The Neurosis of passion
Charles Dickens novel, Great Expectations, attempts to delve into the Victorian gender construction. Incorporated within this persona is the struggle to break away from the cycles of generations of abuse and patterns of sterility. Through the eyes of his young protagonist, Dickens arranges an immediate gender conflict through absent mothers and deficient mother substitutes as the pivotal female characters in the beginning of the novel; Pip s dead mother, and his caretaker and sister, Mrs. Joe. Later in Pip s adolescence he stumbles into a relationship with miss Havisham, Dickens woman in white, the vehicle through which the author explores women s struggles with love, pride of nobility, and the issues instilled in them through their parents or caretakers. Miss Havisham s quest for revenge against her fianc drives her to instill within her adopted daughter Estella the incapacity to love so that she will never feel the pain of unrequited desires. Dickens produces an image of women either devoid of femininity and impotent, or love-mad and utterly absurd.
The female first described in Great Expectations is Pip s deceased mother. Having never seen his parents he imagines his mother as “freckled and sickly” (Dickens, 3). The novel thus begins with a negative image of women and motherhood. Later Pip introduces his sister and mother substitute, Mrs. Joe Gargery describing her as harsh and unapproachable, far from the mother of Victorian fantasy. In Mrs. Joe s marriage to Joe the typical male and female roles are reversed. This reversal is pointed out to the reader through her very name to which Dickens affixes the title Mrs. while Joe remains ever casual Joe. Pip s sister is aggressive, domineering, physically and mentally abusive. Pip states, “She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two hoops, and having a small impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles.” (Dickens, 8). Here Dickens takes an article of clothing associated with domesticity and nurture and manipulates the object transforming it into devoid of usual maternal traits. He also uses this device with Mrs. Joe s bread knife transforming it into a deadly dagger.
Mrs. Joe consistently reminds Pip that she brought him up “by hand” giving herself rationale for her poor mothering of the boy, with punishments, beatings and verbal abuse. This aspect of Mrs. Joe s character is dramatized in the Christmas dinner scene where she bitterly discusses the trials and tribulations of bringing an unappreciative Pip. She only gives Pip the most unsavory pieces of meat, depriving him of a nurturing meal as he watches those around him gorge themselves with delicacies. Ironically, Mr. Wopsle, one of the guests, moves into a sermon about the gluttony of swine and compares Pip to the beast stating,
“Or a girl,” suggested Mr. Hubble
“Besides,” said Mr. Pumblechook, turning sharp on me, “think what you ve got to be grateful for. If you d been born a squeaker –”
“He was, if ever a child was,” said my sister most emphatically. (Dickens, 27)
This conversation not only records Mr. Wopsle and Mr. Hubble s judgements that Pip is an ungrateful boy tempted by gluttony, but that there is not a female presence in the house to speak of. Mrs. Joe then details each of the illnesses that Pip had “been guilty of”, the nights he had kept her awake, and the injuries he had “done himself” with the implication that all of these sufferings had really been her own (Dickens, 27-28). In this scene, Dickens takes pains to ensure that Mrs. Joe acts as the antithesis of the Victorian maternal ideal. Because of this, Pip must look elsewhere for maternal nurturing, which he finds in his brother-in-law, Joe Gargery. Throughout the novel, Dickens presents Joe as a maternal figure in Pip’s life. Like the ideal wife in Victorian culture, Joe neglects his own comfort and wellbeing to the extent that he surfaces as a martyr to Mrs. Joe s abuse. Joe has internalized the beatings his father gave his mother and repeats them through his marriage to Mrs. Joe.
The next encounter that Pip has with a female proves to be the most influential in his adolescent life, carrying through into his adult imagination. He is invited to play at the notoriously rich and insane, Miss Havisham s, Statis house. Miss Havisham is posed as Dickens characterization of the mad-love Victorian bourgeois female. As he looks upon her affected as though in a painting, he notes her jewels, her fancy gown, her trinkets and possessions scattered around the room. This is Pip s first exposure to the finer belongings of the upper classes. Miss Havisham is the incarnation of the idea that desire is the pain of consciousness. She deliberately trains her adopted daughter, Estella, to disregard emotions and to make everyone love her while she herself should love none. Thus does Estella become the medium through which Miss Havisham s unrequited desires may be avenged upon the world. This bitterness and resentfulness drives her to sustain her physical form in the closest state of decay, but always hanging to life by a thread. Though, only forty she strikes young Pip as an old woman reminding him of the following story,
“Once I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me.” (Dickens, 58)
Here Miss Havisham is a skeleton to Pip, an incarnation of the dad woman he saw in the vault. Miss Havisham takes great pains to keep her appearance this way. As Helen Small writes in Love s Madness of Miss. Havisham,
“All her energy goes into maintaining the physical evidence of her pain, preserving her own image and the wedding scene around her at just that level of decay where the form remains recognizable: mending the worst tears in the bridal dress, feeding her skeletal frame on what scraps she can lay her hands on in the night (214).
Miss Havisham works diligently to preserve her image as that of decay and timelessness probably harder than she would have to work to psychologically move on with her life.
It is here that Dickens pursues the figurative and literal stagnation and immobility in his female characters. Miss Havisham, the love-mad woman is incapable of progressive motion, neither can she leave the Statis house nor can she allow her clocks to pass the minute that she was abandoned on her wedding day. This is the first effective instance of this paralysis of engendered women. In another case of this later in the novel, Mrs. Joe, struck down by Orlick becomes a passive, incapable, sympathetic female character. She is given the qualities of the Victorian female ideal while her freedom to move about is stripped from her. The immobility of women throughout Dickens Great Expectations is given one exception, that of the ability of Estella to travel from Satis House to London. Otherwise all of Dickens female characters are contained within the home. Men, on the other hand, have a social existence that the female counterparts lack.
It is not until the latter sections of the novel that Dickens introduces a healthier female form. He does this through Biddy, Miss Skiffins, and Clara, Herbert Pocket s fianc e. Biddy, a self-educated hard-working member of the lower classes is morally sound and able to love. She is able to stop Joe s cycle of abusive relationships stemming from his abusive father in her marriage to Joe. They enter into a mature and loving relationship defined by their devotion and loyalty to one another. Wemmick s sweetheart is another example of this type of woman. Miss Skiffins is a woman who accepts Wemmick s dual life; that of the city and that of his castle where he tends to his ailing father. She is described as not particularly attractive, unconcerned by the cut of her dress, but she has many admirable qualities none the less. In Miss Skiffins, Wemmick has found a mate who loves him out of mutual admiration and with a deep affection. Clara too is able to break the patterns of alcoholism and of the chaotic household she was raised in through her marriage to Herbert. Again this marriage is not one based upon passion, but upon mutual respect and adoration. In a novel where the issue of marriage is one that consistently brings up issue of debasement and domination, these three females surface as the only one s able to move past there past and the past of others into a healthy relationship.
Dickens chooses to allow the transmission of generations of abuse to desist through the marriages of Joe and Biddy and Herbert and Clara. Still the issue of sterility found in all his women throughout the novel remains unresolved. The parents in the novel either foster other s children or seem incapable of caring for their own (as in the case of Mrs. Pocket.) Molly, Estella mother is deprived of her child because she committed a crime of jealousy against her husband s lover and is forced to leave Estella to Miss Havisham. Pip s mother passes away before the novel even begins, giving Pip to be reared by his sister, Mrs. Joe. Herbert Pocket s mother cannot look up from her research on her heredity to be bothered with her multitude of offspring. Strangely though, at the very end of the novel, Pip finds that despite a horrible marriage to Drummle, Estella has a little girl. The reader is left to wonder whether Estella will choose to instill her child with a heart capable of love, or whether because Estella herself is incapable of the emotion she will raise another heartless femme fatale. As Miss Havisham realizes before her death, rearing Estella to be heartless meant that Estella could not feel love for the person who sustained her and attempted to protect her form the evils of desire. In the process has Miss Havisham created another generation of revenge upon males? The reader is left with the question, to debate at will.
So then, does Dickens resolve the cycles of abuse and sterility raised throughout his novel? He seems to leave the reader with this very question, to debate at will. His images of woman contrasted with the ideals of Victorian femininity leave the reader dry with gender constructions, feeling that the only capable woman is one without passion, one without the vivacious force to love with her entire being. He considers these passionate women to be mad with love, abusive in their relationships, willing to kill for their love or preserve themselves, dying stagnant in time. These images of women call to mind the realization that freedom comes at a very high cost to Dickens. Females seem to slide into three categories, cold and mobile, lukewarm and able to achieve a loyal marriage, or passionate and insane.
Small, Helen. Love s Madness Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity 1800-1865.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996