Throughout the first seven chapters, Dickens presents Mrs Joe as the main antagonist. It appears that when she isn’t seeking credit for the fact that she brought Pip up “by hand”, she has an agenda to make him and the other characters she encounters suffer. Clearly, she is the opposite of the ideal Victorian woman.
Mrs Joe is not given a name in these chapters and is known only as “Mrs Joe”. This makes her relationship with Pip very formal, especially considering that they are in fact brother and sister. It is ironic that Mrs Joe be referred to as “Mrs Joe” constantly, when there does not seem too much of Joe in her. The main purpose it serves is probably to characterize Mrs Joe as a more masculine, and therefore typically more commanding, character. In the tradition of marriage, the wife usually gives up her last name to show that she is “property” of the man; therefore it is especially ironic that she be called Mrs. Joe when it is clear that Joe belongs more to her.
Dickens also presents her as having a rather obvious dissatisfaction with her life. She blames Pip and Joe for this, stating “you’ll drive me to the churchyard betwixt you and oh, a pr-r-rectious pair you’d be without me!” She appears to believe that Pip and Joe should feel guilty for putting her through the woes and horror that her life is, but still feel grateful that she endures it instead of upping and leaving.
This makes the reader see her as rather arrogant and snobbish. There are several times where we can point out and make a reference to her snobbery, for example, on Christmas day in chapter four. Mr. Pumblechook visits for Christmas dinner and, when she greets him she exclaims “Oh, un-cle Pum-ble-chook! This is kind!” From the manner this sentence is written we can understand that she says this with a register different to the one with which she usually speaks, suggesting that she adopts a specific sociolect when in Pumblechook’s company. He seems to be the only character she speaks positively with, so the reader can assume this new register is to impress him so that he will like her more. Although she acts differently in front of her guests, she still fails to treat Pip accordingly. She remains intent in disciplining Pip and chastening him even when her guest her guests are present, which is perhaps the only maternal Victorian ideal she upholds (which is reinforced by the fact that even the guests at Christmas lay into Pip over dinner too.)
Her snobbery lets her continue to look down upon Pip and Joe; she believes she married under her class level by marrying Joe, and says to Pip in chapter two “it’s bad enough to be a blacksmiths wife (and him a Gargery) without being your mother.” This is a blatant insult to Joe and his profession, and again shows the hatred she has for her life. Mrs Joe would like to be seen as the victim but Dickens presents her otherwise; instead of the reader sympathising with her and feeling inspired by her empowerment in a patriarchal Victorian society, the reader is inclined to immediately dislike her – if not for the fact that she is physically abusing her little brother who is no more than around seven, than the fact that she lays the same abuse on the lovable puppy of a man that is her husband/masochistic counterpart to her sadism, Joe.
It seems that Dickens used every aspect of Mrs Joe’s character to garner a dislike from the reader; for example, even the things she wears. In chapter two, Pip informs us that “[Mrs Joe] almost always wore a coarse apron…and having a square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles.” When given the choice, most people would wear clothing that is soft and comfortable. Mrs Joe is not so poor that she cannot afford – at the very least – clothing that is smooth to the touch, so the mere suggestion that she wears a “coarse” apron must be a reference to her character.
The fact that the apron is stuck with many pins and needles prevents any form of physical contact with other humans – unless they want to get hurt. After he mentions the apron, Pip then says “she made it a powerful merit in herself, and a strong reproach against Joe, that she wore this apron so much. Though I really see no reason why she should have worn it at all: or why, if she did wear it at all, she should not have taken it off, every day of her life.” Pip presents a question to the reader with the last sentence: why does she always wear her apron? From the story up to that point, the reader can safely assume that it is so she scares away anyone who attempts to get close to her. This does however present another question – why doesn’t she want anyone to get close to her? Is it because she is just that mean that she is not capable of human compassion and love? Or is there another reason, perhaps that she is afraid of such things? During these first parts of the story, Dickens’ presentation and Pip’s narration of Mrs Joe make the reader more inclined to believe the former.
In conclusion, Charles Dickens presents Mrs Joe as the cruel and harsh antithesis of femininity in Victorian England, conforming her perfectly to the “Wicked Stepmother” trope. However, if she was put in a different scenario (without Pip, or in a situation where her almost comic, but disturbing violence isn’t needed) then she may be seen as a very strong and empowering woman in more modern terms, due to her holding authority (not that it would be seen as authority in current times – more a basic right to self-expression) over her husband and being the most educated in her household.