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Miss Havisham as a Mysterious and Complex Presence in Great Expectations

By suvin Feb 02, 2009 1533 Words
Charles Dickens is the best known of the English Victorian novelists. He wrote a great deal about women in Victorian society and the way that roles for women were changing. Prior to these times women were expected to marry and be reliant upon men. Men were deemed to be in charge and any money possessed by women immediately passed to her husband once married. Miss Havisham is the antithesis of the social norm as a self sufficient woman living off her own means. Dickens develops her character throughout the novel as a controlling yet bitter and decaying woman. The novel is written retrospectively using first person narration. This gives the reader the impression that they are part of an intimate and confessional storytelling. Pip first meets Miss Havisham when he is summoned to play with her adopted daughter Estella. Satis house is set in a very upper class area but is very run down, the windows and doors are barred and locked, to keep people in as well as out. Its gothic architecture adds to the dark and brooding image of the house and its occupant. The reader’s first introduction to Miss Havisham occurs when Pip enters her room which is gloomy and lit only by candlelight. She is dressed in rich materials, silks, satins and lace, all in white which has now yellowed and shabby with age very similar to her jaundiced attitude towards men. She continued to wear her veil, a pagan representation of virginity and dried and decayed flowers in her hair. In contrast she wears shining jewels around her hands and neck. He observes that the dress that she is wearing had been put on the figure of a young woman and the carcass on which it now hangs had shrunk to skin and bone. The gloomy and decaying theme continues throughout Pip’s encounters with Miss Havisham. Dickens uses words like “faded”, “no brightness”, “like black fungus” and “the daylight was completely excluded” to relate the atmosphere of both the house and it’s inhabitant. As he walks towards her he notices that all the clocks have stopped at twenty minutes to nine and she says: "Look at me, you are not afraid of a woman who has not seen the sun since you were born?" again emphasising the dark aura surrounding her. Dickens uses a great deal of figurative language in the novel relating to death and decay, especially in his description of Miss Havisham. She openly speaks of having her heart broken. Pip notices that it is as if she has stopped living and that her life as she knew it had ended once her engagement was broken. It is as if she is permanently stuck in the past and cannot or will not move forward. She literally did not see the light of day from this point. We learn later that her fiancé Compeyson abandoned her on her wedding morning at this exact time. Pip describes Miss Havisham’s appearance when he first meets her as “the strangest lady I have ever seen”. He is anxious, scared and confused and his childlike use of vivid imagery conjures up a vision of a macabre and decrepit old woman. He likens her to “a ghastly waxwork” he saw at a fair and also to skeleton he once saw in a church. Pip’s description of her represents two stages where in effect life has stopped. Here Dickens appears to suggest that although Miss Havisham has succeeded in stopping her own advancement when she received the letter, namely the halting of the clocks, the continual wearing of her wedding clothes and the wedding cake decaying on the table, she is unable to stop the passage of time, and prevent her body deteriorating. Pip notes “So she sat corpse like....” another reference to death, not only physical, but that of love dying. Miss Havisham was bought up by her father with no maternal influence. This may explain her difficulty to bestow love on Pip and Estella and the harsh way in which she treats them. She had been badly treated by men throughout her life, her father who spoiled her “and denied her nothing”, ensuring that she does not have the usual boundaries of childhood, and her fiancé and half brother, the former who courted and finally jilted her and who along with the latter swindled her out of a fortune. She is obsessive in her attempt to get revenge on Compeyson and in all men in general. During the Victorian era there was a great divide between rich and poor and social class was very important. Pip came from the working class and as such was not highly educated. He feels embarrassed about his social status and when Estelle mocks him for being “a common labouring boy with course hands”, Miss Havisham does nothing to chastise her, in fact she seems to revel in his discomfiture. Miss Havisham taunts Pip with Estella’s beauty and finds a perverse pleasure in encouraging Estella to break his (and other men’s) hearts. This is just the beginning of her cruelties to Estella and Pip. Throughout the novel she tampers with their lives. She pretends that it was her who was Pip's benefactress, and she is controlling from the very start, for instance when Pip comes to play at Satis House; she mutters witch-like incantations at him: "Play, play, play…" and "love her, love her, love her…" Pip falls madly in love with Estella, something that Miss Havisham in her warped frame of mind, enjoys. She relishes the fact that Pip has fallen for Estella and is enjoying seeing some-one love another person so strongly only to have their heart broken as she had many years before. Dickens makes a very interesting comparison between Miss Havisham and the convict Magwitch, who it turns out is Estella’s father, in that they were both cheated by Compeyson. However, there is a stark contrast in their chosen methods of revenge. She chooses to become manipulative and evil towards Pip and Estella. Whereas Magwitch remembers Pip’s kindness and chooses to be benevolent towards Pip in order to ease him towards the position of a “gentleman”. Dickens uses clever reference to colour throughout his description of Miss Havisham. The white of her clothes, which represents purity along with the yellow of decay. When Miss Havisham is burning from setting her clothes on fire, the red of the flames could be seen as a representation of love. It is interesting that earlier in the text she is referred to as “the witch of the place” and that the conflagration could be likened to a witch being burned at the stake. The reader can recognise the comparison between her being aflame and the emotion of love which can be said to be a burning desire. This is the last reference to her being a witch-like figure in the story, and in ways can be seen to be her being cleansed by fire, a biblical reference. On Pip’s last visit to Satis, he is no longer a young boy, he is an adult and has a different perspective of the world. He is older and wiser and the roles of he and Miss Havisham have reversed. He has come to ask a favour of her, namely to borrow some money, rather than when he was young and she always asked things of him. Interestingly although she asked things of him, it was always in a demanding way and she had to be in control. However now she is begging his forgiveness. She feels that God cannot forgive her but it is more important to her that Pip does. Dickens ensures that the reader considers whether Miss Havisham’s fate was deserved. She was indeed cruel to both Pip and Estella, however she had led a very sad and unfulfilled life and her life ended in a very cruel way. She did in the end appear to find a friend in Pip and begs his forgiveness for her maltreatment of him. Pip like a true gentleman does in fact forgive her before she dies. "A mind mortally hurt and diseased" - this is perhaps the most significant quote in the novel. It articulates the vital complexity of her character, describing her as a victim who became an antagonist as a consequence of her maltreatment during childhood by her father, and during womanhood by Compeyson. Miss Havisham is presented as a mysterious presence by primarily not being revealed until late in the book. However, her obsession with revenge and her likeness to a witch also are contributory factors, and conjure images and perceptions in the reader's head of what Miss Havisham is really like and her appearance. Once revealed, she is still retains a mysterious presence especially when she is killed by being set alight - a witch-like way to die, and in her time of dying she finally apologises to Pip and Estella for all the wrong she has done to them.

Dickens, C. (1860) Great Expectations.
Hawes, D (2007) Charles Dickens. London: Continuum
Davis, P. (1999) Charles Dickens A-Z. Checkmark Books

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