted. This shows that in Victorian era, women were caring because they willingly adopted children despite the tough conditions. However, these women use their adopted children for their own selfish reasons. Like Miss Havisham uses Estella as her heartbreaker and Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt makes Biddy help her in her shop. What readers understand from this is that the women back in Charles Dickens’ days were selfish and only needed something if it would be of use to them. Charles Dickens also makes most of his child characters’ orphans to show that abandonment of children was a social ill in the Victorian society.
The way people in the 21st century read and understand the things Dickens’ portrays in his novel is different to the way people from the 19th century did. A female character like Biddy would have been respected and celebrated back then but now, people would consider her to be a weak character who cannot stand up for her rights. She would have been celebrated in the 19th century as she was seen as an ideal Victorian woman. This is because she was capable of doing house chores and respected men. However, today we will encourage someone like Biddy to be confident and do what she really wants. A character like Estella was celebrated back then and is also celebrated now. However, the reasons why she is celebrated differ. In the Victorian era, Estella was celebrated because of her tremendous beauty and we celebrate her now because she does what she wants to without allowing anyone to nag her and bother her. We respect her because she carries herself in a lady-like manner which is admirable.
Explore how Charles Dickens portrays women in his novel Great Expectations.