Dickens and his view towards women- Is it really progress?
The Victorian Age is a period of great progress in multiple fields such as industry, trade, literature and so on. The role of women in society also improved considerably and many laws were passed safeguarding their rights during this age. By the fin de siècle, the concept of a "New Woman" is born. Charles Dickens is one of the most famous novelists during this era as his novels were read widespread by the general populace. His works always favoured progression of the working class, and the effects of industrial revolution like in "Hard Times". But his portrayal of women in his works easily fall under the Victorian stereotypes of women and this aspect does not really portray him as a progressive writer for women. David Holbrook, in "Charles Dickens and the Image of Women", says
"when it came to the problems of man-woman relationship, he (Dickens) was seriously hampered, not only by the attitudes of his age but also by his own emotional makeup and psychic pattern" (Holbrook, 1993. Chapter 7, Pg. 172)
To establish this, I will analyse Dickens' "Great Expectations" and attempt character sketches of the women portrayed in that novel. The reason for choosing this specific novel is due to the fact that it was fairly popular during the time of publishing and it has different types of women characters presented in the novel. This novel is also highly controversial as it has two endings because the general populace was not satisfied with the original ending and Dickens had to rewrite it to please his audience.
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"Great Expectations" follows the protagonist Pip and it chronicles his life. The novel could be even considered as a bildungsroman. Pip encounters various types of women in society and his interactions and perspective of these women gives a clear idea of Dickens' mindset towards these women. The character Pip and Dickens share a lot of similarities- for example, Dickens father was arrested and the theme of prison runs strong in "Great Expectations", Pip and Dickens did not have good relationships with women and so on. The women of "Great Expectations" can be put into categories but these categories are not definite as some characters can be a mix of two or more categories. These categories are as follows: The angels of the house, the eccentric women, and the independent women.
The Angel of the house is the idealised stereotype of a Victorian Woman and how she should behave. This idea was popularized by Coventry Patmore's poem, "The angel of the house" where he describes his wife as an angel who takes care of the household. She is someone who is meek and doesn't challenge the authority of the household leader, the man. She is subservient to him and fulfils his wishes with the utmost devotion. She is also someone who upholds moral values such as truth , charity and purity. This is the kind of woman that the Victorian society and many authors preferred. Some would say Dickens himself preferred these kinds of characters and usually, they have a good ending, like the titular character in "Little Dorrit".
In "Great Expectations", the role of the "Angel of the house" is taken up by Biddy. Biddy is the childhood friend of Pip, the protagonist of "Great Expectations" who appears to take on the mantle of a kind and nurturing mother. The first description of this character is seen in Chapter 7, when Pip goes to Mr. Wopsle's great aunt to study in her evening school. It is here he meets Biddy, who manages the shop which Mr. Wopsle's great aunt runs.
"She was an orphan like myself; like me, too, had been brought up by hand. She was most noticeable, I thought, in respect of her extremities; for, her hair always wanted brushing, her hands always wanted washing, and her shoes always wanted mending and pulling up at heel."(Chapter 7, Pg. 76)
From the above description, it is clear that Pip did not have that high of a regard towards Biddy, though they were similar in being "brought up by hand". She was just a regular commoner, according to Pip. In Chapter 10, Biddy readily agrees to teach Pip everything she knows. She is also described as the "most obliging of girls" which is one of the traits of the "Angel of the house". When Mrs. Joe gets injured by Orlick, Biddy is brought in to take care of her which instantly helps relieve some stress around the household. Biddy seems to be experienced in taking care of other people, as she has been taking care of Mr. Wopsle's great aunt throughout her life. This is also another characteristic of the "Angel of the house". By Chapter 17, Pip's view of Biddy changes and he sees Biddy as more feminine and pretty, though not on par with the gorgeous Estella.
"Her shoes came up at the heel, her hair grew bright and neat, her hands were always clean. She was not beautiful - she was common, and could not be like Estella - but she was pleasant and wholesome and sweet-tempered." (Chapter 17, Pg. 222)
Biddy is also intellectually equal or better than Pip as she manages to keep up with him in intellectual pursuits and manage the domestic household chores. "In short, whatever I knew, Biddy knew." (Chapter 17, Pg. 222) But she always remains humble and never proud, which is how an ideal Victorian woman would behave. She also serves the role of a confidante and consoler to Pip as he confesses the feelings he had harboured for Estella to her and his wish of becoming a gentleman.
"Biddy was the wisest of girls, and she tried to reason no more with me. She put her hand, which was a comfortable hand though roughened by work, upon my hands, one after another, and gently took them out of my hair. Then she softly patted my shoulder in a soothing wayâ€¦" (Chapter 17, Pg. 229-230)
When Biddy and Pip get into an argument, she gets accused of being jealous and it is her who apologises. Also in Chapter 35, when Mrs. Joe dies, they get into another argument and in the end she says, "let only me be hurt, if I have been ungenerous." This is similar to Amy Dorrit's behaviour in "Little Dorrit" when she gets scolded by her father for not getting along with the gatekeeper's son to provide him a more comfortable life. This is also another characteristic which was expected of the "Angel of the house", where the woman is subservient to the man and has no right to confront him for his misdeeds or wrongdoings, but rather apologise even if they weren't at fault. In chapter 58, Biddy finally gets her happy ending by marrying Joe Gargery, the good Samaritan. She is also the only female character to get a proper happy ending unlike Estella (in the original ending), Ms. Havisham or Mrs. Joe.
It is obvious that Dickens favours Biddy and the type of woman she portrays more than the others. She might be unconsciously modelled after Mary Hogarth, his first wife, who according to David Holbrook in "Charles Dickens and the Image of Women", is
"worshipped by him (Dickens) as the epitome of ideal womanhood. Throughout his life he seemed to need to idolize this kind of devoted sister figure like Agnes in David Copperfield and Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist- angelically beautiful, devoted, inspiring, and the object of pure admiration"( Holbrook, 1993. Chapter 7, Pg. 168)
Though Biddy is not angelically beautiful, she is angelic in quality and she earns the admiration of the audience and later Pip himself. The other character who also fall under this category is Clara Barley who marries Herbert Pocket after her abusive father's death and also has a happy ending.
The Eccentric women categorises women who do not fall under the stereotypical categories Victorians imposed on women. They are usually portrayed as mysterious, dark, cruel, cold and cunning. They are also beautiful women who take on the role of seductress and tempt the virtuous men into committing adultery or just serve as objects of temptation. They are also associated with criminality- usually portrayed as murderers or in any role which is not "morally right". In "Great Expectations", there are many eccentric women- the most noteworthy ones are Ms. Havisham and Estella (who will be dealt with later as she falls under two categories). Ms. Havisham is one of the stranger characters Dickens has created and she could be compared to the "Wicked Witch of the West". She is first revealed in Chapter 8, when she awaits Pip's arrival to be Estella's playmate. Pip is thoroughly spooked by her, as seen in his description of her in her wedding dress and comparing her to a ghastly waxwork and a skeleton.
"Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. 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. I should have cried out, if I could." (Chapter 8, Pg. 100)
Her interactions with Pip portray her to be broken and melancholic but scary at the same time. The lingering scent of death and decay surrounded her every move and action and this impacts Pip to such an extent that he hallucinates Ms. Havisham hanging from a beam.
"I saw a figure hanging there by the neck. A figure all in yellow white, with but one shoe to the feet; and it hung so, that I could see that the faded trimmings of the dress were like earthy paper, and that the face was Miss Havisham's, with a movement going over the whole countenance as if she were trying to call to me." (Chapter 8, Pg. 112)
Holbrook, in "Charles Dickens and the Image of Women", compares the hallucination of Pip as representing the death of the female element, in Dickens himself. It shows just how much Dickens has his views on women changed due to his personal experiences with women throughout his life.
"This is just the kind of nightmare fantasy one might expect a sensitive and imaginative childlike Pip to have. But it also belongs to the overall symbolism of the dramatic poem- and in this it is the image of "female element being" gone dead: emotions gone dead, sexuality gone dead, and creativity gone dead. So, it is an image characteristic of the Victorian predicament. The hanging figure Pip sees is the death of potentia- in Miss Havisham, in himself, and in Dickens himself." (Holbrook, 1993. Chapter 5, Pg. 137)
Pip's description of Ms. Havisham during Chapter 11 reiterates the idea that she is the Wicked Witch of the West. "In her other hand she had a crutch-headed stick on which she leaned, and she looked like the Witch of the place." (Chapter 11, Pg. 148) Ms. Havisham's interactions with her guests seem cold and concise as she walks around the room with Pip and exchanges small talk with them. It is obvious that Ms. Havisham exudes a cold and melancholic aura as she compares herself with the rotten cake, the so-called "heap of decay".
Ms. Havisham is also shown to be manipulative as she poses as a fake benefactor for Pip to get Sarah Pocket jealous in Chapter 19. When Herbert narrates the story of Ms. Havisham to Pip in Chapter 22, she is shown to be a spoiled child and when she was grown up, a proud and haughty woman who didn't trust or depend on anyone. When she fell in love with Compeyson, she had loved him passionately but when she got jilted, her passion turned to fury and laid wrath upon the house and her life. What the novel doesn't portray or highlight is that her being spoiled and haughty is due to her upbringing and her sadness and hurt at losing her lover whom she had loved so passionately is just glossed upon as just a recovery from a "bad illness". Ms. Havisham's desire for revenge is highlighted in chapter 29 as she greedily urges Pip to love Estella. Her view on love has been skewered by her jilted lover and now she wishes the same fate upon others just to see them suffer like she did.
"'I'll tell you,' said she, 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 up your whole heart and soul to the smiter - as I did!'" (Chapter 29, Pg. 425-426)
But Ms. Havisham's greatest possession and achievement aka Estella turns into a cold-hearted woman who is incapable of loving anyone, including Ms. Havisham herself. Their argument during Chapter 38 shows just how much Estella has become estranged and indifferent to Ms. Havisham and her own pride and joy has turned against her.
"'So proud, so proud!' moaned Miss Havisham, pushing away her grey hair with both her hands. 'Who taught me to be proud?' returned Estella. 'Who praised me when I learnt my lesson?' 'So hard, so hard!' moaned Miss Havisham, with her former action. 'Who taught me to be hard?' returned Estella. 'Who praised me when I learnt my lesson?' 'But to be proud and hard to me!' Miss Havisham quite shrieked, as she stretched out her arms. 'Estella, Estella, Estella, to be proud and hard to me!'" (Chapter 38, Pg. 543-544)
This shows Ms. Havisham's anguish over losing Estella, the only relationship which she actively participated after being jilted by her lover. It is Estella whom she let into her deep and crooked heart and it is through Estella and Pip that she regains some human emotions like regret. In Chapter 44, when Pip confesses to Estella and gets his heart broken, Ms. Havisham's reactions are short and abrupt but it showcases her remorse and the sense of guilt at what she has done. She identifies with Pip and realises that Pip is the same as her now- with a broken heart, and it is all because of her. Though her plans succeeded, she does not derive any pleasure or comfort from it.
Ms. Havisham is quite a complex character, with many flaws pointed out more than positive points in the novel. Holbrook says, "Ms. Havisham has been blighted emotionally just at the moment of sexual flowering, and her bodily life in an ancient bridal gown symbolizes psychic paralysis." (Holbrook, Chapter 5, Pg. 133) and identifies this characteristic of Ms. Havisham to Dickens' own fears of loving and related schizoid problems of identity. She is a woman fixated with one goal in mind but realizes that she is harming others just like others had harmed her later in the novel and seeks forgiveness. She does have a moment of realization and though she spent years of her life rotting away in the Satis house, she leads an independent life with the money provided by her father. Ideally, she would not suit the characteristic of an independent woman or the "New Woman" but she does have the underlying qualities of an independent woman, only if the circumstances were better, she might have developed into one of the strong-willed women who would appear in the later Victorian Age.
Before focussing on Estella, other minor characters which fall under this category will be Mrs. Joe Gargery and Molly, Estella's mother. Mrs. Joe is well known for bringing up Pip "by hand". She is introduced in detail in Chapter 2 where the first physical feature which is highlighted is her beauty.
"She was not a good-looking woman, my sister; and I had a general impression that she must have made Joe Gargery marry her by hand." (Chapter 2, Pg. 11)
"My sister, Mrs. Joe, with black hair and eyes, had such a prevailing redness of skin that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg-grater instead of soap. 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." (Chapter 2, Pg. 11-12)
Mrs. Joe is just like her apron- coarse, impregnable or rather immovable, and was as prickly as those pins and needles stuck on her bib. She is described as a violent woman and she uses the so-called tickler to dish out corporal punishment for Pip. She seems to be the power of the Gargery house rather than Joe himself, as he doesn't stop her from whatever she wants to do or say. All her interactions with Pip usually have a violent undertone- for example, before sending Pip off to Ms. Havisham's house, she gives him a good scrubbing which is painful for Pip to say the least. She also meets a violent end when she is attacked by Orlick in chapter 15 and by chapter 16, she has lost her hearing, could hardly see and has become crippled. These are the things which are highlighted in the novel.
What is not highlighted is that Mrs. Joe had to take care of the entire household after her parents died, had to live through the deaths of her five brothers and had to take care of a child who is twenty years younger than her. She also had to shoulder the household responsibilities and social interactions with others. These aspects of Mrs. Joe are not shown in the novel and in the end, she is rendered as a crippled woman who is taken care of Biddy. She finally passes away in Chapter 34, and in Chapter 35, she also turns into a ghostly existence which haunts the protagonist Pip as he makes his way to the funeral back to Joe's forge and the rest of the novel with the theme of murder and violence.
The other character which falls under this eccentric woman category is Molly, the murderess who tries to kill her own daughter. She is a docile and obedient servant of Mr. Jaggers, but she has an infamous past and is the birth-mother of Estella. She is saved from the gallows by Mr. Jaggers and lives with him as a servant. Not much is known about her criminal past and she is wrapped with an air of dangerous mystery. Holbrook describes Molly as,
"a woman with strong muscles concealed under petiteness and a woman capable of great cruelty and perhaps murder. She is the female annihilating figure Freud called the castrating mother" (Holbrook, 1993. Chapter 5, Pg. 138)
Though Molly is not given that much of an importance in the novel, she represents the theme of murder and guilt, which seems to contaminate every character in the novel- including Estella, who is the daughter of a murderess and a convict. Estella is the final entry in the eccentric woman category but she does not confine herself to just this category. Estella is also introduced in chapter 8 and she brings the light into Pip's dark life.
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"To stand in the dark in a mysterious passage of an unknown house, bawling Estella to a scornful young lady neither visible nor responsive, and feeling it a dreadful liberty so to roar out her name, was almost as bad as playing to order. But, she answered at last, and her light came along the dark passage like a star. Miss Havisham beckoned her to come close, and took up a jewel from the table, and tried its effect upon her fair young bosom and against her pretty brown hair." (Chapter 8, Pg. 103-104)
She is compared with a star or a jewel throughout the novel and these symbolize Estella to be bright, precious and far out of reach. Though she is mean to Pip and shows only contempt and disdain for him, she still manages to entrance Pip with her cold demeanour and her beauty, much like how a seductress traps her victim with her charms. She is perceived to be cold-hearted and cruel, but she does display signs of emotion as seen in the scene where she allows Pip to kiss her cheek.
"But, she neither asked me where I had been, nor why I had kept her waiting; and there was a bright flush upon her face, as though something had happened to delight her. Instead of going straight to the gate, too, she stepped back into the passage, and beckoned me. 'Come here! You may kiss me, if you like.' I kissed her cheek as she turned it to me." (Chapter 11, Pg. 162)
What is interesting to note is that Estella is delighted by an act of violence, even before any thoughts of criminality is being associated with her. This could be foreshadowing or reiterating by Dickens to show Estella's roots- her criminal parents. By chapter 22, Herbert establishes Estella's purpose in life or the reason of her being brought up by Ms. Havisham and that is to break young men's hearts.
Also, when Pip returns to the Satis house to see Estella once she's a grown woman in Chapter 29, she pretends she doesn't remember Pip or any of their childhood interactions which deeply hurt Pip. She also points out the spot where Pip had seen the ghost in his childhood. This is a conflicting behaviour of Estella and she probably did it to dig deep into the scars of Pip so that he may remember her more vividly as Pip becomes emotionally hurt when Estella pretends not to remember him. That scene is also important as it brings out more foreshadowing. According to Holbrook, this scene shows the implicit connection to Estella and her roots.
"The association between Estella and the ghost is ambiguous. In one sense, Pip is sensing her origins: her mother was the unknown murderess who wished to kill her own child. In the background too is her father Magwitch, the criminal, who believes his child to be dead. The shadow is of murder by the woman murderer and of the child by being abandoned (by rejecting the mother and father)." (Holbrook, 1993. Chapter 5, Pg. 138)
As Estella grows up, she remains in her role of being the object of desire and she makes other men jealous using Pip. As for Pip himself, she warns him multiple times that she's a cold-hearted person. This could be her manipulating him further or she might genuinely care about him- it is not clear. This ambiguity is attached to Estella till the chapter where Pip confesses his love for her.
"'You ridiculous boy,' said Estella, 'will you never take warning? Or do you kiss my hand in the same spirit in which I once let you kiss my cheek?' 'What spirit was that?' said I. 'I must think a moment. A spirit of contempt for the fawners and plotters.' 'If I say yes, may I kiss the cheek again?'" (Chapter 33, Pg. 475)
When she rejects Pip, she does so with a cold demeanour. She does not express her emotions, which is how a Victorian woman should be, and it further accentuates how Dickens uses this trope for this scene in an ironic way. Even as a child, Estella possessed more emotion than when she grew up as she became unmoved by everything around her, including others' feelings. Furthermore, she tells Pip that she's going to marry Drummle by her own decision, just to probably spite everyone, including Ms. Havisham. Only Pip's pleas for her to not marry Drummle brings out a softer reaction in her. This eventually leads to Estella being abused by her husband and depending on the two endings, she either gets remarried and still unhappy or she ends up having a future with the possibility of marrying Pip. These two endings lead to drastically different fates for Estella.
Dickens' original ending shows Estella reformed by her suffering- she's remarried but she still holds herself in high regard and superiority. In the second ending, she is much more humbled and reformed by her suffering. John Forster, who was Dickens' friend, felt the original ending was "more consistent with the draft, as well as the natural working out of the tale." George Bernard Shaw says that the novel is "too serious a book to be a trivially happy one. Its beginning is unhappy; its middle is unhappy; and the conventional happy ending is an outrage on it." Also, the second ending was constructed only to please the audience who wanted a conventional end to that novel with marriage. The second ending pleases the contemporary critics more as they feel that the two characters have suffered enough to finally get their happy ending. Martin Price argues by saying, "Each is a fantasist who has grown into maturity; each is a fantasist that has dwindled into humanity."
But Estella also has a positive role, according to Holbrook. He says, she is the start of Pip's ambitions and it is true, though it leads him to more pain and suffering than his apprenticed life with Joe and Biddy. But he finally learns his place in life and is content with what he has through this harrowing experience. He says,
"Yet, with his characteristic and marvellous belief in human creativity and vision, Dickens makes Estella an inspiration for Pip. Although she cannot yet understand, and seems untouched by, the reparative impulse (the caring impulse, which, through its suffering, can cure schizoid alienation), she gives Pip's world meaning. She comes along the passages like a star: she is the Stella Maris." (Holbrook, 1993. Chapter 5, Pg. 140)
Estella can also be looked at as a strong independent woman towards the end. She has suffered and in consequence, humbled herself and realises how to love (at least in the second ending). She is no longer a bright shining star who's out of reach but a strong independent woman who has gotten rid of her demons and living life anew.
Dickens himself is not against women or empowering women as he was fairly sympathetic towards the idea of property rights, which was the heart of the issue during the 1850's. But that applied only to the working women and not the "powerful women" like Ms. Havisham. In "Great Expectations", Ms. Havisham's house is passed on to Estella, who is the adopted daughter, and it is hers to do with as she pleases. This is not the traditional primogeniture practice which is usually practiced during the Victorian Age and it is met with discomfort by Dickens. Deborah Wynne, in "Women and Personal Property in the Victorian Novel", says
"when women do take control of significant amounts of property and its transmission, as Miss Havisham does, the destructive qualities of their legacies are usually emphasized. When forceful women of property, owners of real estate, create for themselves a space which is inaccessible to male control, such as Betsy Trotwood, Mrs. Clennam or Miss Havisham, it is shown to be vulnerable to loss or destruction, as though Dickens half believed what English law presumed: that women had a tendency to be ineffective managers of their own property" (Wynne, 2010. Chapter 2, Pg. 58)
He favoured the working women and women who were destitute like prisoners and prostitutes. He opened up a home for the "fallen women" called Urania cottage along with Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts. Jane Rogers, in "Dickens and his involvement in Urania Cottage", says
"Miss Coutts and Dickens planned a Home that would offer a different and more sympathetic approach to the treatment of fallen women. Other organisations such as the Magdelen Society had homes which offered a typically harsh and punishing routine." (Rogers, 2003. Pg. 1)
This Urania house was a reformation centre for these "fallen women" to regain a proper place in the Victorian society, which still oppressed women into traditional roles. According to Jenny Hartley, in "Undertexts and Intertexts: The Women of Urania Cottage, Secrets and Little Dorrit", Dickens concerned himself with everything the women of the cottage did, including how they spend their time in the house. It is quite clear that though Dickens was very progressive in his thinking, when it came to women, he was still confined by society and its rules. Coupled with his bad experiences with women in real life, his fictional women characters came to represent what was hidden away in his mind- his fears and regrets and personal insecurities caused by the society and his relationships.
By analysing the character sketches of the women of "Great Expectations" and Dickens' personal life, it is clear that Dickens is very conflicted when it comes to the topic of women. He prefers certain kinds of women like Biddy, who are the working class and little angels of the house, and as for the other women, they are subjected to hardships and punishments for their transgressions. Though he didn't make his female characters as independent like Nora Roberts from "A Doll's House" by Henrik Ibsen, his characters like Estella or Ms. Havisham still retain some part of being an independent woman, though it is obscured by their eccentricity. So, Dickens, in a sense, is a writer who is inhibited by his personal life which narrows his views on women. Otherwise, he is a progressive writer who acknowledges the social constraints caused by the society.
Dickens, C. (1851). Great Expectations. 1st ed. [ebook] Planet PDF. Available at: http://www.planetpublish.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Great_Expectations_NT.pdf [Accessed 28 Dec. 2016].
Hartley, J. (2005). Critical Survey. 1st ed. [ebook] Berghahn Books, pp.63-76. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/41556108.pdf [Accessed 4 Jan. 2017].
Holbrook, D. (1993). Charles Dickens and the image of woman. 1st ed. New York: New York University Press.
Rogers, J. (2003). Dickens and his involvement in Urania Cottage. [online] Victorianweb.org. Available at: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/rogers/8.html [Accessed 1 Jan. 2017].
Wynne, D. (2010). Women and personal property in the Victorian novel. 1st ed. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate Pub.
Academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu. (2017). The Ending of "Great Expectations". [online] Available at: http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/novel_19c/dickens/ending.html [Accessed 3 Jan. 2017].
 All these three quotes are taken from "The Ending of "Great Expectations"
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