Miss Havisham at a young age has all she needs to survive on her own, only though with the assistance of her father’s wealth. Despite this fortune, she falls in love with a man and he squanders a portion of her money, leaving her at the marital alter, all alone in a man’s world. Knowing she is damaged goods, she lives a life in utter solitude never to set foot under the sun. This devastating blow is revealed through the conversation between Pip and Harold and met with interjections by Harold on the use of proper etiquette when eating. The conversation reveals not only societal expectations on table etiquette, but Miss Havisham being required to only live up to what Judith Butler calls the “[c]ompulsory heterosexuality [which] sets itself up as the original, the true, the authentic[…]” (Butler 306) in that the notion of a woman’s life without a man is no life at all.
Consequently, Miss Havisham having lost what she thinks is the true nature of a woman in being married and having children, has also lost her true image of herself. Upon Pip’s first meeting of Miss Havisham he describes “a large brewery [and] [n]o brewing was going on it, and none seemed to have gone on for a long time” (Dickens 56), suggesting the absence of a biological child, possibly sexual endeavors, and the absence of what Michel Foucault states as Miss Havisham’s own inability “to fulfill 'her marital obligations'” (Foucault 893). Moreover, Foucault’s analysis that “[t]he marriage relation was the most intense focus […]” (893), albeit of the ‘prescriptions’ placed upon the couple to follow, nevertheless, expressed Miss Havisham as having no marriage to scrutinize, and therefore, holed herself up in her domicile.
Furthermore, the use of a brewery to describe the female sexuality is an interesting metaphor which through the lens of Luce Irigagary describes the necessity to which Dickens “has to remain inarticulate in language” (Irigagary 796) because despite it being a more interesting way to describe Miss Havisham’s lack of sex or procreation, Dickens purposefully alludes to and forces the reader to only infer her lack of sexual pleasure and only speaks about her sexuality when discussing her fiancé.
Pip also notes her house was “dismal” (Dickens 56) and dark save for one candle, until Pip enters Miss Havisham’s dressing room which was lit very well with only candles and “[n]o glimpse of daylight” (58). This imagery implies Miss Havisham’s lifeless state, as well as her inability to have a home suited for a family for her adopted daughter Estella who has no interest in joining them in her dressing room. If this were not telling enough of Miss Havisham’s inability to reconcile with her femininity, she is still metaphorically standing at her bridal alter where her “naturalness [was] only achieved as a consequence of [her] moment of heterosexual recognition” (Butler 311). Pip describes her dressed in a luxurious, all white gown, the description of a wedding dress. The precipice, which she stood, was the ultimate culmination of her womanhood, but being denied the completion she can only stand and wait till the moment is fulfilled.
More telling though is Pip’s description that “the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress” (Dickens 59) suggesting not only her inability to reconcile with her lost womanhood, but also her likened to a plant with no water. Since women have been told they are only complete with the company of a man, Miss Havisham is tragically wasting away to nothing without the necessary companionate sustenance. Like Butler notes, Miss Havisham has not fulfilled her natural female role.
Miss Havisham could be looked at through the lens of the Constructionists as a cautionary tale for females such that women understand that the reliance on someone to provide one’s own wholeness can very well lead to a lifetime of disappointment. Miss Havisham had all to keep her alive and healthy, as well as a daughter to share in mutual affection, but the incompleteness of her womanhood deprived her and those around of a fulfilled human. On the other hand, Miss Havisham could be the manifestation of a woman who does not marry and Dickens is suggesting that females cannot exist without the necessary male figure in her life. The Essentialists view in this last respect can provide the lens, which expresses that the damage to her femininity has in turn damaged her “natural difference” (Rivkin and Ryan 766) to men such that she withers before our very eyes because she has not embraced this difference.
The character of Miss Havisham is an excellent model for a woman withering at her own inability to fulfill the role imposed on women. Dickens use of dramatic scene and setting; the conversation on Miss Havisham all the while interjecting societal rules, her wasting away in a wedding dress, and the dysfunctional brewery set up all the tools necessary to critique Great Expectations using the feminist lens.
Butler, Judith. "Imitation and Gender Insubordination." (google scholar- internet) 300-15.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations (Bantam Classic). New York: Bantam Classics, 1982.
Foucault, Michel. "The History of Sexuality." Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 892-99.
Irigagary, Luce. "The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine." Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 795-98.
Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. "Introduction: Feminist Paradigms." Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 765-69.