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Great Expectations

by Charles Dickens
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Does the society Mrs. Havisham lives in cause suffering in Great Expectations?

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Miss Havisham is partly a victim of a society that has specific expectations for her based on her class and gender.

Miss Havisham is a troubled woman.  She lives alone in a crumbling house, still dressed in her wedding dress.  Why is she like this?  Because she thought her life was going in one direction, and it ended up going completely the opposite.

When Pip first sees Miss Havisham, it is clear that she is an unusual woman.  She reminds him of a skeleton from the church. 

She was dressed in rich materials—satins, and lace, and silks—all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. (Chapter VIII, p. 40)

She asks him why he is afraid of a woman who hasn’t seen the sun since he was born (p. 41).

Pip finds her incredibly strange, and does not understand why she wants him there.  Yet when he is asked by his relatives what happens when he is at her house, he makes up lies.  Somehow he realizes that Miss Havisham, cruel as she is, is a pathetic figure to be protected from outsiders’ prying eyes.

When she was a girl, Miss Havisham had a bright future.  Even though her mother died when she was a baby, she had a doting father who “denied her nothing” (Chapter XXII, p. 123).  She was going to be married, and live the happy life of an upper-class lady.  She had Satis House, and plenty of money.  Her life was going to be utterly predictable.

Unfortunately, it was not to be.  Her father “privately married” his cook, and had a child with her.  Then she died, and her father disinherited her half-brother Arthur for being “riotous, extravagant, undutiful—altogether bad” (p. 124).  Even though her father changed his mind and gave the man some money before he died, it was not enough to satisfy him—and his gambling habit.

There were stronger differences between him and her, than there had been between him and his father, and it is suspected that he cherished a deep and mortal grudge against her as having influenced the father's anger. (Chapter XXII, p. 124). 

Arthur’s desire to get revenge and make himself a gentleman was Miss Havisham’s loss.  He and Compeyson played a terrible trick on her.  Compeyson got himself engaged to her, and then left her at the altar.  This cruel action was designed to get Arthur all of her money, but it didn’t work out.   

Miss Havisham was a broken woman after that.  She had her money, her house, and her station.  She had lost her self-respect.  She no longer cared to be part of the same world as others.  She decided to use class as a weapon against other men, just as one had used it against her.  She raised a lower-class orphan to be an upper-class woman.  This woman, Estella, was to break some gentleman’s heart and get her revenge.

 Miss Havisham was a victim of Victorian society's class-conciousness, and the cruel actions her brother took to get and stay in the upper class.  Like Magwitch, she wanted to get back at the upper classes by proving that anyone could become a member of the upper class.


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