When Pip first encounters Molly, her physical appearance stuns him. He does not yet recognize her as Estella's mother, but already he senses something “striking" about her. He likens her to the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, recalling that her face looked as if it were “disturbed by [the] fiery air" of a cauldron. Throughout the evening Pip has difficulty taking his eyes off of Molly and is shocked when Mr. Jaggers suddenly seizes her hand as she reaches across him to clear the table:
Her entrapped hand was on the table, but she had already put her other hand behind her waist. “Master," she said, in a low voice, with her eyes attentively and entreatingly fixed upon him. “Don't."
"I'll show you a wrist," repeated Mr. Jaggers, with an immovable determination to show it. “Molly, let them see your wrist."
"Master," she again murmured. “Please!"
"Molly," said Mr. Jaggers, not looking at her, but obstinately looking at the opposite side of the room, “let them see both your wrists. Show them. Come!"
He took his hand from hers, and turned that wrist up on the table. She brought her other hand from behind her, and held the two out side by side. The last wrist was much disfigured, — deeply scarred and scarred across and across. When she held her hands out she took her eyes from Mr. Jaggers, and turned them watchfully on every one of the rest of us in succession.
"There's power here," said Mr. Jaggers, coolly tracing out the sinews with his forefinger. “Very few men have the power of wrist that this woman has."
This episode occurs at the end of a long discussion about physical strength in which Pip and his friends have fallen to “barring and spanning" their arms to show off their muscles. By drawing attention to Molly's impressive strength, Mr. Jaggers accentuates the boys' relative weakness. His claim that “very few men have the power of wrist" that Molly has could be seen as an attempt to humble them. However, the demonstration does not only reveal Molly's power; it also reveals her lack thereof. She begs to be released but Mr. Jaggers ignores her pleas, “obstinately looking at the opposite side of the room". Despite her physical power, Molly occupies a position of great weakness. She is completely at the mercy of her master; as a servant and a woman she cannot refuse him. However, the revelation that she may have committed murder suggests that she was not always so submissive. Wemmick describes Molly as a “wild beast tamed". By demonstrating his dominance over this 'wild beast', Mr. Jaggers asserts his own strength. His cruelty toward Molly can thus be seen as a sort of “barring and spanning", a metaphorical flexing of muscles.
1. Molly's pleas for Mr. Jaggers to release her are similar to the little girl's pleas for Anodos to stop touching her ball in Phantastes:
I put out both my hands and laid hold of it. It began to sound as before. The sound rapidly increased, till it grew a low tempest of harmony, and the globe trembled, and quivered, and throbbed between my hands. I had not the heart to pull it away from the maiden, though I held it in spite of her attempts to take it from me; yes, I shame to say, in spite of her prayers, and, at last, her tears. The music went on growing in, intensity and complication of tones, and the globe vibrated and heaved; till at last it burst in our hands, and a black vapour broke upwards from out of it; then turned, as if blown sideways, and enveloped the maiden, hiding even the shadow in its blackness.
What function(s) do these scenes serve? Is the fact that the maiden is a young girl whereas Molly is a middle aged woman significant? Why? Does the fact that Anodos is ashamed by his actions whereas Mr. Jaggers appears to have no remorse significant? Why?
2. Were women often convicted of murder at the time in which Great Expectations takes place? What about at the time in which Dickens was writing? How, if at all, were women and men dealt with differently by the England's penal code?
3. Are there other examples in Great Expectations of physically strong characters in positions of weakness? What might Great Expectations suggest about the relationship between strength and power?
4. The way in which Mr. Jaggers dominates Molly is reminiscent of rape. Does it seem likely that Dickens intended this scene to have sexual undercurrents? How is rape typically depicted in Victorian literature? Is it often veiled through symbolism?
5. Eventually, Pip discovers that Molly is Estella's mother:
I looked again at those hands and eyes of the housekeeper, and thought of the inexplicable feeling that had come over me when I last walked — not alone — in the ruined garden, and through the deserted brewery. I thought how the same feeling had come back when I saw a face looking at me, and a hand waving to me from a stage-coach window; and how it had come back again and had flashed about me like lightning, when I had passed in a carriage — not alone — through a sudden glare of light in a dark street. I thought how one link of association had helped that identification in the theatre, and how such a link, wanting before, had been riveted for me now, when I had passed by a chance swift from Estella's name to the fingers with their knitting action, and the attentive eyes. And I felt absolutely certain that this woman was Estella's mother.
What relationship, if any, exists between Molly's hands as they are described in this scene and her “disfgured" wrists? Does Molly's physical appearance alter the way Pip views Estella?
- Female Aggressiveness in Great Expectations
- Separate Spheres: Victorian Constructions of Gender in Great Expectations
- Great Expectations and Gender (a bibliography)
Last modified 1 March 2009