The Relationships Between Men and Women in the “Great Expectations” Character Analysis

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My first impression of relationships between men and women within the novel is that men and women had separate lives. They lived in different social spheres and they played very different roles in life in this era, the Victorian era. Husband and wife led very different lives. Women maintained the household, looked after the house and did the cleaning, sewing and cooking. The men earned the money to buy goods the household needed. With the exception of Estella who travels from Satis House to London, all of Dickens female characters are contained within the home. Men, on the other hand constantly move around. Pip for example moves from the private space of home to the public space of London. Men deal with the busy chaotic world of politics outside the house, and come home to a peaceful, family home which the wife looks after. However, it seems that very few of the relationships in the novel actually fit this ideal. What I mainly notice about the relationships is that very few of them are actually equal.

The power is not shared out equally in most relationships, and this results in one partner being more dominant than the other. I would classify a ‘normal’ relationship, if there is such a thing, as one which is based upon equality. Both partners have the same amount of control over each other, and no one partner is dominant, one which is based upon love and trust. Surprisingly, there aren’t actually that many relationships in the novel that actually match up to this classification of a ‘normal’ relationship.

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In fact, in more cases the one, it seems to be that the women partners are more dominant over the men. It seems that the female characters are very strong, powerful women that live upon their control and independence. Such characters are, Mrs Joe, who is powerful because of her aggressive nature, Miss Havisham because of her money and class; thus breeds power, even Biddy has control seeing as though she is a clever, educated women who holds a lot of knowledge. This gives her a slight sense of power and control too as she has an advantage over some people, as they also want to be educated, such as Pip.

In the Victorian era, I think people expected the male to be dominant and this was the stereotypical image of relationships of that era. However, I don’t think this was always the case, as we see in Great Expectations there are many relationships that don’t fit this image. I think that Charles Dickens wanted to open the public’s eyes and make them realise its not all fairy tales and true romance. He wanted to apply his novel to real life, so it made people aware of these corrupt situations that were part of Victorian Life. He wanted to make a point, and this point was that the society of that day was not all perfect, he wanted to display the corruption that was present, and he also wanted to portray the repetitiveness of wickedness in the human nature.

He did this by creating the characters that he has in his novel and creating the relationships that is characters are involved in, and also by making the majority of his female characters dominant. This technique helped Dickens a lot as the purpose of his novel was for an article in a monthly magazine so to be successful he had to sell a lot of copies and to sell more copies, his story had to appeal to the audience… So his storyline was more of an exaggeration of true life, so that it was exciting and interesting like a soap opera. It was sort of real life, it showed people’s interactions with other people and how they’re relationships developed. It may have even acted as an advice book, showing how different kinds of relationships develop, as many advice books of that day contradicted themselves.

E.g. most all advice manuals of the time warned against marrying young. In one particular manual written in 1874, it stated, “A young woman cannot be considered in any sense prepared for this union under 21; 25 is better.” However, at the same time, statistically, women who didn’t marry early in life might not be able to marry at all. This was shown by Miss Havisham, as she was old, and stood little chance of ever marrying, as she was getting even older. So this may be why Great Expectations was so popular as it may have been used by the audience as an advice manual because they felt that they could identify with the characters and their ordeals.

The first woman Pip describes in the novel is his dead mother. He hasn’t ever seen his parents because they died when he was younger but despite this he imagines his mother as ‘freckled and sickly.’ I can deduce from this that Pip has a very negative image of his mother and so looks upon all women this way and therefore the book starts with a very negative image of motherhood from Pip.

Pip’s and Mrs Joe Gargery’s relationship is the very first relationship that we come across. Mrs Joe looks after him like a mother but doesn’t reveal any true tenderness for Pip. She is very cold towards him; acts cruel, and seems heartless; she doesn’t show any affection towards Pip. Pip suffers from emotional neglect. She is far from a loving mother and lacks feminine identity. She is more of a man than a woman, and at the Christmas dinner, Mr Wopsle points this out. He says, “What is detestable in a pig, is more detestable in a boy.” Mr Hubble says, “Or a girl” Mr Wopsle responds, “Of course, or a girl, Mr Hubble, but there is no girl present.” I can deduce from this that Mr Wopsle is claiming that there isn’t any kind of feminine character in the house, referring to Mrs Joe.

Mrs Joe treats Pumblechook with respect, like she looks up to him. She treats him exceptionally nice and the reason for this I think is because she wants to get on his good side, she wants to take advantage of Pumblechook because he has connections, and could do a lot for her ‘family’ especially Pip, by making connections with important, rich, or higher class people.

Pip doesn’t see her as a maternal figure. I can deduce this from the text because Pip says, ‘She was tall, bony and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two hoops, and having a small impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles.’ Through Pip’s young, imaginative eyes, Mrs Joe isn’t seen as an ideal Victorian mother, but more of monster, because this is the way in which Pip describes her, for example…imagine a tall figure, covered in pins, and needles, sticking out of her. In my imagination, this figure sounds more like a horrifying, monster than a maternal figure.

One can see how it was impossible for Pip to have a motherly relationship with Mrs Joe. Seeing as though Mrs Joe is so harsh and cruel he has to look for comfort elsewhere. This, he finds not in another woman, but his brother-in-law Joe Gargery, the blacksmith. Joe Gargery is a very loving, caring man who nurtures Pip maternally. However, to Pip, I think Joe also seems to be a weak man. Pip described Joe as, ‘a sort of Hercules in strength, and also in weakness.’ The lack of a strong masculine figure in Pip’s life makes Pip a weak man, and quite feminised as nearly all the woman have some sort of power over him, even with Biddy with her knowledge and education, she teaches Pip. The other women are either, aggressive or harsh and cold hearted. I think, because of this, Pip grows up falsely believing that women dominate and are in control, especially rich, high-class women because their money and stature give them power, for example, Miss Havisham.

Mrs Joe and Joe in my opinion don’t have a very solid, functional, family-like relationship because their roles seem to have been reversed. Mrs Joe is the one who dominates; she is characterised by masculinity; she is the one in control. She even hits Joe. Normally, it is the male that dominates and has the power in the household. Because of this I think their situation is actually quite sad. Joe is such a weak man and Mrs Joe seems to play the man in the house seeing as though she is so aggressive and has a very strict tone to her. She is very strict with Pip and Joe. She even bosses Joe about and tells him what to do. She acts like a Victorian School teacher around the house. Joe plays the woman in the house, as he is the most feminine and motherly.

I don’t think Mrs Joe’s and Joe’s relationship has been built upon true love. It is more likely that Mrs Joe forced Joe into marrying her by power, by using her aggressiveness as Pip says, ‘I supposed that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand. She was not a good-looking woman, my sister; and I had a general impression that she must have made Joe Gargery marry her by hand.’ Pip is trying to tell us that he thought that the only reason why Joe married his sister is because she made him, she forced him into it, because there isn’t any other reason why he would have married her really because he says she isn’t good-looking and she hasn’t exactly got a fun, kind, loving nature to her, or a loving character either.

Moving on, Pips first real relationship with the opposite sex apart from his sister is with him and Biddy. At the beginning of the novel, the relationship seemed to be based solely on friendship as Biddy taught Pip, as she was very wise, and he learned many things from there. She was sweet natured and fit the Victorians womanly ideal of ‘the angel of the house’. Despite this, Pip did not love Biddy, even though Biddy did love Pip. The girl Pip loved was the cruel, heartless Estella. The characters that habitually surround Pip, (Joe and Mrs Joe) women are characterized by their masculinity and men with their femininity. The consequence of this reversal in gender roles is that he falls in love with the ice-cold, heartless Estella rather than the warm compassionate and loving Biddy. I believe this is so because he got so used to the beatings from his sister that he starts to identify female love with violence and pain. So Pip chooses Estella over Biddy for his sexual partner, but Estella breaks his heart, makes him feel unwanted and inferior but he still loves her. Pip remembers,

“The air of inaccessibility which her beauty and her manner gave her, tormented me in the midst of my delight, and at the height of the assurance I felt that our patroness had chosen us for one another…”

Estella is very attractive unlike plain Biddy, so a sexual partner like Estella appealed more to Pip rather than affection. He was blinded by lust and ignored the real love which he could have had. It is a one-way relationship with Pip and Estella because Pip really loves Estella, but Estella doesn’t love him, because she is not able to love anybody as she has been trained by Miss Havisham to be this way, and to break men’s heart’s the same way her heart was broken by Compeyson. However, in the end, this causes Estella’s inability to judge real love as she never received any so she doesn’t know love is. This resulted in Estella marrying Bentley Drummle; a man that treats her as in inferior and even beat her. Miss Havisham was sorry for this as she said…

Miss Havisham uses her as a tool of her wickedness and uses it on Pip. Acknowledging Estella as a tool of Miss Havisham’s, Pip explains:

“… [Estella] was not to be given to me until she gratified her for a term. I saw in this, a reason for her being beforehand assigned to me… I saw in this, that I, too, was tormented by a perversion of ingenuity, even while the prize was reserved for me.”

As Miss Havisham intended, Estella represents female sexuality to Pip, and talking advantage of this, Miss Havisham uses Estella as a tool of her wickedness and uses it on Pip to practice. Although I think that here, Pip may be confused and actually think that Miss Havisham intends to give Estella to him.

Money plays a part in Pips relationship with Estella as Pip expands on Miss Havisham’s notion of Estella as a tool. Unable to separate his desire for Estella from economics, Pip wants Estella sexually, but part of “the prize” includes her wealth. Relationships in the Victorian era, portrayed in Great Expectations, were based around a relationship theory of ‘… Marry a man/woman with whom you are emotionally compatible if you could, but marry a man of material means you must – otherwise face impoverishment or the need to work for a living.’

Pip didn’t want this, in fact, Estella’s financial status may have seemed very appealing to him. His love for Estella seemed to be based upon, money and lust, and it seems to me he hasn’t really thought about the emotional compatible side of this relationship.

As soon as Compeyson married Miss Havisham, he took a large sum of her money and ran away with it. So Miss Havisham was never loved by him and is still traumatised by her ordeal at the present. This happened because property and earnings were passed into the control of their husbands on marriage until the property acts of 1870 and 1886. This just shows how males dominated in society during this period.

Estella doesn’t even give Pip a chance, as she is so cold and harsh to him. I think that deep-down; Pip thinks that Biddy would be a more suitable partner, even though he prefers Estella to Biddy as a sexual partner. I think this because when walking on the marshes with Biddy, Pip says, ‘Biddy was never insulting or capricious or Biddy today and somebody else tomorrow, she would have derived only pain and no pleasure, from giving me pain; she would far rather have wounded her own breast than mine.’ I think that even Pip knows that Biddy is an ‘angel of the house’ as she is submissive, and the Victorian feminine ideal embodied purity and selflessness, strong moral, coupled with the willingness to submit to the will of men. Pip knows Biddy is selfless as he says that, ‘she would far rather have wounded her own breast than mine.’ Pip mistreats his friendship with Biddy as he seems to take advantage of her as he knows she loved him. When he had grown up and his expectations of Estella had changed. He came running back to Biddy and wanted her as a partner. However, the reason for this is because he was most probably desperate at this point and a bit presumptuous.

He came back to marry Biddy, when he realised he had no other choice, thinking she wouldn’t even think twice. Money seems to corrupt Pip when he receives it because when he comes back from London, he’s embarrassed by Joe because of his class and his status of money. He seems to think money breeds goodness. I think that Dickens was trying to warn us that money ruins people.

A mysterious relationship:

A Victorian novel usually includes sexuality or some sort of sexual relationship, but it does this in a subtle way by being ambiguous. There are sexual desires everywhere in a Victorian novel, they are not actually admitted but suggested. An example of this in the relationship is of Jaggers and his housekeeper Molly. This relationship is ambiguous because Molly is his housekeeper, but is she hired for something else? We find out later on in the book that Molly is actually Estella’s mother, so we know that she is sexually active. Maybe she is Jagger’s lover, but this can’t be let out in the open as sex without marriage would be frowned upon in a strict Victorian society. It could be called as an ‘outlaw passion’. In this novel there is a Great expectation that sexual bonds will culminate in marriage, but these two ‘partners’ aren’t married. Jaggers being the only person who could tame Molly affected their relationship because this way, if Molly was tamed by him, then he had control over her, and could get what he wanted from her. In other words, he basically used her, but we don’t know whether he really loved her or not.

The Loving Relationship:

The Victorians had a typical womanly ideal. Their womanly deal was that women were supposed to be angelic, sweet natured, virtuous and generally uplifting the moods in the household. Somebody who is firmly rooted within the home and who’d put their family first. Great Expectations noticeably lacks female characters that fit this womanly ideal. The only female character that comes close to this is Biddy. In the end Biddy ends up marrying Joe, and their relationship is actually a happy one. Not surprisingly this is one of the few relationships that are actually wholesome and functional.

Another relationship that seems to be wholesome and happy is that of Clara and Pip’s best friend Herbert. There is also Wemmick and Miss Skiffins that seems functional too. These are the only relationships in the novel that are true, healthy and functional and they consist of women which are saintly characters, Clara and Biddy. These are the only saintly females in the novel and these are the only females who find harmony and peace with their men.


I think the novel challenges the Mid-Victorian idea of male domination, as it portrays women domination over men quite frequently, and if male domination is shown in some of the relationships then it is portrayed in a negative view. For example, Bentley Drummle has power over Estella, and he treats her terribly, even beats her. Jaggers has power over Molly and he uses her for sex. These examples make Victorian society seem like it was a society that enabled the abuse of women, as they were seen as second class citizens. Dickens questioned this as he portrayed this practice of the abuse of women in a very negative way. These two female characters seemed to be submissive in these relationships because this is what society set up for them; they’re stereotypical roles in life. This is probably why these female characters were so easy to have power over, because they were submissive to the will of men. So they’re male partners saw this as a weakness and decided to take advantage of this.

I think that what Dickens was trying to get over to the audience was that the stereotypes in Victorian times were not necessarily correct and maybe women should be given more respect and not regarded as inferior or second class. Women were denied an active participation in society because it was assumed that their proper place was in the home bearing children, ‘Denying women the vote served to perpetuate the status quo’

Women weren’t given any responsibilities, all laws were in favour of men, the laws suited men and women were left out. E.g. As far as married couples were concerned, the father had total control over his children and was permitted by law to deny his wife access even to her newly born baby if he desired so. This was true in the case of Magwitch and Molly, because he gave her child, Estella to Miss Havisham to look after.

Great Expectations, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice were all novels that challenged gender roles. This era might have created a society in Britain where women were regarded as inferior but it also amended it by writers and feminists challenging the idea. If it wasn’t for them, then the role of women wouldn’t have developed into what it is today.

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