decorated initial 'T'he Victorian ideal of womanhood is the Angel in the House — a moral, yielding, domestic paragon. In Victorian middle class ideology, women should be confined to the home to better protect them from the immoral influences of the world, in order that they — the naturally more moral sex — should exert their good influence on their husband and children, and through them the society at large. A powerful image, the ideal of the Angel in the House lasted throughout the Victorian period, despite its waning links to reality.

In Great Expectations Charles Dickens presents a very different view of Victorian women. Transcending class lines, Dickens provides powerful portraits of calculating and manipulative women, with no hint of the softness and capacity for sympathy that characterizes the ideal Victorian woman. Mrs. Joe is portrayed in the beginning of the novel as mean, petty, ungrateful, and finally, unfeeling:

“What did you say?" cried my sister, beginning to scream. “What did you say? What did that fellow Orlick say to me, Pip? What did he call me, with my husband standing by? O! O! O!" Each of these exclamations was a shriek; and I must remark of my sister, what is equally true of all the violent women I have ever seen, that passion was no excuse for her, she consciously and deliberately took extraordinary pains to force herself into it, and became blindly furious by regular stages; “what was the name he gave me before the base man who swore to defend me? O! Hold me! O!" [92]

Despite the intensity of Mrs. Joe's emotions, there is no real human feeling involved. Compare her tantrum with Estella's coolness:

The garden was overgrown and rank for walking in with ease, and after we had made the round of it twice or thrice, we came out again into the brewery yard. I showed her to a nicety where I had seen her walking on the casks, that first old day, and she said, with a cold and careless look in that direction, “Did I?" I reminded her where she had come out of the house and given me my meat and drink, and she said, “I don't remember." “Not remember that you made me cry?" said I. “No," said she, and shook her head and looked about her. I verily believe that her not remembering and not minding in the least, made me cry again, inwardly — and that is the sharpest crying of all.

"You must know," said Estella, condescending to me as a brilliant and beautiful woman might, “that I have no heart — if that has anything to do with my memory." [182-83; Place within the complete text of the novel]

Estella feels no anger — she feels nothing at all. But according to Dickens, neither did Mrs. Joe — not really. Her emotion was carefully constructed, as is, Pip posits, that of all “violent" women. The combination of these characters — one working class, one upper class — creates a sense in the novel that not only do women not conform to the sympathetic, domestic ideal, they are often completely opposed to it.

Questions

Does Dickens suggest that all women are incapable of passionate feeling or just these two? How does Mrs. Havisham's warped passion fit in to the paradigm of “violent" women that Dickens sets up?

Biddy stands in stark contrast to Mrs. Joe and Estella — very close to the ideal of the Angel in the House. How does she function in the novel, both to emphasize their characteristics, and to fill out Pip's character? Why does Pip choose the cold and unfeeling Estella over the warm and womanly Biddy? What is Dickens suggesting about ideal womanhood?

In both passages women hold a position of power. Mrs. Joe continually calls on Joe as the instrument of her power though, while Estella seems too confident of hers to even notice it. How does class affect the relative power of women in the novel?

Estella suggests that she doesn't remember the first day with Pip because she has no heart. What is Dickens saying about memory here? Emotions? How does the relationship between memory and emotion relate to Pip's first person narrative — which is all told from his memory? Is Pip a trustworthy narrator? Why or why not?

References

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Ed. Edgar Rosenberg. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations Discussion questions for Jane Eyre

Last modified 16 February 2004