[These materials have been excerpted by the author from Jerome Bump, “The Family Dynamics of the Reception of Art," Style 31.2 (1997): 328-350]

[Victorian initial “W" based on A Comic Alphabet Designed, Etched, and Published by George Cruikshank. N. 23 Middleton Terrace. Pentonvillem 1836.]

Part 8 of The Family Dynamics of Victorian Fiction

Decorative Initial W hat about Victorian novels that do not revolve around alcoholism, written by authors who did not grow up in such families? Alcoholism is less central in Great Expectations, for example, but its archetypal Victorian opening suggests how many novels of the time appeal especially to readers seeking “healthier" families. The first words are “My father's family," announcing orphan Pip's preoccupation with finding a family. In this regard he was no doubt a protoreader, representative of many of the Victorian readers who lived in “normal" families but still felt like orphans. A family systems critic can easily demonstrate that, like Wuthering Heights and many other Victorian novels, Great Expectations is an excellent illustration of transgenerational transmission of abuse and rigid roles. We learn that the alcoholic father of Pip's stepfather, Joe, beat both Joe and his mother. As what we now might call the “hero-child" — the oldest -- Joe tried to protect his siblings. He had to sacrifice his childhood and go to work to support his family because his alcoholic father did not. It is no surprise that Joe accepts verbal and physical abuse from his wife and wants to take on all the abuse to protect Pip. Indeed he may have chosen his wife to accept the punishment his father should have received from his mother. In any case Mrs. Joe had the kind of addictive personality he was used to: a rageaholic (like Catherine I in Wuthering Heights) obsessed with controlling her house and everyone in it. Pip, of course, watches Joe as his role model and himself accepts verbal and physical abuse from Mrs. Joe who stated that he should never have been born and wished that he was dead. In fact Pip becomes the scapegoat for her entire family system.

Hence we are not surprised that he “falls in love" with Estella and accepts her sadistic treatment of him. We learn that she behaves this way because she learned it from the previous generation (her mother figure, Miss Havisham, used Estella to avenge wrongs done to her). Illustrating the basic therapeutic rule, "Recover or Repeat," Estella then goes on marry a man who physically abuses her. Today we might call Pip's “love" for Estella (like the love of Heathcliff and Catherine) an addiction and/or a parody of courtly love, though some Victorians would have called it idolatry. For Pip, it was an addiction fueled by his newly acknowledged shame, “the smart without a name." He tried to fill what we might call the hole in his soul with another person, a solution that would not have worked with a saint, much less a sadist. “Her contempt for me was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it"; yet he wanted to see her again and again. As “compensation" for his shame he soon identified himself with her extraordinarily dysfunctional “family" and adopted her view of Joe and a stance of “vicious reticence" or lying. Needless to say, secrecy pervades these families. It grows steadily in Pip especially because of his furtive connection with an alternative father figure, Magwitch, until "the secret was such an old one now, had so grown into me and become a part of myself, that I could not tear it away." The popularity of this novel is due in part to how well these patterns match those in the family holograms of many readers.

Hopefully, these examples of the extraordinary compatibility of these novels with family systems theory will encourage critics to discover how this theory is uniquely qualified to reveal family dynamics not only in much of the art produced in the great age of consciousness of the family — Victorian England -- but in many other literary works as well.


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 2003