Mad Ghosts and Seductive Monsters in Great Expectations: Pip’s Unresolved Quest to Defeat the Contaminating Force of Domestic Violence
“I looked on you as my life, and you looked on me as your prey.” So speaks a young Miss Havisham to Merryweather Compeyson in the 2018 television show Dickensian, a modern-day prequel to just about all of Dickens’ major works. For Amelia, the discovery that Compeyson has lied to her with the specific intent to break her heart and steal her fortune damages her very sense of self. She steps towards becoming the madwoman, whereas before she was Amelia, heiress to a great fortune and a brewery, happy, standing in her wedding dress, prepared to marry for love. This moment ought to be burned indelibly into the minds of anyone who reads Great Expectations, for though it happens off-screen in the novel, it is the answer to the question at the root of Pip’s quest. Pip wonders where the violence that filters into his life through Estella comes from, and goes to find the answer, but he needn’t bother: this moment is the answer. Pip is the narrator of Great Expectations, Pip’s the voice who determines what details are worth attending to and which characters are worthy of note. His ignorance, feigned or authentic, shapes the reader’s ability to identify cause and effect. However, as this Dickensian scene indicates, Miss Havisham has her own perspective, her own relationship to the violence Pip names.
Estella functions as a living embodiment of both Miss Havisham’s trauma and Miss Havisham’s lessons. Estella takes revenge against all men for the actions of one, according to all too many critics of Great Expectations. As Sarah Gates writes in “Intertextual Estella: “Great Expectations,” Gender, and Literary Tradition” (2009), “Estella’s appearance as scornful seductress supplies her interpreters inside and outside the novel with an easy way to ignore the formidable social analysis her point of view is capable of producing (395). Pip at times paints Estella as a venomous opponent to the male species due to her unrestrained appetite for male suffering, an appetite he attributes to her undomesticated femininity. In fact, Estella’s analysis of how power functions in her own life would dramatically improve Pip’s odds of surviving Miss Havisham intact. Similarly, were Estella to learn the lesson of discernment that Miss Havisham never did, she might recognize that Pip’s controlling acts are well-intentioned if paternalistic. Miss Havisham speaks to the potential harm that romance can do, but that is not the inevitable end of the game. Instead of playing to win as she does, Estella might learn from Miss Havisham’s example, and walk away from the game altogether.
Estella tries again and again to exit the material conditions of the heterosexist norms that structure her life, when in truth it is the game of romance, the game that brings only Miss Havisham pleasure, that is destroying Estella’s life. Miss Havisham was once an innocent young girl who believed violent men only happened in fairy tales or other women’s lives, but she is neither innocent nor young any longer. Now, her violent thirst for vengeance has infected her adoptive daughter, though Miss Havisham disguises her violence behind feminized madness. Miss Havisham is the ghostly presence who haunts Estella’s attempts at a life, deftly manipulating the young girl both emotionally and financially. Estella becomes a woman terrified of love because that is who Miss Havisham says she ought to be. In fact, the only element that Miss Havisham’s influence has destroyed is Estella’s ability to feign the innocence necessary to complete her feminized role in the game of romance. Tragically, Estella believes instead that she is too damaged to participate in any form of love at all. For this reason, she asserts again and again that she “has no heart” (Dickens, 154). Estella wavers on believing that she is incapable of feeling, even as she expresses rage, grief, and regret. Rather, she conflates her inability to perform the spectacle of normative femininity with her inability to experience feminized emotions, like love. In Estella’s absence of a ‘heart,’ Estella mirrors back for Pip a truth that he is constantly on the run from.
Estella mirrors the reality that female domesticity is ultimately a performance, that the warm maternal embrace Pip hopes will resolve the pain his rejecting sister caused him will not come from Estella nor any other romantic partner. Romance is simply unequal to the tasks of both class advancement and self-reconciliation that Pip has put to it. He cannot accept this truth that their early childhood intimacy and unusually frank early adult conversations expose to his awareness. He is afraid to recognize that Estella should not be blamed for the hurt Miss Havisham engineered, because he does not want to recognize the extent to which his own childhood abuse (Dickens, 9) impacted him and cannot be undone. Pip cannot accept that Estella hurt him as a child not because he deserved it, yes, but also not because she is evil or crazy. Estella hurt Pip because the violence of the powerful towards the powerless hurts everyone, and while Pip surely did not deserve it, neither did Miss Havisham. Pip cannot contend with what that means for himself or for the casually violent grounds of his self-serving designs on possessing Estella. Instead, Pip adopts and reinforces the community story that Miss Havisham is a madwoman, that her hatred of men is rooted in insanity rather than lived experience. He believes she made Estella ‘crazy’, deprived Estella of the feminine compassion that might alleviate Estella’s inclination to use her beauty to do men harm. An abuse survivor himself, he believes the natural impulse of someone with power is to use it to do harm, and that domestication is necessary to alleviate this impulse to do violence where love would best serve.
Yet Estella remains a source of the trauma-conscious analysis that Pip and the rest of the community refuse, herself insisting again and again that outraged madness and insanity are not the same thing. Pip goes hunting for the truth of Estella’s past in order to understand her reason for causing him harm, but finds a truth too banal to accept. Estella was born to ancestry filled with violence (Dickens, 264), raised to emotional abuse, conditioned to do violence to others to carry out the vengeful intent of her guardian. The truth Pip searched for was hidden in plain sight. The contagion that Estella brought to his door emerged through rather than from her, and parallels the harm his own sister caused him with her beatings (Dickens, 9). He cannot transcend his own experiences of domestic violence by possessing Estella’s supposed domesticity or social status, any more than she can escape hers by marrying one more abuser. The ‘cure’ to the ‘contagion’ of domestic violence that infects Pip through Estella lies in recognizing that beneath Miss Havisham’s “madness” lies rage. The source of that rage is the normalized, everyday domestication of both men and women through requisite gender roles. To escape the domesticating force of the game of romance, they must both find some way to understand the past and resolve the source of the contagion, not through controlling or through harming one another, but rather by facing the external source of their haunting.
Estella moves from double to stand-in and scapegoat for Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, the violence of her actions towards Pip gesturing at the history of misogynistic violence that scars Miss Havisham’s life. Estella’s conclusions about love draw from Miss Havisham’s heart so deliberately broken, and Estella’s experiences of child abuse at the hands of a series of destructive guardians. Miss Havisham is the novel’s origin site of the contagion of manipulation, control, and abuse that spreads throughout this triangle of victims. Claire O’Callaghan writes in “‘Awaiting the death blow’: Gendered Violence and Miss Havisham’s Afterlives” that “romance fraud unequivocally equates to domestic violence, especially in relation to emotional control and manipulation (86).” Estella exists in a body circumscribed by what that harm of domestic violence has done to Miss Havisham. The communal silencing of Miss Havisham’s voice forces her rage underground, turns her into a haunting specter of repressed pain and misdirected rage who must assert herself indirectly.
Miss Havisham builds a spectacle to punish Pip for the crimes done to her, to enact her rage at all gender violence against this one man through the instrument of her own adopted daughter Estella. Miss Havisham is the playwright and Estella is the active force, the increasingly passive double who carries out the actions that Miss Havisham herself cannot execute. The power of Miss Havisham’s will has replaced what agency Estella might have in her own right. Miss Havisham crafts Estella to do nothing but reflect Miss Havisham’s desires. Therefore, Estella does not develop a separate sense of self. She is so much under Miss Havisham’s control that she does not take advantage of her trip to France and refuse to return (Dickens, 174). While Pip truly believes that Estella only feints at being “disposed by others” (174) in her navigation of her own romantic and personal life, Estella gives every indication of taking these statements of hers seriously. In fact, Estella at times confuses this colonization of her identity with not having one. For example, once she and Pip are reunited as young adults, Estella tells him “you must know….that I have no heart — if that has anything to do with my memory” (153). In fact, Estella does have a heart, an activating force that determines which memories or experiences are important to her life. Estella has Miss Havisham’s “heart.”
Estella’s own heart stopped, was frozen in time, on the day she became Miss Havisham’s ward and set about trying to please a cruel old woman terrified of love. Estella is with increasing self-awareness not merely a puppet, but rather a young Miss Havisham come to life. She takes the revenge on the world and men that Miss Havisham herself cannot do but longs for, and Estella appears to feel no remorse. So when Pip pleads “whose child was Estella” (254) he can find only the obvious answer to his question, the only answer that will ever make sense. Estella is Miss Havisham’s child. In fact, Estella is Miss Havisham as a child, the violated woman become a violent young woman activated by her own violent experiences. Estella who has only one name is the maiden to Miss Havisham’s crone, the active agent sharing the story of the older woman’s injury and trauma with the world. That world would not heed this tale from the mouth of Miss Havisham, a woman confined now to the role of spinster, permanently, against her will. That same world, that same Pip, will pay attention to that tale weaving its way through the violent acts of young Estella. Estella was herself once the innocent victim of Miss Havisham’s machinations and remains very much the least guilty party to the crimes Pip attributes to her. Nonetheless, Miss Havisham’s enforced communal silencing is what has made Estella a necessary intermediary to carry out Miss Havisham’s will.
Without Estella in the story there could be no Miss Havisham entering the narrative. No Miss Havisham, no matter how abusive, would ever be present enough in Pip’s life to merit such obsessive focus without a beautiful and seductive Estella to make Miss Havisham’s pain interesting to Pip. Herbert tells Pip, “There has always been an Estella, since I have heard of a Miss Havisham” (119). Miss Havisham’s pain seems to everyone but Pip to have birthed Estella alive from the sheer dauntless force of it. Miss Havisham crafts Estella to be her double, and then her weapon — to perpetrate pain as an expression of Miss Havisham’s pain. To Pip, she also offers Estella up as scapegoat, as the visible and recognized embodiment of Miss Havisham’s own machinations. Estella’s manipulative games mimic the abuse she herself suffered at Miss Havisham’s hands. Much as these games might allow her, both on Miss Havisham’s behalf and in her own right, to seize some control over the game of romance, like Pip it is the self-control once denied her that she truly seeks. This is a game she cannot win, and was not meant to.
Estella has Miss Havisham’s heart and, in Pip’s eyes, Miss Havisham’s adult responsibility over his own feelings, needs, and intentions for his life, even as a child herself. Estella bears the narrative burden of causing the harm to Pip that Miss Havisham demanded she do, while Miss Havisham remains protected from accusation by her own hyperfeminine performance of pain. Though Pip understands her role in shaping Estella and thus his own pain well enough to fantasize about punishing Miss Havisham, he remains disidentified from the rage that sparks these fantasies. After his last ‘interview’ with Miss Havisham, Pip says, “a childish association revived with wonderful force, and I fancied that I saw Miss Havisham hanging to a beam” (255). Yet because Miss Havisham is an old lady who effectively wields her trauma to protect herself from such critiques, Estella instead takes the force of Pip’s ire. At that first fateful meeting, while Pip describes Miss Havisham as “corpse like” (42), Estella is enlivened by her contempt, full of “the greatest disdain” (41). It is one thing for a boy, looked upon contemptuously by a girl, to take on this perspective. It is another thing altogether for a grown man writing a retrospective of his past to insist that the girl is the source of the cruelty done to him, that the adult is so feminized by her pain as to be powerless.
Miss Havisham’s apparent powerlessness in her own life and most particularly in Pip’s narrative is undercut by the reality of her ability to wield control over Pip and his story through her control over Estella. Pip gives over tremendous control of his narrative and emotional life to Estella while ignoring the extent to which her every action is manipulated by the older woman. Pip claims, “even if she had not taken that tone of our being disposed of by others, I should have felt that she held my heart in her hand because she willingly chose to do it, and not because it would have wrung any tenderness in her, to crush it and throw it away” (153). How much better for Pip to listen to Estella proclaim her lived experience of being a pawn in Miss Havisham’s hands, rather than insist the glamour that Miss Havisham lays upon Estella is real. For Miss Havisham makes use of Pip’s emotions, as she makes use of Estella’s sexuality, to pursue whatever power is available to her. Under her manipulative domestic control, Estella cannot act freely — and so while under her control, the only thing Pip can trust Estella’s heart to consistently do is be absent in the romantic games they play.
Pip self-servingly ignores this violation Miss Havisham has made of Estella’s will and life story. Instead, he dehumanizes Estella to justify his own beliefs about women. Pip and future male critics define her as a woman who is acting out the horror all women might be capable of without the necessary limitations of a proper domestic role to bind them. Pip uses his narrative of Estella’s cruelty as a justification for his emotional outbursts, blaming her entirely for feeding his child self like a dog in the yard and making him cry (Dickens, 42) even as an adult recounting the story. His hatred for Estella replaces any recognition that Miss Havisham clearly constructed the situation, even his shame and his tears. Pip’s delusion about where accountability lies facilitates his insistence that his fear of Estella stems not from her behavior, but because she is unwilling to accept a feminine and subordinate position in his story. As Kathleen Sell writes, “Pip’s authority as a narrator is constructed ambivalently, and it is clear that the text asks us to question Pip’s authority as narrator of his own life. What Pip is trying to achieve through narrating his story is the power to control his own story (209).” Estella’s authoritative voice and shrewd insights threaten Pip’s romantic perspective on his own life story, and he despises and fears her for it. She insists they are both being manipulated, him to love her and her to hurt him, but he refuses to believe either is true and so loses sight of her victimization. He believes she has proven herself unequal to the responsibility of the power her beauty and wealth together provide her, and perhaps he is correct, but he misses the fact that neither power is hers by choice.
Pip continually attempts to undercut her power, to push her towards a more feminine role through the socially acceptable machinations of his own masculine role in the game. He hopes a properly domesticated Estella will provide him with the comfort and satiation he expects from women. For example, when he encounters Estella as a young adult after years have passed since their first meeting, he reminds her that she once made him cry. Estella claims she does not remember the event (Dickens, 153). She does not mock him, only does not perform the comforting or maternal role he prompts her to. Pip immediately attributes her choice to refuse him warmth and kindness to some feminine trick of nature, saying she is “condescending to me, as a brilliant and beautiful woman might” (154). He attributes all of her cruelty to this same trick of nature, presuming that the power of being beautiful is sufficient in itself to corrupt the heart Estella does not lay claim to and compel Estella towards violence.
Estella herself is not a cypher, but remains one to Pip because of his blindness, itself rooted in misogynistic assumptions that Estella recognizes and rejects. Caught between two narratives that define but cannot confine her, Estella is always trying to cease playing either Miss Havisham’s game or Pip’s. The girl, never a prodigal daughter and always a cruel but honest beloved of Pip’s, tries exasperatedly to rebel against the hyperfeminine confines of her script. In the end her own childhood experience of abuse entrap her, elide her self-awareness until she punishes herself for the sins Pip accuses her of. Estella weds Drummle in what Gates calls “her one autonomous choice” (391), and he controls her physically as Miss Havisham once did emotionally and financially. While perhaps critics who claim the narrative punishes Estella for her machinations are correct, Estella in the end succumbs to the contagion of her abuse and wholeheartedly embodies her scapegoat role.
Neither Estella nor Pip can meaningfully understand her disempowerment because neither can acknowledge the twin vectors of abuse and persistent sexism at force in her life. Instead, Estella fails to win anything meaningful with her small acts of power, and “flings herself away upon a brute” (Dickens, 232). Neither she nor her community ever claim the language necessary to understand her choices, either as a product of Miss Havisham’s will or her own attempts at claiming a voice from amidst the voiceless role of the girl in a romance Pip scripts for her. By comparison, when once Compeyson seduced Miss Havisham then abandoned her, men like Herbert repeated the story in hushed voices and therefore weave the story into the fabric of the community’s sense of self (Dickens, 222). His violence, however egregious, is in violation of the social contract but not so beyond the pale as to be incomprehensible. When Estella behaves in the same cavalier manner, on a much smaller scale and with much less bloody results, her acts are nonetheless so unimaginable that not even Herbert can name them directly. Her violation of feminine norms, the real crime for which Pip convicts her, is so egregious that Pip and then literary history have turned her cruelty into the star of the novel. Her cruelty is deemed so egregious because it is so overtly deliberate. When Pip says “but cannot the Estella help it” (200) her answer is yes, but not as Miss Havisham’s ward. Estella is the perpetrator of a kind of violence that Miss Havisham, thus Estella, and even Pip view as endemic to the ‘game’ of romance. The triangle of the three differ only on their determination of who is the ‘true’ perpetrator of this violence, when in truth, the answer is ‘all of the above.’
Pretty Baubles Shaped Like Girls
Miss Havisham and Pip both demand Estella’s love but offer her only very confining roles in return that are based around their own needs and not hers. In the end, exasperated, self-punishing, filled with the raging violence of her own childhood traumas, Estella marries in a failed effort to escape the limitations of her own life and her own psyche. Estella however begins trying much earlier to escape the confines of the role that has been forced on her. Whether Miss Havisham’s scapegoat or Pip’s starry-eyed heroine, Estella names the conditions of her performance and her wish to escape it. Estella values neither beauty nor the romance it attracts. She says, “Moths, and all sorts of ugly creatures..hover about a lighted candle. Can the candle help it?” (Dickens, 200). Indeed, it is Miss Havisham’s careful crafting, polished manners, and the decorations of wealth that make Estella a candle. The men she attracts with these things are drawn to her jewels, not to her smile. Pip is one of these moths, for he both craves the power of her jewels and fears Estella’s abuse of it. Estella bitterly recognizes that his attention is no more personal than that of the moth.
Thus Pip’s insistence on seeing Estella only as the role she is performing, in spite of her attempts to convince him of the lie in the performance, strike a particularly tragic note. For Sarah Gates writes that Miss Havisham cynically and deliberately crafts Estella into the “perfect Victorian heroine.” (218) In fact, Estella reveals her own seeming perfection to be only one more layer of the game of contempt that she began playing with Pip as a child. She insists, “I have no softness there, no sympathy” (Dickens, 154). She only fools men into seeing her as a woman willing to follow the norms of Victorian femininity to earn love. Pip overhears Miss Havisham’s whisper to Estella: “well? You can break his heart” (41). Yet he remains convinced that Estella’s performance of love and loveliness is more real than the reality she continually names to him. Estella has been so wholly damaged, is so wholly subsumed by Miss Havisham, that she has no separate individual identity with which to experience love. In the end, Pip accepts with joy the Estella returned to him. He does not question the tragedy of this woman who had to be “bent and broken” (Dickens, 308) before she would find something real underneath the layers of gamesmanship and performance. In this second-written, perhaps too happy ending, Estella tells Pip she has at last come to value the love he always sought to offer her (309). Yet have the intervening years taught her how to love him back, or only made her susceptible to romantic possession at the hands of the only person alive who understands precisely what broke her?
Until despair and abuse breaks her spirit, Estella does not value the romantic love that her performance of perfect Victorian femininity will supposedly gain her. Instead she seduces men on behalf of her guardian, telling Pip she has set out to “deceive and entrap” (Dickens, 200) only when pressed. She “deceives and entraps” with no apparent motivation save to please her guardian. The games she plays have been scripted for her by an adopted mother who demands she use Pip, “beggar him” (40), and “break his heart” (41). Yet the strange manufactured intimacy of Pip’s time with Estella offers Pip and the reader a chance to ponder what Estella might have done, absent the pressing need to please the ghost in her house. For Estella retains her self-awareness, and the moments in which Estella breaks script form the most interesting moments of the narrative. For example, she tells Pip of Miss Havisham, “I am to write to her constantly and see her regularly and report how I go on — I and the jewels — for they are nearly all mine now” (174). The greater numbers of men who Estella can “beggar,” the swifter is her path to owning all the jewels, all the earning power, for herself. This is the only goal in which she is invested, the economy of wealth the only game in which winning serves her and not her guardian.
While Estella rewards Pip for beating Herbert in boxing with the economy of affection and kisses him (63), Miss Havisham rewards Estella for beating other young men with the economy of jewels. Both represent a kind of power, further knitting together Pip’s idea that affection and wealth are inextricably linked and he can buy Estella’s affection as easily as one might buy a jewel. Curt Hartog writes, “Estella becomes Pip’s mirror, a symbol of an imagined self that is rich, powerful, and glamorous” (254). Estella encourages him, calling him by first name only in the same breath she uses to tell him she stands to inherit the jewels (174). This link between girl and jewels, between her class power over him and the power her beauty gives her, sends Pip spiraling into obsession. As Maya Rao writes in “Pip and Estella: The Linking of Sexuality and Economics,” “In his thoughts about Estella, he accepts her as an unfree entity and creates her only in terms of his sexual desires and economic expectations.” Miss Havisham passes on beauty to Estella, by elevating her beauty and cultivating her charms as a sexual object. Miss Havisham also passes down power to Estella. She wields her class as a weapon against men, but also offers her hard-won knowledge to Estella as a birthright.
The jewels shine and attract Pip, but both women identify the jewels as weapons in a war between the genders. As David Penn writes in “Broken…into a Better Shape,” Estella is “a figure whose attractiveness and maliciousness seem somehow to spring from the same well (132).” Indeed, Estella’s wealth, the jewels Miss Havisham pins on her dress, are the source of both her wealth and the elevated class status which gives her the socially sanctioned right to be so cruel to him. He does not struggle against her web because to him she is a symbol, a living trophy Pip can win by demonstrating his nobility. When Miss Havisham decorates Estella with jewels in front of Pip, she is not merely using these jewels to attract Pip to Estella’s sexuality. She is also using these jewels to link Estella’s primary value in Pip’s eyes, her beauty, with Estella’s value as a symbol of wealth. When Miss Havisham tells Estella, “your own, one day, my dear, and you will use it well” (41) she is also telling Pip that both items of value, girl and jewels, will one day be his own. Thus Miss Havisham fuels Pip’s hopes to earn the right to both marry Estella the pretty girl, and to possess the wealth, the pretty jewels, to which this marriage would entitle him. In her assertion of power their shared society denies her, he views his own craving for the power of the class she was adopted into, a class he bankrupts himself trying and failing to find a place in.
Pip relies on Estella and the love he hopes to win from her to resolve his internal conflict of desire for social advancement that transcends mere economic circumstance. He characterizes her as in need of his paternalistic guidance to justify trying even when she is emotionally “thousands of miles away from [him]” (Dickens, 160) and downright rejects his affection. He cannot take her individuality and willpower seriously. His firm denial creates a barrier between himself and his ability to rationally disentangle the power of Miss Havisham’s manipulations, the power of Estella’s sexuality, and the power of his own romantic storyline. Herbert tells Pip, “think of what she is herself” (Dickens, 161) and Pip understands exactly what callousness and woundedness Herbert refers to, but does not waver. He believes he can ‘cure’ her of both her impulse to do violence to men, and her disregard for his emotions, and does not consider that these two very disparate things might emerge from very different places.
Pip’s emotional conflation of cause and effect, power and powerlessness, in fact prevents him from achieving his aims and understanding Estella well enough to win her heart. Pip understands intellectually that Estella is telling him the truth, perhaps for the first time, when she tells him, “we have no choice, you and I, but to obey our instructions” (171), but cannot consider Estella’s powerlessness as actual rather than emotional. Miss Havisham has ordered Pip to accompany Estella to Richmond, and both are subject to her command. In fact, as her ward, Estella is far more vulnerable to Miss Havisham’s displeasure than Pip will ever be. Estella testifies that she is at all times aware that “all that you have given me, is at your command to give again” (Dickens, 195). Though Pip reads this comment as remonstrance to Miss Havisham, Estella’s statement is literal: if she disobeys Miss Havisham’s will, she risks a return to poverty. Estella at this moment, as in so many moments of carrying out Miss Havisham’s orders for how she is to interact with Pip, is not subject to some inexplicable drive to harm Pip or to obey Miss Havisham. Rather, she is caught up in a web of power and status, an interlocking series of violent pressures and intersecting oppressions that she cannot fight against from her position and cannot fight against alone.
Pips quest to interrogate Estella’s past is also a psychological attempt to prove she is not guilty of the crime he has accused her of, the crime Miss Havisham scapegoats her for. He wishes to understand the source of the violence he attributes to her unrestrained femininity before he confuses his wish to domesticate her with his wish to love her. In her lies the secret to his own shame: his sister scapegoated him and imparted her shame onto him, the same way Miss Havisham did to Estella. He seeks after the true nature of the ghost who haunted his young adult reunion with Estella, “the same dim suggestion that I could not possibly grasp” (153). He cannot accept Estella’s perfectly good answer, however, because it points to his own past vulnerability. Moreover, her reading of her own powerlessness threatens his own romanticized view of women. Estella is dangerous and cruel not because women are this way innately, or because domestication is necessary to keep men safe from women. Rather, she simply acts out the cruelty and violence that Miss Havisham feels. And Miss Havisham in turn experiences this viciousness not because older women are scary or because single women are dangerous without the control of a man, but because she herself was once wounded by a perfectly normal, perfectly despicable romantic encounter.
Solving the riddle of Estella’s past only circles Pip back around to Estella’s own banal but correct answers — power, powerlessness, scapegoating, domestic violence. He cannot accept the evidence his findings present, of domestic violence in Estella’s life or his own. In his essay “The Rape of Miss Havisham,” Curt Hartog therefore labels this novel “a plot full of characters who move around in circles” (254). Pip’s circular quest brings him no closer to solving his deeper question, the riddle of his own obsession with Estella, and so his own delusions continue to blind him. Though Pip tells her, “I have no hope that I shall ever call you mine” (Dickens, 231), his attempt to possess her past is yet another attempt to call her his own. Even when she returns to him to speak of her tragic experiences of abuse at the hands of her husband, all he can hear in her words is the barest lingering hope for their relationship. She says, “friends apart” (Dickens, 309) and he hears, maybe now I can let you love me. A life without Estella to rescue from her lovelessness is a life spent alone with the ghosts of his own childhood, and Pip cannot bear that. Pip cannot even bear the knowledge of why he cannot bear that.
Without those missing pieces, Pip is left with the questions domestic norms allow most men to simply avoid, the questions Herbert will never have to answer because his wife stands between himself and any need to analyze domestic violence. Because Pip never shifts focus to Miss Havisham for long enough to not merely sympathize but comprehend, he never fully grows up. Pip might find new purpose born from the fire Miss Havisham lit to erase the evidence of her pain, the fire he put out (Dickens, 256). He might investigate her troubles, her past, with the same sincerity with which he investigated Estella’s. He might gain the language to name Estella’s fears of being permanently disempowered within the romance he attempts to foist upon her, and to name both the harm Miss Havisham causes and the harm she herself once suffered. The answers he needs are already his, for Estella has given them to him by her behavior. Miss Havisham has tried to give these answers to him through her shaping of Estella. Pip does not need Estella, or love. He need only drop his romantic delusions long enough to accept his entire quest has only been an effort to understand the knowledge that was always available to him, right from the very beginning, if he only knew how to listen.
Agency and Intrusion
Even if there was no Miss Havisham herself, there would still be a Miss Havisham, for the mysterious contagion of her pain is the galvanizing agent of Pip’s journey. The question of how to ‘cure’ Estella of its effects is the mystery Pip tries to solve. He fails because he misinterprets the symbolic meaning of Miss Havisham, cannot recognize that she is victim and perpetrator both. She is a vector of violence pointed towards Estella and then himself, but he views her only as a broken old woman and symbol of punishment, an example of what not to do. He believes a return to obedience to gender norms will save Estella from Miss Havisham’s fate, and insists upon this self-serving perspective so wholly that he cannot see that an overabundance of obedience, of susceptibility, is what condemned her in the first place. Thus Pip’s answer is to struggle to remove Miss Havisham from both Estella’s story and his understanding of her story. He views Miss Havisham as a specter of age and destruction, a sort of elderly wise fate whose presence may be tolerated only because it makes Estella more beautiful by comparison. For example, “in that funereal room, with that figure of the grave fallen back in its chair fixing its eyes on her, Estella looked more bright and beautiful than before” (154). Yet though Pip refuses to understand Miss Havisham’s role in their drama as anything but the helpless and passive role socially scripted for elderly women, Miss Havisham continues to perpetrate violence.
While Estella beset by Miss Havisham’s willpower fights on the twin fronts of powerless child and disempowered woman, Miss Havisham does her best to set the play on fire. Estella cannot articulate the intersecting oppressions that keep her financially and emotionally reliant on her abusive guardian. Miss Havisham could articulate all that and more, to an audience of exactly no one. She must adopt Estella the child, and adopt Estella’s will in place of her own, because she no longer has access to the communal mechanisms of social storytelling. She abandoned these mechanisms when the trauma of Compeyson’s betrayal painfully severed her from the community. Her ability to play a role in outside affairs stopped on the day of her aborted wedding, along with the clocks in her house, all stopped at “twenty minutes to nine” (Dickens, 40). Miss Havisham opted to continue with the requirements of life only for the sake of revenge. Sarah Gates writes in “Intertextual Estella: “Great Expectations,” Gender, and Literary Tradition” of Miss Havisham’s refusal to play even the roles left available to an old woman. Though they beg and demand, she does not, in fact, play benefactress to her young male relatives (Gates, 90–91). In Pip’s case, she pretends to play that role when she in fact does not (Dickens, 214). The only demands Miss Havisham allows in her life are those she chooses for herself, built upon the only foundation for her life that remains — her past violation, and her current desire to violate.
Miss Havisham cannot offer Estella real love because she misunderstood the source of the violence in her own life. Miss Havisham never quite recognized that the source of her pain lay in the role society demanded she play in romantic love, passive and “susceptible” (Dickens, 117) to however Compeyson wished to treat her. Instead, she mistakenly “saves” Estella from all romance. Gates writes, Miss Havisham “imparts the lesson every parent actually teaches: “do as I do.” (395)”. Thanks to her wedding, Miss Havisham eschews humanity, love, even daylight. Miss Havisham “looked as if the natural light of day would have struck her to dust” (Dickens, 42) and Estella similarly accuses her of denying Estella an understanding of daylight (Dickens, 196). She convinces Estella that love and weakness are the same (Dickens, 196), and love was “made to be her enemy and destroyer” (Dickens, 196). Neither Miss Havisham, nor Estella under her influence, can recognize that the harm done by Compeyson was nothing to do with Miss Havisham’s love for him. Rather, it was made possible by the social roles which script feminine love as fragility and unwise credulity. Miss Havisham intends to spare Estella the role of sacrifice to the whims of young men, but instead turns Estella into a scapegoat. She condemns Estella to a life devoid of all love, romantic or otherwise, due to a gap in language that leaves her trapped in the endless moment of the breaking of her heart.
Thanks to an absence of the necessary language and self-awareness, Miss Havisham directs her vengeance towards all men rather than directing it towards the socially scripted role she played in her own romantic tragedy. As a result, Miss Havisham’s ‘love’ for Estella and Pip both is poisoned by the resentment and viciousness her unhealed wounds of domestic violence have caused her. Rather than offer love that nurtures, Miss Havisham poisons whatever romance might have otherwise blossomed between the two young people. Hartog calls this “the curse he is unable to avoid” (255). Though Miss Havisham embodies that contagion within the narrative, the contagion neither begins nor ends with her. The greed that compels her half-brother Arthur’s acts (Dickens, 225) is replicated in Pip’s greed to possess Estella and her jewels, her wealth and social status. The seeds of future misogynistic violence are present in his attitude towards her. That contagion, the intergenerational cycles of misogyny and greed and trauma and misdirected violence, exist independently of the variable of Miss Havisham’s desire for revenge. Were Miss Havisham to obey her wish and exit the narrative, there would still have to be a woman whose trust or body or heart was violated, haunting Estella’s romantic dreams with warnings of the cost of susceptibility, of playing the ‘girl’ role in romance all too well.
Neither the women nor Pip can recognize an option Estella might choose rather than either total feminine susceptibility to heartbreak or else no heart at all, but Pip’s wish for Estella to choose the first option is not shared by the two women. Both women have learned separately to fear the nightmare that domesticated femininity can become for women. Kathleen Sell argues in “The Narrator’s Shame: Masculine Identity in “Great Expectations” (1998) that the women in this novel are represented as a nightmare version of the domestic ideal of womanliness (213). Pip says that seeing Miss Havisham after spending time outside with Estella “was like pushing the chair itself back into the past” (154). The past that Miss Havisham embodies is unsought and a little unnerving, and so tumbling back into that past seems to Pip to offer not self-knowledge but rather destruction. His inability to come to terms with the concrete reality of Miss Havisham’s past denies him the ability to conceive and thus create a future in which he and Estella might be free of the threat of contagion.
. For herself, rather than play the healthier role of wise elder or maternal healer, Miss Havisham instead drags the youngsters into her world. Pip’s narrative prompts her to the responsibilities she avoids, as when he and Estella walk “round the ruined garden twice or thrice more, and it was all in bloom for me” (154). Pip views Miss Havisham’s pain as mere backdrop, rather than recognize its intrusive and contagious nature. For Miss Havisham embraces the horrifying quality of her pain, allows her body to crumble like her property until her life is itself a rendering of the violence done to her. She leaves the crumbling brewery in place on her property, a physical symbol of disuse, where “no brewing was going on in it, and none seemed to have gone on for a long time.” (Dickens, 38) Through Pip’s eyes, the absence of paternal constraints or domestic responsibilities has ruined the property and the woman both. Through Miss Havisham’s eyes, survival means claiming only what one can carry. Miss Havisham has not attempted to hold onto the brewery, or to any other element of her inheritance which she might not be able to successfully defend from misogynistic or paternal incursion. Pip evokes the petulant rage of thwarted men when he “got rid of my injured feelings for the time, by kicking them into the brewery wall.” (44) This list of what Miss Havisham has given up for survival’s sake includes perhaps even her sanity, but does not include either her rage or sense of self-preservation. The brewery lies empty, available to be kicked or mocked or humiliated or hated, but the house does not, and never shall till Miss Havisham is dead.
Rather than indulgently witness or even encourage their romantic adventures, she flips the script and demands that they witness her drama, invest in her pain. Miss Havisham’s spectacle is the nightmare of her own memory come to life. She creates a facsimile of a wedding in which the food is too old and moldy to eat, the dress is worn out and disgusting, and the games are all punitive rather than fun. All characters other than herself are there only through her manipulation of class power and the ‘soft’ power her own pain wields. At their first meeting, she tells Pip, “I want diversion, and I have done with men and women. Play” (41). Miss Havisham sets out to satisfy her need for human companionship through her relationship with Pip, a child who cannot possibly pose any emotional risk to her. Miss Havisham’s pain is such that she cannot forgive, and in the end she commits acts upon Estella and Pip that are unforgivable.
That Miss Havisham always lived inside Amelia, that her romantic betrayal was somehow the result of her current grotesque state rather than its cause, subtly lives inside Pip’s dismissive reading of her past. The brewery that was her inheritance, her dwindling fortune, the crumbling house, all reflect the diminishing influence of an old woman Pip pities but does not value. As Gavriel Reisner writes in “From Ghosted Images to Ancestral Stories: Spectres and Narrators in Dickens’ Great Expectations,” “The old women are destroyed without forgiveness. They remain damaged and damaging maternal ghosts, left in the state of haunting (225).” The horror story of Miss Havisham’s romantic life is, ironically, the sole hold she has on his imagination or that of the community at large. Pip claims compassion towards Miss Havisham, but he reads this decay as irrelevant to his own life. Miss Havisham, drawn to the possibility of a sympathetic witness, continues to push Pip to display empathy he is incapable of. When Miss Havisham pleads, “if you knew all my story..you would have some compassion for me” (Dickens, 254), she implies that her story has motivated her actions towards Estella, the little girl whose heart she “stole away” (Dickens, 254). Pip expresses comprehension of her story, sympathy perhaps, but the connection between her story and Estella’s is lost on him.
Despite witnessing Miss Havisham beg Estella for love (Dickens, 196), Pip is incapable of understanding Miss Havisham’s actions towards Estella as communicative of any real or worthwhile ideas about love, violence, or romance. He sees her as an actor motivated only by revenge, so pathetic he cannot even hate her for it. He cannot see Miss Havisham’s motivations to teach Estella that love “was made to be her enemy and destroyer” (196), as Estella herself describes the teaching. Miss Havisham surely taught Estella to view love the way she does, to recognize love and particularly romantic love as a battle, because that is how Miss Havisham experienced it. Instead, Pip insists on viewing Miss Havisham’s perfectly normal, perfectly heartbreaking story as grotesque. He views her training of Estella as a crime against the male sex rather than also recognizing in it an attempt to spare the adopted daughter she loves from the pain that destroyed everything she was before. Thus, Pip names the impact Miss Havisham has on Estella only as the unavoidable catastrophe of unrestrained womanhood. He cannot see the woman attempting to describe the violence she has herself experienced in the most accurate terms she knows, in order to spare her daughter the same pain.
A Haunted Life
Miss Havisham is the intrusive, never fully realized ghost of the harm of domestic violence, the harm the most powerful members of the societal nuclear family do to the least powerful — man to woman, adult to child. Miss Havisham fell in love because, Herbert says, “all the susceptibility she possessed, certainly came out” (118). Miss Havisham’s susceptibility was as much her inheritance as was Estella’s inheritance of contempt and cruelty. Satis House, says Estella to Pip, “meant, when it was given, that whoever had this house, could want nothing else.” (39) Amelia embraced this philosophy, before she became, as O’Callaghan describes, “the emotionally abusive spinster who haunts Satis House in her wedding dress” (83). Here is the source of Miss Havisham’s ruin, in her own view. She inherited her family’s belief that love would suffice, and should suffice, and that the meaning behind possession was the happiness it could provide rather than the wealth it might either reflect or in turn engender. Miss Havisham’s childhood susceptibility to the lessons of her undoubtedly well-intentioned upbringing left her vulnerable to Compeyson, himself the product of a background much like Pip’s. Compeyson, “the man who professed to be Miss Havisham’s lover” (225), left Miss Havisham alone in the crumbling ruins of the house. She blames both house and legacy for rendering her unable to recognize Compeyson’s capacity for violence until too late. This is the legacy she refused to pass on to Estella, though the legacy of pain and violence she did pass on was much, much worse than the legacy of a broken heart.
The heart Estella insists she does not have, the heart Pip so longs to touch and to possess, is not the site of emotion but the site of susceptibility. Pip cannot forgive Miss Havisham for depriving Estella of this necessary feminine trait, yet from Miss Havisham’s perspective, that absence was a gift. The side effect is leaving Estella wholly emotionally dependent on the adoptive mother who manipulates and uses her. Through her well-intentioned lessons to Estella as well as her intrusion into Estella’s mind, Miss Havisham now haunts Pip’s life. She haunts even Pip’s most beautiful moments with Estella, until Pip’s nightmare of “play[ing] Hamlet to Miss Havisham’s ghost” (Dickens, 167) becomes his reality. When Pip is reunited with Estella, they walk together around the crumbling garden and brewery until the ghost of Pip’s childhood imaginings returns to haunt him (153). Miss Havisham is that ghost, a crumbling ruin who speaks to the harm that love can do. Because her heart is “broken” (41), because her faith in the requirements of feminine performance are shattered, she is incapable of love that nurtures love in return.
Miss Havisham’s ‘love’ for Estella follows the same track of manipulation and exploitation of the less powerful that Compeyson used when betraying her. Miss Havisham betrays Estella’s love by transforming her into a tool for Miss Havisham’s vengeful enjoyment, just as Compeyson once used Miss Havisham for his own purposes. The contagious betrayal of innocence and manipulation for personal vengeance goes on and on. Estella is so impacted by Miss Havisham, so susceptible in her innocent childhood state, that she allows herself to be possessed. Every attempt she makes at love, even love for the small child Estella once was, is filled with both her desire for revenge and the pain that remains incomprehensible even to herself. When Miss Havisham tells Pip that she meant to “save [Estella] from misery like my own (254),” she is telling the truth as best as she knows it. Perhaps she is even telling Pip the truth when she claims she never recognized the harm she had done him until she “saw in [Pip] a looking-glass that showed me what I once felt myself” (Dickens, 254). Her wish to spare Estella mingled with her desire for revenge — against Compeyson, against the social order that stripped her of a voice during their courtship and has stripped her of agency as an old woman. In the end, Miss Havisham has turned herself into a ghost, a cruel haunting that bleeds past hurts into present nightmares.
Miss Havisham saves Estella from romantic brutality by ensuring this pattern will never be repeated in her dealings with men, and that is in fact a real true act of kindness. Yet Miss Havisham also weaponizes Estella’s sexuality and body for her own gains. Miss Havisham, in turn, was brutalized because she was innocent enough to be susceptible to the abuses of a figure powerful in ways she could neither understand nor fight. Reisner writes in “From Ghosted Images to Ancestral Stories: Spectres and Narrators in Dickens’ Great Expectations,” “In the first and right ending, cruel beautiful Estella, now brutalized too, joins the company of violated and violating women. Seemingly beyond redemption, and pointing at strange violence, women in Dickens remain unutterable ghosts.” In fact, the violence that afflicted Miss Havisham and that now afflicts Estella are not ‘strange,’ but normal. Reisner like Pip insists on rendering the perfectly ordinary abuse of the powerless by the powerful a ‘strange and unutterable’ yet pervasive fact, and so the violence goes on and on. These same ghosts live on in Estella’s violence towards herself. When Estella gives her body to an abusive man, this at first seems an incomprehensible act but for its undeniable echo of Miss Havisham’s life-altering choice to do the same with her heart. Trying to find a way out of the cycles of trauma that link past to present only transforms her into another such ghost. These violated women live on to inscribe the stories of their traumas in generations to come.
“It hurts so much. I feel I shall go mad.” The last words Amelia speaks in Dickensian are fateful and tragic, because they effectively silence both her own legitimate rage and her self-awareness of the truly insane approach to love she adopts towards Estella. This television series has a mystery at its heart, but the true mystery it persists in trying to solve is how the female characters who haunt Dickens’ novels like ghosts — Havisham, emphasis on the Miss; Honoria Dedlock — transformed from girl to ghost. The series attempts Pip’s task, but simultaneously proves the task not worth doing. For Amelia in Dickensian is no more real than Miss Havisham, no more fully realized or capable of articulating her own deeper meanings and truths. In fact Amelia is a cipher, an unforgivably dull young woman with no self beyond trying to live up to her father’s fading legacy. She is wasting herself, wasting her formidable talents, ready to destroy herself the instant a pretty young man works his transparent charm on her, for what else has she got? She is self-confident and bullheaded only when it comes to her romantic life, in which, she continually asserts, she must “follow her heart (Dickensian).” Precisely why she must do this is never articulated, and yet so, so clear: Amelia must obey the dictates of heterosexist feminine norms because she has been taught to. The writers’ literal script demands this behavior, just as social scripts written by men more powerful than her demand such a performance. It is precisely Amelia’s pitch-perfect performance of feminine romanticized ‘virtues’ that causes the permanent destruction of everything Amelia is, was, or might have been.
Amelia’s literal and figurative absence of character leaves room to examine whether that might not be such a bad thing. The closing of the television series suggests slyly that Amelia’s ‘maddening’ might also be the impetus which offers her at least the possibility of some real something. There is madness, insanity, inside the empty and meaningless performance of what Amelia believes a girl is supposed to be. In the moment of transition to Miss Havisham, Amelia might instead become Amelia Havisham, a person entire, with anger reclaimed, and not intention to reside in the molding and uncomforting arms of insanity to avoid it. That possibility cracks open a door to a truth Estella embodies all along, a truth neither she nor Miss Havisham quite have the language to put into words. For Estella may lack a heart, but she also lacks the performative helplessness that left the properly domesticated Amelia an empty vessel long before Compeyson came along. Estella’s unrestrained attempts to articulate her own struggles within Miss Havisham’s entrapment and against her own powerlessness are also the stuff of real personality, the beginnings of real willpower. Estella can be healed, but not ‘fixed,’ because disobedience is not the disease in need of a cure.
Amelia could never be the center of a narrative, not for long, because nothing would happen in that narrative. A young woman born to power and privilege and uninterested in using it to pursue her own goals, a woman who possesses no goals save to impress and please the men around her, has nothing to say. Estella would find unbearable the version of herself who simply obeyed feminine norms and married any man who approached her with romance in his heart and her jewels on his mind. Moreover, an Estella raised to be prey would be no use to a storyteller like Pip, no source either of insight or of titillation. Such a woman could be of no real use to herself. It is women like Amelia who pretend madness is avoidable, who strive to defeat their knowledge of gender violence and therefore their own rage, who will suffer as Amelia once suffered. For better or worse, it is women like Estella, women raised as witnesses to the harm susceptibility does to women, and capable of identifying the harm those who hold power over them have caused, who never ever will.
Each woman embodies this truth in their own way, this horrible, heart-wrenching, deeply human truth that going mad is not the same as going crazy. Miss Havisham herself is overprivileged, desperately spoiled, indulged in her fanciful nonsense by all who encounter her. Her caring family lawyer and her relatives all permit her to leave her wedding feast perched on the banquet table for years on end, all indulge her affective performance of grief. The nature of this spectacle as a performance becomes increasingly clear as the novel continues. She might be deeply sad and wrenchingly traumatized, but she is not crazy. She makes plans on Estella’s behalf, teaches Estella about men, pleads with Estella to be loved. She is choking on her rage, left without the words to articulate the betrayal and fury that leave the town terrified of her. This performance of ‘insanity’ prevents her from becoming an object of pity in a town whose claustrophobic, intrusive gaze into Miss Havisham’s life continues no matter how long she shuts herself away. She strikes back in a way that Estella, a disobedient woman but a dutiful daughter, refuses to do. It is only a culture which cannot understand women’s rage except as irrational or insane that insists on turning her into a haunting.
The domestic violence that created Miss Havisham out of Amelia does not find its solution in Estella’s powerless-to-power inverted attacks on innocent men. In the end, Estella turns the despair of that harmdoing onto herself, continuing the cycle of violence. Estella does not become an Amelia who will call her own violation ‘love,’ but she has yet to escape into an alternate model of love. Miss Havisham the mad woman has created a girl who does not exist, a young woman who cannot distinguish between the will of the old woman and the will of the Estella-child so gravely wounded. Estella experiences her own will only when speaking the story of her wounding to Pip or Miss Havisham, but she refuses to act on what she knows. While Miss Havisham lives out her own rage disguised as debilitating trauma, Estella lives trauma hidden away beneath a rage that is not her own. She denies the rage at her guardian that might save her life. Estella is crazy with trauma, and mad with what might someday become feminine rage, and that is a poisonous combination. Both women, both seeming victim and seeming villain, hold some composite of the answer Pip is searching for. Yet neither can tell Pip how to heal, to transcend or integrate or cleanse himself of his childhood abuse and Estella’s manipulations and Miss Havisham’s machinations. Both are too infected by their separate and linked experiences of violence to identify how to heal the contagion that infects their lives. He is going to have to find the answer and teach it to them, instead.