In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens subverts stereotypical Victorian ideals of motherhood, femininity, and masculinity while concurrently maintaining his characters within the overarching strict framework of a gendered society in nineteenth-century England. In one sense, the actors in Dicken's work do maintain their gendered identities and live within the prescribed social space appropriate to each sex. Females in the novel are indubitably confined to the domestic realm throughout the book. Ms. Havisham is an extreme example of this reality, as she has not left Satis House since the morning when she was abandoned by her callous, pilfering fiancé. Pip's sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, repetitively emphasizes her confinement to the forge, evidenced by such complaints as, “Perhaps if I warn't a blacksmith's wife, and (what's the same thing) a slave with her apron never off, I should have been to hear the Carols" (23). Biddy's persona is defined by her role as a domestic servant — her life revolves around hearth and home. And Estella, though more widely traveled than other the other women in the book, is confined between locations of a foreign school, Satis House, and Mrs. Brandley's home in Richmond. In contrast, the Dickensian menfolk are more or less free to go at will. Though Joe Gargery's movements are strongly confined by his wife's dictates, Joe still has the liberty to escape to the Three Jolly Bargemen or attend errands uptown on occasion. Pip, though also suffering the demands of his sister's will, is also free to attend night school, play upon the marshes and attend Ms. Havisham's house at Satis “for the good of the family". The males residing in London have an innate freedom to come and go as they will, as Wemmick and Jaggers are both bachelors, unconstrained by domestic demands or female counterparts. Herbert, though poor, is also at liberty to do what he pleases during his residence in Barnard's Inn.

However, though this notion of gendered space does effectively concur with Victorian modes of masculine and feminine propriety, it also contrasts sharply with more essential gender relations in the novel. Many of Dicken's female characters exist as an antithesis to Victorian ideals of fair womanhood and angelic femininity, while many of the male personages take on definitively female roles in the course of the novel. Pip himself is explicitly affected by this confusion of gender identity, and seems caught between prescriptions of masculine strength and feminine vulnerability during the course of his interactions with the strong female characters of Great Expectations.

Mrs. Joe Gargery, though adept at housekeeping at the forge, is very much the “man of the house". Pip describes his sister as a woman with “black hair and eyes" and a face with “such a prevailing redness of skin that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg-grater instead of soap. She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two loops, and having a square, impregnable bib in front that was stuck full of pins and needles." (13). Furthermore, Mrs. Gargery's appearance is supplemented by such unmotherly declarations as “I may truly say that I've never had this apron of mine off, since born you were. It's bad enough to be a blacksmith's wife (and him a Gargery), without being your mother" (14).

In similar fashion, Ms. Havisham inhabits the adornments of Victorian femininity, but Pip portrays this garb once again in a singularly unwomanly fashion.

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 a go, 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. [Ch 8; Place in the complete text of the novel in which this passage appears]

Finally, Estella is neither docile nor a fragile flower of Victorian femininity. She is a “femme fatale", who is repeatedly cajoled by Ms. Havisham to wreak havoc on the hearts of the opposite sex.

And sometimes, when her moods were so many and so contradictory of one another than I was puzzled what to say or do, Miss Havisham would embrace her [Estella] with lavish fondness, murmuring something in her ear that sounded like, “Break their hearts, my pride and hope, break their hearts and have no mercy!" [77]

Questions

How do the physical descriptions of the female characters depict such women in a masculine fashion? How do the male characters in Dicken's work provide a visible contrast to such masculine portraitures of the female characters? Ex. Joe, Herbert, Matthew Pocket, etc.

What is Dicken's purpose in subverting stereotypical notions of Victorian gender identity and relations in Great Expectations? Do you think that the author does actually mean to oppose such stereotypes in the novel, or do you believe that they are actually upheld in the course of the novel? Is gendered space stronger than gendered disposition?

Do you feel Estella and Ms. Havisham present an antithetical example of Victorian femininity? Or are these characters actually indicative of the feminine plight in the nineteenth-century English societal setting?

How is Pip's gender identity contradicted and affirmed throughout the novel? How is he conflicted about his place in a gender-divided society, both growing up at the forge and during his life in London?

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

Last modified 8 June 2007