Great Expectations, a novel by Charles Dickens, depicts the growth and personal evolution of an orphan named Philip Pirrip, referred to as Pip in the text. The novel was published in a serial form, in three volumes in 1860-61. Apart from the important themes of crime, social class, ambition, expectation and love, one significant theme that Dickens explores in his novel is the bourgeois family – and the tacit role that a woman needs to play in a bourgeois society to string her family together. What Dickens is also telling his readers is that if a woman fails to adhere to this role; she will be penalised – tamed by the men in the family. Dickens portrays the Victorian ideology – the male members are the symbols of authority in a family.
We also get to see how Pip is influenced by the women he comes across in life.; and we soon realise that Pip’s approach towards women reflects the Victorian Dickens’ approach towards them and the ideal bourgeois family. All the attributes that he yearns for in himself are inherent in the perfect Biddy, or Clara – who embody the ideal Victorian women. The literary style of the text – written in a first person narrative – brings us closer to Pip, which helps us understand his emotional conflicts as we are given a close-up perspective of his life. The text is a bildungsroman that traces Pip’s life from childhood to adulthood; from being an orphan to a gentleman.
Dickens has been accused of patriarchy. His portrayal of the female characters either as conventional (Biddy) or deviant (Nancy the prostitute or Mrs. Joe Gargery), is an indication of the typical Victorian ideology, and if a woman attempts to challenge a male or steps out of the limitations laid for her, the fallen woman (antithetical to the ‘angel of the house’) is violently tamed.
The Victorian bourgeois family is what Pip craves for throughout his life. As Timothy Farrell notes, “Dickens subscribed to the bourgeois construction of femininity and domesticity…Great Expectations strikingly lacks female characters who fit this womanly ideal. The only female character in the novel who comes close to fitting this ideal is Biddy.” (Farrell, Timothy, Separate Spheres: Victorian Constructions of Gender in Great Expectations)
The novel begins with a negative, unconstructive image of motherhood, as the first woman that Pip describes in the text is his dead mother. The next female character Pip introduces is his sister, who acts as a substitute for his mother, Mrs. Joe Gargery. She is described as unsympathetic and unapproachable, far from the loving mother of Victorian vision.
Timothy Farrell notes, “Mrs. Joe is clearly the opposite of the ideal Victorian woman. Pip depicts her more as a monster than as a woman… Most other female characters [too] are horribly deficient at performing the duties which Victorian culture prescribes to them. Miss Havisham, for example, raises Estella as a heartless femme fatale, rather than as a virtuous, self-effacing ‘angel of the house.’ As we shall see, conflict in the novel emerges when its characters do not conform to this Victorian gender construction.” (Farrell, Timothy, Separate Spheres: Victorian Constructions of Gender in Great Expectations)
With no ideal mother figure in his house - Mrs. Joe is the antithesis of the womanly ideal – Pip is forced to look elsewhere for maternal nurturing, which he finds in his brother-in-law, Joe Gargery. Throughout the novel, Joe is presented as a maternal figure in Pip's life – symbolising the ideal wife in Victorian culture. Dickens’s solution to the problem of women who do not adhere to the Victorian gender construction lies in a violent taming of the women: Mrs. Joe is beaten into submission by Orlick, Molly is tamed by Mr. Jaggers, and Estella is beaten-up by her husband. Any deviance from gender norms on their part is greeted with violence. Irrespective of their class, all women in the text are forced to submit to Dickens's bourgeois construction of gender.
With no strong masculine characters to influence him – both Herbert and Joe are feminised - Pip, in the text, is interpreted as having feminine qualities – those very traits that he longs to see in the women of his family.
Richard Barickman, Susan MacDonald and Myra Stark claim that the novel depicts “Pip as a male cowed by dominant female characters…[his] behaviour [is] typically female: passive, gentle, and full of humility.” (Barickman, MacDonald, and Stark, page 59-110.)
It is interesting to note that while Pip embodies the typical Victorian feminine qualities, he also reflects the humiliation that the ‘fallen women’ in the text suffer.
U.C. Knoepflmacher argues that Pip has to resolve a gender-conflict within himself. “Pip must…be brought to see the abuses inflicted on Miss Havisham, Estella, and Mrs. Joe [which] are similar to those he himself suffered...Pip must admit his identity with Miss Havisham, Estella, and Mrs Joe…the sister who replaced his mother.” (Knoepflmacher, page 89) While reading the text, one unselfconsciously sympathises with Pip in spite of his patriarchal attitude towards women. With no ideal motherly figure to turn to, and no masculine role model in his house, he ends up being emotionally influenced by all the women close to him. The text, a bildungsroman, is narrated in first person narrative. This brings us closer to the protagonist as we see his ordeals and emotional tribulations from a close perspective. Lang plays an imp part in the novel, as young Pip’s vocabulary presents to us his confused standing.
We can see Pip growing from an orphaned child to a young gentleman in London. The text initially projects Pip as young child, and it is through his vocabulary, immature observations and limited perspective that we see his world. However, as he grows up, he becomes more reflective and judgmental, which is demonstrated in his vocabulary and his increased awareness of the hypocrisies of society.
One of Pip’s first experiences that we come across in the novel is he being turned upside down by the escaped convict Madgwitch. This is often cited as a symbol for how he (and probably the reader) perceives the world. The society now is turned upside down - the upper classes are now the most degraded and the lowest classes need to be lauded.
As Ian Ousby notes, “In Great Expectations…the language that people use is of special importance. It is one of the chief ways by which a character’s relations with other people…are defined…. Great Expectations is also a novel in which physical gestures, silent ways of expressing things…play a significant part…. Pip is usually the victim of language rather than its master…[he] speaks remarkably little.” (Ousby, Ian, page 784-793)
One can thus safely conclude that the absence of a tender maternal figure in his life combined with the lack of a strong masculine figure in his home creates circumstances that render Pip weak a man. In spite of yearning to be more masculine and authoritative, it is ultimately the women in Pip’s life who end up influencing him. Mrs Joe Gargery, Mrs Havisham, who uses Pip to fit into her own spiteful plans, Estella who represents the life of wealth and culture which Pip strives for is moulded into a cold woman by Mrs Havisham, Molly a murderess - all these women unintentionally add to Pip’s hatred towards women who don’t conform, while Clara and Biddy in spite of being the ideal Victorian women are not able to influence Pip as powerfully as the other women in the text. While Pip craves for a family with such women, he involuntarily begins to illustrate those very characteristics that he wants to see in the women of his family – femininity, kindness, gentleness, and passivity.
Barickman, Richard, Macdonald, Susan MacDonald and Stark, Myra. “In Corrupt Relations: Dickens, Thakeray, Trollope, Collins, and the Victorian Sexual System”, New York: Columbia University Press.
Knoepflmacher, U.C., “Dickens' Bruised Femininity.” in Shattock, Joanne. Dickens and Other Victorians: Essays in Honor of Philip Collins. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.
Ousby, Ian, The Modern Language Review, Vol. 72, No. 4, Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association, 1977.
Timothy Farrell, http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/ge/farrell2.html, retrieved on 1997.