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How Might the Readers Respond to Dickens’ Portrayal of Women in “Great Expectations”? Essay Sample

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How Might the Readers Respond to Dickens’ Portrayal of Women in “Great Expectations”? Essay Sample

When Miss Havisham tells Estella to ‘break their hearts’, this shows us the hurt she received through Compeyson. Miss Havisham refers to Estella as her ‘pride and hope’, as she feels the only way she can inflict pain on the male species is through her charge. We only get the most cursory explanation for these actions until we are half way through the novel. Readers already realise, however, that Dickens is unsympathetic as he uses the rotting wedding cake to act as a visible expression of Miss Havishams self-destructive way of life. Throughout the novel, Dickens presents the reader with two extremes of women: the obedient and the overpowering to give the reader an insight of how different women could be in the all-changing Victorian Era.

I believe that Miss Havisham increasingly manipulates Pip and Estella because she wants to feel needed; she enjoys the fact that they rely on her so much. She lives of her power to control people, making a heavy influence on the person Estella becomes. This shows when she teases and taunts Pip, “What coarse hands he has!” Realistically, the coarseness of his hands would not matter, but she mocks him with petty criticisms, as she knows it hurts him. Also, when Joe meets Miss Havisham, he addresses Pip instead of her, as he feels alienated by the upper class. Pip does not realise this and consequently feels ashamed of Joe. This vision is given when Pip says “It was very aggravating; but, throughout the interview, Joe persisted to address me instead of Miss Havisham”. (Chapter Thirteen)

Another example of a woman in control of the men in her life is Mrs. Joe Gargery. She is able to physically abuse her husband, and succeeds n doing so purely because he grew up with an abusive, alcoholic father, and knows no better. The fact that Mrs. Joe abuses her husband is ironic because in the Victorian period, many women were in fact abused by their husbands. I believe Dickens creates a role reversal in this case to show that women have the ability to be just as spiteful as men. When Mrs. Joe is described, she is said to have a “square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles”, this shows her lack of maternal feeling for Pip. This is strange in itself, as women were socially expected to be good mothers to their children, whatever the circumstances were, in the Victorian Era.

Mrs. Joe puts up with looking after Pip only because she knows she gets sympathy and respect; both qualities she is insecure about. She exaggerates the role she has played in Pip’s upbringing and constantly reminds Pip of how he wouldn’t have been alive if it wasn’t for her. “If it warn’t for me, you’d have been to the churchyard long ago, and stayed there”, is an example of this behaviour. Mrs. Joe relishes in the compliments she receives from Uncle Pumblechook and Mr.Wopsle and uses them to her full advantage and says to Pip “You listen to this” a number of times throughout Chapter Four.

Feminists may sympathise with her as she was given Pip and expected to look after him. They would see that the reason she treats Pip and Joe so badly as she feels they are the reason for her not meeting her ‘Great Expectations’. Also, the reason why Pip allows Estella to treat him cruelly is due to the only ‘love’ he receives from Mrs. Joe being false. Some readers might come to believe that this is why Pip falls in love with Estella.

“Out of my thoughts! You are part of my existence, part of myself.”

(Pip, Chapter Forty-four)

Even though Estella has always been cruel to Pip, he truly believes that she is part of his ‘existence’ because from a very young age he was led to believe he was destined for her. Dickens uses dramatic language to concern the reader as to how Estella is ‘driving’ Pip to madness to the point where he seriously believes she has become a part of him. Dickens is also being quite ironic in giving Estella her name; he uses a stylistic feature of foreshadowing to hint as to how Pip’s relationship with Estella will be like. Meaning cold star, she is both bright and beautiful, but cold and remote at the same time. She is the main reason for Pip striving to be someone he is not as he feels he has to ‘prove’ himself to her to gain her love and respect. The only female character Pip feels he does not have to live up to is Biddy, because throughout the novel, is always there for him, and it is not until Pip is a man that he understands why she did this.

“Whatever opinion you take away of me shall make no difference in my remembrance of you”

(Biddy, Chapter Nineteen)

Biddy wishes to remember the old Pip as she loves him dearly, and she does not want the new Pip that is immerging to ruin her respect for him. Despite Biddy saying this, I feel Pip is blind to the advice she gives, as he does not want to believe he is changing, and he is so wrapped up in himself anyway, that he doesn’t seem to care. He constantly refers to Biddy as ‘Poor Biddy’ as he feels sorry for her because her only aim in life is to become a schoolteacher. To Biddy, this is everything, but in Pip’s eyes this is a waste. In my opinion, Biddy is the closest character when it comes to portraying Victorian women. She behaves as women were expected to behave, and also represent the girl that Pip could have fallen in love with if he had not been so blind as to not notice her feelings for him.

Nevertheless, Biddy is a useful character as she often acts as Pip’s conscience; she hates the way he treats Joe and is the only person who tries to warn Pip of the heartache his ambition will bring him. When Biddy says “Are you quite sure, then, that you WILL come too see him often?” shows that she understands Pip more than he does himself when she doubts that he will return. As with Estella, Dickens is being ironic in giving Biddy her name. To bid is to offer, and to be biddable is to be obedient; Biddy is always there to offer Pip advice, and she is obedient in the fact that she ha accepted that she will never amount to anything more than a teacher.

Throughout the novel, Dickens deliberately presents men and women in a different way. I believe that this is because he does not understand women; his approach to the female characters in the book is very psychological, he displays his confusion through their actions. Some might establish that the novel is semi-autobiographical as Pip suffers the same hurt through the women in his life that Dickens does. I come to believe that this is true, but all that aside, Dickens could just purely be seen as having a male point of view.

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