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Discuss how Dickens in 'Great Expectations' constructs female characters and the extent to which they challenge the Victorian stereotype.

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Introduction

Discuss how Dickens in 'Great Expectations' constructs female characters and the extent to which they challenge the Victorian stereotype. In the Victorian period a woman's main purpose as a wife was praise and a duty to keep the domestic household in order. It was only in this field that a woman could make decisions, anywhere else and she would be trespassing on the man's territory and power - and though it is not said, his ego. Even though the male takes charge over all other matters, any disruption in the house will invariably directly/indirectly be her fault. A woman must be 'incorruptibly good and nothing less', though the man will try to guard her from 'danger and temptation'. Of course, if she succumbs to these evils it is her own doing, and the man takes no responsibility and in fact becomes the victim as she has endangered his household. In 'Great Expectations' there are a variety of women that challenge the Victorian stereotype and a few, in actual fact - three that do not. The first female character we are introduced to is Mrs Joe, the long-suffering shrewish sister of Pip. From early descriptions of her we see her as a violent and intimidating figure -even to men and therefore her husband! Pip's ominous comment that she 'brought me up by hand' and the 'tickler' which caused him 'great depression' are all symbols of her dominance and power which she seems to be very confident with. This domestic tyrant figure is further amplified by her physical appearance and clothes: her face looked like it had been scrapped ' with a nut meg grater' and her 'square impregnable bib ...that was stuck full of pin' both destroy any nurturing mother figure image. ...read more.

Middle

Miss Havisham is rarely viewed as a human, (instead she is the 'witch of the palace' or even a 'fairy godmother') but rather she is the house and the epitome of her wedding day, since which, she ceased to exist as her self but to embody he factors that broke her. In effect, it is the house and her money that gives her power, enough to rival men and hence she is dangerous to men. This dangerous woman, who is shunned from society is an image that is repeated throughout the book with links between her and convicts; Pip recounts 'I fancied I saw Miss Havisham hanging from the beam.' like the criminals were hung on the marshes. Likewise, the elemental bleakness, and paradox of the her decaying extravagant house reminds us again of the marshes and when Pip tries to save her from the fire he says; 'I still held her forcible down with all my strength, like a prisoner who might escape', this resembles the struggle between Magwitch and Compeyson. Miss Havisham catches fire after she begs forgiveness from Pip thus this mighty woman with her determined and unrelenting revenge on society is brought down. Now, we see her strength (in making Estella turn against men for so long), actually as a weakness: we are told that at first Miss Havisham's intention was to 'save her from misery' like her own but she was gradually overcome by her need for revenge, using Estella as her prop. I think that it is significant that Miss Havisham catches fire immediately after her request for forgiveness as this emotion is so abnormal to ...read more.

Conclusion

Paradoxically she wears a brooch 'representing the profile of an undesirable female' suggesting that Dickens is rejecting the stereotype. Clara Barley is the perfect Victorian stereotype - she is kind and timid i.e. not like Estella. Pip says 'something so natural and winning in Clara's resigned ways of looking at her lot - something so confiding, loving and innocent in her modest manner of yielding herself to Herbert's embracing arm -and something so gentle in her, so much needing protection'. Thus, Pip sees all these qualities listed e.g. modest, resigned etc...as good, attractive and admirable qualities - hence confirming her as an ideal. Almost all female character -some more than other (e.g. miss Havisham) are in one way or another caricatures i.e. characters that through Dickens' descriptive nature of exaggerating their appearance or actions to emphasis their personality have become almost unbelievable. Hence we can say that Dickens' female characters are 'flat' - a famous point made by E.M Foster to describe characters that were instantaneously recognised by their appearance and habits of speech or action. e.g. Miss Havisham is a intimating and dark figure in a beautiful yet decaying house woman thus portrayed visually as 'a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress', likewise Mrs Joe is described in connection with a 'nutmeg grater' and 'pins and needles' suggesting her sharpness and violence. One can easily conclude many of Dickens' female characters do not conform to the stereotype and these he presents as far more interesting. Yet virtually all such women are tamed through violence predominately because strength in women is portrayed as a disadvantage to men who directly or inadvertently always seem to suffer. By: Chee For: Mrs Hill Date: April 2001 1 1 ...read more.

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