In the Victorian period a woman’s main purpose as a wife was praise and a duty to keep the domestic household in order. It was only in this field that a woman could make decisions, anywhere else and she would be trespassing on the man’s territory and power – and though it is not said, his ego. Even though the male takes charge over all other matters, any disruption in the house will invariably directly/indirectly be her fault. A woman must be ‘incorruptibly good and nothing less’, though the man will try to guard her from ‘danger and temptation’. Of course, if she succumbs to these evils it is her own doing, and the man takes no responsibility and in fact becomes the victim as she has endangered his household.
In ‘Great Expectations’ there are a variety of women that challenge the Victorian stereotype and a few, in actual fact – three that do not. The first female character we are introduced to is Mrs Joe, the long-suffering shrewish sister of Pip.
From early descriptions of her we see her as a violent and intimidating figure -even to men and therefore her husband! Pip’s ominous comment that she ‘brought me up by hand’ and the ‘tickler’ which caused him ‘great depression’ are all symbols of her dominance and power which she seems to be very confident with. This domestic tyrant figure is further amplified by her physical appearance and clothes: her face looked like it had been scrapped ‘ with a nut meg grater’ and her ‘square impregnable bib …that was stuck full of pin’ both destroy any nurturing mother figure image. Instead of tending to her family’s needs she dictates them.
It is possible that Mrs Joe’s violent nature can be blamed on her mundane and routine way of life; she needs a turbulent nature to be able to survive in a place where she does not even have her own name and is confined without individuality -perpetually linked to her husband. She has no control over her life and so blames her lot on sources outside herself. Unsurprisingly she uses her apron as a symbol of her repression, yet paradoxically she also uses it as a source of identity.
She is not the submissive wife and it is clear that Joe does not have much hold on her when she punishes him like a little boy for ‘bolting’ his food, making him drink ‘tar-water’. She even intrudes into Joe’s business by insisting that he does not let Orlick boss him around – quite hypocritical yet with dire consequences: In Orlick’s eye’s Mrs Joe has upturned the division of power between the sexes and hence totally overstepped her position as a wife by trying to introduce female dominance.
Orlick responds by beating her, yet amazingly this seems to have a positive effect on her. It is remarked that her ‘temper is greatly improved’, she shows affection for Joe and some morals over the way she had treated Pip. Most amazingly of all she treated Orlick with an ‘air of humble propitiation in all she did’. Why would she look so favourably on a man who beat her? There seem to be two answers, either she is merely showing forgiveness for his misdeed or in fact she was grateful to Orlick for beating her, as she has connoted his actions with sexual male dominance. This can been seen in the phallic symbol of the hammer that she used to represent Orlick. Remarkably Dickens is saying that woman need as strong aggressive husband to keep them sane.
Pip is not only degraded by Mrs Joe but even more so by the intoxicating Estella. She continually mocks his humble origins, enjoying her sadistic treatment of another human being and doing it with so much enthusiasm that ‘it became infectious, and I caught it’ admits Pip. Estella has power over Pip as he will do anything for her. But she also has power over his thoughts, evident when we see her manipulate his mind by informing his that he is ‘a common labouring boy’ so that Pip becomes ‘ashamed of home’. This is not the supporting role of a Victorian woman, if anything men are subservient to Estella.
Estella’s advantage over her acquaintances is her emotional indifference; Pip recalled that she had a ‘cold careless smile that always chilled me’, and she admits herself that ‘when you say love me, I know what you mean, as a form of words; but nothing more’. She is obviously limited by her emotions and she realises that she is missing out on something, yet it is of course extremely difficult for her to find out what – namely love- as she does not have the capacity to feel it, though she does have the capacity to understand. Sadly, even though Estella is very aware of her inner self she is not able to use that knowledge to help herself.
This emotional shut-off to the world is the product of Miss Havisham who has manipulated Estella into a tool for revenge against mankind. Estella release this and tells Miss Havisham ‘ I am what you have made me. Take all the praise, take all the blame; take all the success, take all the failure; in short, take me.’ Estella does not have a part of her that is not created by Miss Havisham.
Estella is an example of where experience can efface nature and thus shows the great influence a mother has on her children and the need for a woman to be a good mother figure. I.e. not like Miss Havisham or Mrs Joe. In fact, Estella has been brought up to believe that a daughter is a mere pupil, and that to love is to learn and act accordingly to her mother’s instruction – there is no feeling involved.
But Estella too is a victim of violence she is ‘bent and broken’ from her strong and assured demeanour to a self-effacing beaten wife. But what is most disturbing is the fact that in Estella’s case, violence and not her friend’s pleadings cause her to gain humanity.
It seems significant that Pip returns to the Blue Boar to dream of Estella and ignore his duty to visit Joe, as in effect we see Estella’s importance replacing that of Joe’s , i.e. a man, and also that she is responsible for Pip neglecting his true friend, Joe, which is highly likely a cynical view of woman on Dickens’ part.
As I have mentioned earlier, Miss Havisham, is responsible for the character of Estella; ‘She hung upon Estella’s beauty, hung upon her words, hung upon her gestures, and sat mumbling in to her own trembling fingers’. She takes pride in the cruelty of Estella, and it seems that Estella is the only living part of her, while she trapped in the past like ‘a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress that had been dug out of a vault’. She is continually described in connection with Satis house; the cake on the table is wasted decaying – ‘so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite indistinguishable’ like her, a ‘ghastly waxwork at the Fair; representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state.’ Miss Havisham is rarely viewed as a human, (instead she is the ‘witch of the palace’ or even a ‘fairy godmother’) but rather she is the house and the epitome of her wedding day, since which, she ceased to exist as her self but to embody he factors that broke her.
In effect, it is the house and her money that gives her power, enough to rival men and hence she is dangerous to men. This dangerous woman, who is shunned from society is an image that is repeated throughout the book with links between her and convicts; Pip recounts ‘I fancied I saw Miss Havisham hanging from the beam.’ like the criminals were hung on the marshes. Likewise, the elemental bleakness, and paradox of the her decaying extravagant house reminds us again of the marshes and when Pip tries to save her from the fire he says; ‘I still held her forcible down with all my strength, like a prisoner who might escape’, this resembles the struggle between Magwitch and Compeyson.
Miss Havisham catches fire after she begs forgiveness from Pip thus this mighty woman with her determined and unrelenting revenge on society is brought down. Now, we see her strength (in making Estella turn against men for so long), actually as a weakness: we are told that at first Miss Havisham’s intention was to ‘save her from misery’ like her own but she was gradually overcome by her need for revenge, using Estella as her prop. I think that it is significant that Miss Havisham catches fire immediately after her request for forgiveness as this emotion is so abnormal to Miss Havisham – so humbling, that the fire seems to embody her pride, her evil side that will kill her rather than let her succumb to sensitivity. I.e. the side of her that is proud and conceited has been repressed even though only momentarily this is so extraordinary and powerful that under constraint it retaliates in the form of the fire. Again, we see this side of her as supernatural linked to the gothic genre with its fantastic and grotesque hallucinations that terrorise Pip as he leaves Satis house in Chapter 49.
Unlike Estella and Mrs Joe who are clearly tamed by men, with Miss Havisham, that theme is only hinted at, with Pip’s dominance over her in the struggle after she is burnt (she ‘shrieked’ and ‘tried to free herself’ from Pip’s force). Likewise Miss Havisham is different in that she can not adapt or rather be made to adapt or conform. Similarly then her house must be torn down like the irrevocable burning of her dress – ‘patches of tinder yet alight…had been her faded bridal dress’. It is almost that she had foretold her own end when she refers to her wedding table as ‘where I will be laid when I am dead’ and after the fire she is ‘laid upon the great table’- as if she had autonomy over her life even in death as a final act of resistance to male dominance over her.
Lucy Frost expresses the view that ‘it is with therefore with some astonishment that we shortly afterwards find her (Miss Havisham) acquiring two characteristics utterly at variance with her earlier self: a sense of responsibility for the effects of her behaviour on other people and with it a sense of guilt. I disagree, as we must remember that the story is written in the first person and hence we only see the story form Pip’s point of view. Miss Havisham has only let Pip see her the way that she wants to be seen, therefore we can not say what emotions went through her mind before her request of forgiveness. Hence through Dickens characterisation of her she seems to live in a world where reality and fantasy had become intertwined so much so that she is a mysterious character that will always be ambiguous due to our distortion of her feeling through Pip’s bias.
Two other female characters that do not conform to the Victorian stereotype are Molly – Jaggers’ housekeeper and Belinder Pocket.
Molly is ‘tamed’ from a ‘wild beast’ to someone who is used as an object against her will (‘you have been admired, and can go’) and whose feeble response is ‘Master… Don’t… please…’. Pip dramatically comments on her with; ‘her faced looked to me as if it were all disturbed but fiery air like the faces I had seen rise out of the witch’s cauldron’, Immediately making her an almost inhuman figure through the caricature of associating her with witches- through this imposing image Dickens is conveying yet woman who had power. Also, we read ‘very few men have the power of wrist that this woman has’ comments Jaggers with marvel, highlighting the extraordinary nature of a strong woman. With Molly, Dickens seems to be making the point that it is sad to see such a strong and domineering young women degraded into a slave where her face is featureless and the only thing that reminds him of her passionate nature is her hair as -‘flaming spirits’, the emphasis on ‘spirits’ i.e. phantom-like, lifeless.
Mrs Pocket on the other hand is not tamed; her domestic affairs are in a permanent state of chaos because of her fixation with gentility and conclusion that family duties are beneath her. She represents the dire consequences of a wife who does not conform to the stereotype – her failure affecting the whole house. Also, she presents the reader with an absurd caricature of Pip’s wish to be a gentleman yet the outcome of this trait is presented as far more disturbing in Mrs Pocket, hence it seems Dickens is presenting the ironic view that it’s acceptable for Pip to have aspirations but not a woman hence creating the double standard.
There are only really three women in the whole of the book that fit the Victorian stereotype; Biddy, Miss Skiffins and Clara.
Biddy is a complete contrast to Mrs Joe noticeably when she takes over at the forge after Mrs Joe after her beating. She is far more gentle and admirable than her predecessor and Pip marvels that she ‘managed her whole domestic life, and wonderfully too’. She brings serenity and caring love (highlighted in her emotional account of Mrs Joe’s death) to the forge. In short, Biddy assumes the Victorian stereotype by taking up the domestic role perfectly and even managing to teach Pip when he is younger – yet her knowledge does become too limited for Pip which is in keeping with the amount of learning and therefore power that she should have. But even so, Biddy is modest, referring to her cleverness as ‘I suppose I catch it – like a cough’
Miss Skiffins is vividly described in extremes with her clothes ‘too decidedly orange’ and ‘too intensely green’ and that she made ‘such a jorum of tea.’ She is verging on a caricature of the Victorian stereotype with her ‘wooden appearance’ conveying her maidenly belief. This is also seen when Pip says of Wemmick’s advances that ‘the table represents the path of virtue…Wemmick’s arm was straying from the path of virtue and being recalled -to it by Miss Skiffins.’ Paradoxically she wears a brooch ‘representing the profile of an undesirable female’ suggesting that Dickens is rejecting the stereotype.
Clara Barley is the perfect Victorian stereotype – she is kind and timid i.e. not like Estella. Pip says ‘something so natural and winning in Clara’s resigned ways of looking at her lot – something so confiding, loving and innocent in her modest manner of yielding herself to Herbert’s embracing arm -and something so gentle in her, so much needing protection’. Thus, Pip sees all these qualities listed e.g. modest, resigned etc…as good, attractive and admirable qualities – hence confirming her as an ideal.
Almost all female character -some more than other (e.g. miss Havisham) are in one way or another caricatures i.e. characters that through Dickens’ descriptive nature of exaggerating their appearance or actions to emphasis their personality have become almost unbelievable. Hence we can say that Dickens’ female characters are ‘flat’ – a famous point made by E.M Foster to describe characters that were instantaneously recognised by their appearance and habits of speech or action. e.g. Miss Havisham is a intimating and dark figure in a beautiful yet decaying house woman thus portrayed visually as ‘a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress’, likewise Mrs Joe is described in connection with a ‘nutmeg grater’ and ‘pins and needles’ suggesting her sharpness and violence.
One can easily conclude many of Dickens’ female characters do not conform to the stereotype and these he presents as far more interesting. Yet virtually all such women are tamed through violence predominately because strength in women is portrayed as a disadvantage to men who directly or inadvertently always seem to suffer.