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Feminism in Great Expectations

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Morals are standards people are given by tradition of what is right and what is unacceptable. Great Expectations is a fictional novel that chronicles a young boy named Pip becoming a man to not only gain wealth and a higher social standing but also a partner. As a boy Pip lives with his sister and her husband, and is a normal, kind adolescent, however as the novel progresses and Pip gains more and more wealth and is surrounded by high, Victorian raised youths who put labels on everyone, he generates more misogynistic and harsher ideals of women. This paper explores how so many people can be consumed by tradition and a way certain things should be done, when they themselves have the capability to think and act on their own regardless of the norm. In the novel, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Pip’s moral character is influenced by his female peers actions and moral aspects to show how women influence society. We will see that through reading Great Expectations through a feminist criticism, Dickens portrays the woman as a prize for men after being groomed to be gentlemen but also as cruel creatures who trick and trap men. The women in Pip’s life change his views on women and their roles in society, eventually ending with Pip opening his eyes once again to the truth of the effects of his acquaintances.

When Pip is introduced to Miss Havisham and Estella, he is more critical to how the house is managed and the condition of not only the house but Miss Havisham’s clothing and facial features. At the age of eight, Pip already recognizes Estella’s beauty and is quite taken by her before even getting to know her. In his meeting with Miss Havisham, “she was dressed in rich materials . . . had lost its lustre and was faded and yellow” (Dickens 60). Pip gives his opinion on what Miss Havisham makes herself out to be. He is able to tell an important event had happened a long time before, which created ideas and a seemingly prejudice of what type of people the ladies of the house are. In the already high standards of Victorian values, women are held to a higher standard. Pip’s sister spends all day cleaning and cooking, while Miss Havisham has money to pay people to clean and cook for her, however, her house was a mess and Pip seemed to be astonished at how dated and decrepit since two women were living in the house and he was used to women being how his sister was; a female who held the moral Victorian traditions of tending to the home. When Pip sees the dress as losing its elegance, it symbolizes what Pip’s interpretation of Miss Havisham’s own personality and morality. She is allowing her inner pain and grief flow into her environment which keeps the gloomy emotions. As a boy whose sister is controlling and caring and complicated to understand, one would assume Pip could overlook the power of her emotions and get to learn the full story of how Miss Havisham breaks the female stereotype. In Pip and Estella’s first meeting, Estella had been groomed to suppress her feelings and get revenge for Miss Havisham, eventually showing that “the defenses tend to fix her [as Estella herself does] as a creature of others’ manufacture without much autonomy” (Gates, 2009). Even though Pip was not used to being around girls whom he wasn’t related to, he still knew there was a different aura with Estella. After meeting and playing cards with Estella, she makes it very clear she is not as taken with Pip as he is with her, however, he still agrees to learn and become a gentleman in London in hopes that she might change her mind about Pip. Estella was raised by Miss Havisham to break boy’s hearts, so her character comes off as already broken. When Pip is rude and full of himself, she is described as not being concerned with his behavior however, her actions (her decision to marry Drummle, even though she knows Pip still has feeling for her deep down) shows she cares and she was hurt. Yet Estella continues to live how society agrees of marital logic such as for the financial and physical benefits, which was “the ideal for what marriage should be” continuing with the idea that in the end when Estella and Pip end up together, the pair changes traditional marriage reasonableness. (Cribb 106) However in the beginning, as Pip not only focuses on the tedious details of what the women wear and how they act toward him he is still infatuated with Estella and how her resenting him makes him want to chase her more.

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Miss Havisham doesn’t dress to stay with the times despite her high reputation, regardless Pip (being the low status boy) listens to her, mainly because of her wealth and the opportunity she gives Pip to become a better man for Victorian standards. Pip begins to think of the monetary benefits that could come from being with Estella. Usually the woman married to money instead of the man, Miss Havisham was able to inherit her father’s money, while Victorian traditions would argue that inheritance must go to a male. Estella being highly socially acceptable, being friends or partners “limit her to Pip’s associations with her name… who relishes her work” (Gates, 2009). Pip plays Miss Havisham’s game or the money, to rise to Estella’s social level. At his new school, he learns that to fit in means to have what everyone else does, which is to have money and be confident. The people he allows himself to listen and assimilate with, marks an interference in his perception of women. He begins to spend money freely and thinks that if he were to marry of a family with more money he wouldn’t run out and could continue his new addiction to money and power. As we saw in A Doll’s House, Nora is the character who was spending money all the time while Torvald told her to spend conscientiously, Dickens switches those stereotypes where Pip spends irresponsibly (Ibsen). Pip being able to say he knows Estella, a woman with a high social class and a great deal of wealth, give the image that if Pip was good enough and high enough in status to know Estella, then he could be welcomed into their high society game. Miss Havisham grew up very wealthy and “spoiled”, “Miss Havisham is similarly ‘too haughty’ and impulsive, wasting her means Compeyson” (Gates 2010). Miss Havisham is criticized for wasting away her money to bring a poor boy to “play” with her daughter when her real plan is break his heart like her fiance did to her. Miss Havisham still lives in the past and wants to make herself feel better by not being the only one to have their heart torn apart. One would assume Miss Havisham is psychotic, and it wouldn’t be false, she tried to kill Pip twice, but in his mind she was a crazy yet generous woman. Pip was convinced that Miss Havisham was his benefactor, so he was always courteous to her however, a woman should not have to have a man believe they are paying them in order for a male to be gentlemanly.

When Estella agrees to many Drummle, Pip steps back and asks himself why he even needs to stay in London if the woman he hoped to win over was taken by one of his acquaintances. This event changes Pip’s gentlemanliness and overall morals. In history, women have always always been seen only as objects, “female productivity outside the labor room and the nursery has never been on the capitalist agendas”, which affects the relationship of a couple, but Pip looks up to Estella rather than how the other men and fellow women look down for only living off Miss Havisham and marrying a man who would only use her like Drummle (Ellis 62). Men believed women were meant for having children, keeping the house staff in check, and making the husband and family look “perfect”. Similar to how Torvald treated Nora in the play, A Doll’s House, Pip begins to see women the same (Ibsen). Men don’t want anyone to undermine their “manliness” so they treat women with less respect as to make themselves feel greater than them. Pip allowed his “friends” in London to lead him away from his good morals begin to think of wanting a woman for their looks and status rather their heart and character. In the novel Emma by Jane Austen, Estella is similar to the main character Emma, who is born to wealth and whom also shares the fact of not growing up with her biological mother. Drummle resembles Emma’s father who “could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful” (Austen 8). In the novel, even Emma’s own father looked down upon his daughters, which can create the connection as to why women were either totally against marriage or just did as they were asked as a woman. Fathers didn’t care about their future son in laws character, they focused on the males status and land. Estella doesn’t have a father figure, however she has Miss Havisham who shapes her to believe that the men are the monsters. Estella agreeing to marry Drummle is the representation of women who do their “duty” to marry, whereas Emma, represent the women who are reluctant to marry at all. After Pip learns an important lesson from the money, social hierarchy and power, he decides to stray from norms and be respectful and advantageous. He decides to help his friend start a business and tries to get back in Estella’s good graces, so she is able to trust he will be different from the relationships from the society she was raised in. Pip diverges form the “gentlemanly ideal represented as fantasy marriage between the world of the self and the social world”,leading to Estella being won over by his original kind nature (Hennessee 303). Women are undermined, they do their best to leave society undisturbed and still get disrespected, while ‘True Gentlemen,’ can only “put this two hands into his disturbed hair, and appear to make an extraordinary effort to lift himself up by it”, nonetheless a man does an ordinary act and be seen as honorable and esteemed (Gates 2010). Pip is finally beginning to truly learn realize he made a mistake in treating women so rudely and how if he really cares for Estella he needs to put her before himself and allows what others will think of him to be clouded by what he thinks of himself and how the people who truly care about think of him. Being a gentleman is to be considerate and chivalrous. If a woman were to think a man not cavalier enough then, that significant other should see it in their heart to change their manners and superior conduct. In Pip’s case Estella was already uninterested in him however, he didn’t give up and wouldn’t have learned the lessons he did without her being his reason to want to become a proper gentleman. In life, if inventors gave up after one wrong prototype or an athlete stopped training because of one bad practice or competition nothing would ever have improved or gotten done, women have driven not only men but themselves to do great deeds to help society change for the better. Pip learns his lesson of what only a small fraction of the overall lesson of the novel, Dickens has many lessons throughout pertaining to Victorian society, morality, money, and other life lessons that all connected and seen through a feminist lens.

Pip’s moral character is influenced by the physical and spiritual characteristics of his female peers to demonstrate how women affect society. His moral values and standards on women change throughout the novel showing just how much the effect of women is. Estella not only gets him to fall in love with her but also learn to respect her and not be as sexist as the environment he allowed himself to be in to get the girl he was looking for.

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Feminism in Great Expectations. (2021, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 28, 2023, from
“Feminism in Great Expectations.” Edubirdie, 08 Sept. 2021,
Feminism in Great Expectations. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 Sept. 2023].
Feminism in Great Expectations [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 08 [cited 2023 Sept 28]. Available from:
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