Posted by Anjali Menon
Usually I am quite direct when it comes to book recommendations. If any book that I’ve read is even faintly mentioned in a conversation, it will automatically generate an opinion from me. An opinion that doesn’t shy away from falling into the extremes of ‘read it,’ or ‘don’t even touch it.’ But my quick judgemental self often grows quiet when Great Expectations is mentioned. While I very firmly believe that no sane human should be put through the pains of this Dickens novel that eventually only crushes your expectations, I also whole-heartedly believe that Miss Havisham (an integral character in the book) deserves the attention and love of every reader. It’s quite a catch 22, one of my favourite fictional characters comes from a book that I absolutely loathe.
My immense and maybe even unjustified hate for the book comes from its protagonist Pip. Pip is a little boy who is excited and happy to grow up and work with Joe, his brother in law who also raised him. We are introduced to him right in the beginning and we follow him through all of his ungratefulness. He grows to be ashamed of the man who loved and raised him, throws himself over a woman who repeatedly makes it clear that she isn’t interested and is unpleasant to the woman who actually loves him.
Charles Dickens was many things: a masterful storyteller, an ardent social campaigner and a political journalist. But he’s unlikely to ever be a feminist icon.
Throughout, Pip was whiny, annoying, delusional and well, had too many expectations; I secretly hoped he would die in the end. The book began demanding my attention only when Pip was introduced to Miss Havisham, a wealthy spinster who lives in the wrecked Statis House and is up to no good. She is someone who has made it to the common currency of our language. Miss Havisham with utmost conviction persuaded me to flip through pages and pages of Pip’s folly.
Readers and critics have complained relentlessly over the centuries about Dicken’s lack of understanding of women. He writes from the extremes of incongruous caricatures or meekly grimacing virgins. For the ordinary grey areas of female psychology, he has nothing much to offer. As Martin Chilton claimed, “Charles Dickens was many things: a masterful storyteller, an ardent social campaigner and a political journalist. But he’s unlikely to ever be a feminist icon.”
In Great expectations, however, he makes it clear that he isn’t interested in the ‘ordinary behaviour’ of anyone, and Miss Havisham is no different. The very evocative and rich introduction of Miss Havisham is simply unforgettable. To Pip’s naïve eyes and to the readers alike, she seems like a fairy tale. You don’t know what to make of this half-statue, half-human surrounded by dust and stopped clocks. For once in the book, you don’t know what to expect.
“I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and lost its lustre, 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.”
After all, she can’t go off to Cario and become a partner in a shipping firm as easily as Pip did. Single women who get left at the alter just couldn’t be that outrageous.
Her story is conventional – years ago she was left at the altar by a conman named Compeyson. What happens after though is extremely unconventional. She becomes a rich lady who simply refuses to take off her decaying, torn wedding gown. Or to hire help. She wants ruthless revenge towards the entire male population. She goes to the extent of adopting a little girl (Estella) and rearing her for only one purpose – to break hearts, and of course it starts with Pip. She unashamedly nudges Pip to fall in love with Estelle. In many ways, she destroys him. It is clear that Miss Havisham has very obviously lost it.
As a 14-year-old when I read the book, I didn’t relate to her at all, I didn’t even want to be like her. She was unfamiliar territory. But her obstinacy wasn’t very easy to overlook. You realise, even as a 14-year-old that she isn’t as ruthless as she vowed to be. As she gloats over Pip’s futile passion, she also grows fond of him. Ironically, what breaks her even more is the realisation of what she had created in Estella – a heartless, stubborn and cold woman.
No wonder Estella goes on to marry the cruellest and meanest man, there is something inherently self-destructive about this choice and Miss Havisham knows who’s to blame. She herself is quite surprised when she realises that emotions still affect her. She falls down to Pip’s knees with agony at one point, and that stayed with me. With every tit-bit I got to know about her, Miss Havisham was trying very hard to make a point, or so it seemed. 14-year-old me was too naive to comprehend Miss Havisham fully. But these instances from the book were tucked away safely in my mind, only to make sense later on.
Interestingly, Miss Havisham and Pip went through similar situations. But their respective genders created a very poignant distinction. The book takes 400 long pages to tell us that Pip had great expectations that very brutally crash, and then he becomes a better man. The latter does not happen to Miss Havisham. When she loses everything, she goes crazy and destroys even more lives. The difference is important.
Does the distinction exist only because Miss Havisham was bad person? Or can you argue that it had something to do with her gender. After all, she can’t go off to Cario and become a partner in a shipping firm as easily as Pip did. Single women who get left at the alter just couldn’t be that outrageous, especially in the nineteenth century. Considering the fact that she was a formerly rich lady, anything she did would be frowned upon. And that’s when I realised, she persisted me to get through the book only so that I could ask a very basic question – Did Miss Havisham have much of a choice?
Charles Dickens goes for the extremes in terms of good and evil, but the roots of each character stem from banal emotions. And in Miss Havisham’s case, the emotion is frustration. Frustration of every move being met with risen eyebrows. Frustration of being restricted to a bounding box. Even as a fourteen-year-old, this I could very much relate to. Miss Havisham herself was probably ashamed of what she became, but her choices were ranged from marriage to being a governess to some decent family’s child.
She very well knew that she was being unfair to Estelle and Pip, just like the world had been to her. Dickens creates a ruthless, dark, powerful woman who is shattered on the inside. He gives us many things with this character – an iconic negative character, a path breaking female character for literature etc. But most importantly, he gives us an honest representation of frustration. You’ll find traces of Miss Havisham in most women if you squeeze them onto paper, and that isn’t very flattering to the society that we live in.
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