he scene in which Pip saves Miss Havisham from the fire could be seen as a parody or ironic replacement for Miss Havisham's long-awaited wedding. The reader can discern many of the elements of a traditional wedding in this scene and the scenes surrounding it, starting with the dowry. Before Miss Havisham catches fire, she agrees to give Pip nine hundred pounds so that he can in turn give it to Herbert. This transaction between a single man and woman bears resemblance to a dowry. After this exchange, the events of Miss Havisham's “wedding" take a dark turn and proceed out of order, starting with the fire itself. When Pip sees that Miss H's ancient wedding dress has caught fire, he attempts to use his overcoat to save her. As he explains,

I had a double-caped great-coat on, and over my arm another thick coat. That I got them off, closed with her, threw her down, and got them over her; that I dragged the great cloth from the table for the same purpose, and with it dragged down the heap of rottenness in the midst, and all the ugly things that sheltered there; that we were on the ground struggling like desperate enemies, and that the closer I covered her, the more wildly she shrieked and tried to free herself; that this occurred I knew through the result, but not through anything I felt, or thought, or knew I did. I knew nothing until I knew that we were on the floor by the great table, and that patches of tinder yet alight were floating in the smoky air, which a moment ago had been her faded bridal dress.

This scene, the violent consummation of the marriage, occurs at the same time as that for the food for the wedding party, since while Pip is “covering" Miss Havisham and both characters are losing pieces of clothing, fire destroys the “heap of rottenness" on the table. The items on the wedding table, meant to be consumed and therefore destroyed on Miss Havisham's wedding day, fall out of their frozen, time-locked state. Additionally, Miss Havisham's wedding dress becomes “patches of tinderÉfloating in the smoky air", which resemble confetti or rice thrown upon newlyweds. Later, Pip kisses Miss Havisham as she mutters her three sentences, completing the marriage- “I leaned over her and touched her lips with mine, just as they said, not stopping for being touched, 'Take the pencil and write under my name, 'I forgive her'".

This symbolic marriage has multiple purposes. For one, it shows that a bond as strong as a wedding band links Pip's life to that of Miss Havisham. Secondly, it represents a turning point in Miss Havisham's life, brought on by the realization of the necessity of a loving heart (even if that heart must be broken). After the incident, Miss Havisham “lay with a white sheet loosely overlying that, the phantom air of something that had been and was changed was still upon her". She has finally joined Pip and left the past, and thus has changed drastically.

Questions

1. How does the amount of money that Miss Havisham gives to Pip compare to the actual dowry of a woman in Miss Havisham's class during the time in which the book takes place? Would the dowry have changed depending on age? What could the answers to these questions tell us about the way Pip views Miss Havisham?

2. If the fire scene does in fact represent a wedding, why does the scene use such violent images and language? Why does Miss Havisham “shriek" and “struggle" and why are the two described as “enemies" when so many symbols of marriage present themselves during the scene?

3. Pip takes Miss Havisham's money in order to give it to Herbert. If the money represents a dowry, how does this affect the symbolic union between the two struggling in the fire?

4. Anodos' relationship with the old woman in Phantastes can also seem confusing, especially since the first thing Anodos notices about her is that she has “the sweetest voice [he] had ever heard" and that her eyes are “those of a woman of five-and-twenty". Anodos also kisses the old woman. He says, “I sprang from my seat to kiss those old lips. And when, having finished her cooking, she brought some of the dish she had prepared, and set it on a little table by me, covered with a snow-white cloth, I could not help laying my head on her bosom, and bursting into happy tears". How does Anodos' relationship with this old woman compare with Pip's relationship with Miss Havisham?

5. Why does Miss Havisham repeat those same three lines — “what have I done!" “When she first came, I meant to save her from misery like mine," and “Take the pencil and write under my name, 'I forgive her!"? How do they fit into the idea of marriage?


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations

Last modified 24 February 2008