The character of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations evokes curiosity and intrigue from the very first moment of her introduction into the story. Pip's only original knowledge of Miss Havisham is that she is said to be “an immensely rich and grim lady who lived in a large and dismal house barricaded against robbers, and who led a life of seclusion" (44). Pip himself knows nothing more of the strange woman, and thus the reader also remains in the dark until Pip's scheduled visit to Miss Havisham's house. As Pip becomes a regular visitor to Manor House, the mysteries surrounding this strange character seem to multiply rather than diminish. Miss Havisham and Estella make up a complex and puzzling world that Pip is not allowed to understand, regardless of how much he may desire to do so.

Upon Pip's entrance into her room, the initial description of Miss Havisham is both fascinating and jarring. It is this immediate description upon which the rest of Miss Havisham's character is built. Pip stands in nervous awe and describes what he sees. He tells of the faded white that epitomizes both Miss Havisham and the room in which she resides. Pip tells of this initial glimpse of Miss Havisham and the oddities surrounding her:

She was dressed in rich materials — satins, and lace, and silks — all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on — the other was on the table near her hand — her veil was half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass.

It was not in the first moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments than might be supposed. But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its luster, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly wax-work at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now wax-work and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could. [50; Place within the complete text of the novel]

Questions

1. Pip grandly describes the white objects within the room before he mentions the fact that they have long ago turned “faded and yellow." How does the original description of whiteness contrast with and consequently effect the description of Miss Havisham in her present state? Would the effect of the passage change if Pip did not first invoke the picture of pure whiteness and then describe the true condition of Miss Havisham and her room?

2. At the end of this passage, Pip relates that he could not cry out as he might have liked. This mirrors the beginning of the novel, when Pip is unable to cry out when accosted by the convict. What does Pip's loss of voice symbolize within the text?

3. Pip admits to the reader that “it was not in the first moments that I saw all these things." The reader, however, under the guidance of Pip, does indeed view all of these things within these first moments. How does Pip's way of narrating this particular passage effect the overall description of Miss Havisham? In what other instances do Pip's narrative techniques shape or alter the reader's view of a character?

4. Miss Havisham continues to play a large role in the remainder of the novel, though much of it is due to Pip's own imaginations and conjectures regarding his patron. In what ways does this first depiction of the old woman influence the reader's perception of her throughout the novel? As Pip and subsequently the reader learn more of Miss Havisham's circumstances, does opinion of her change or remain the same?

References

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


Victorian Web Overview Charles Dickens Great Expectations Discussion questions

Last modified 16 February 2004