The theme of isolation in “Great Expectations” through Miss Havisham
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Question: How does Dickens in his portrayal of Miss Havisham explore the theme of isolation?
The oldest of eight children, Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812. Dickens experienced a very traumatic childhood which included the ordeal of seeing two of his brother pass away. John Dickens, his father, worked as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, due to his occupation, the Dickens family had to move a lot. Financial problems led to the imprisonment of John Dickens, who couldn’t afford to look after all his family. The whole of Charles Dickens’ family soon followed in suite, except for Charles himself though. Instead Charles was taken out of school and made to work in a filthy warehouse, sticking labels on bottles of boot-black for long hours.
Dickens lived from 1812 till 1870, during this period; the justice system in England was very harsh. At the age of sixteen, Charles saw this through his own eyes, working as a court reporter. During this period there was also a colossal division between the rich and the poor. Due to the industrial revolution, the poor worked for long hours, enduring much hardship, yet earning very little. In contrast, the rich lived in lavishness and, unlike the poor, could actually enjoy life. One can describe the situation at the time as- the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Also during the 19th century, women were treated very badly, they were expected to stay at home and ‘serve’ their husband, and they were also put under immense pressure to get married.
It was Charles Dickens’ firm belief that the spilt between the rich and the poor had produced a ‘diseased’ and ‘unhealthy’ society. Dickens’ usually expressed his own experiences in life, and his moral views through writing. Many of his novels deal with issues of relevancy to the time, such as justice and punishment, and the massive gap between the rich and poor. In his novel “Great Expectations”, he uses the character of Miss Havisham to show some of his experiences in life. In a way the depressing character acts as a show piece of Charles’s own experiences in life. He uses the character to explore the theme of isolation, to reflect Dickens’s perception of women and to symbolise the ‘diseased’ upper class of the time.
Through the use of imagery, characterisation, language and his use of dramatic devices, Dickens effectively portrays the theme of isolation through Miss Havisham.
In “Great Expectations”, Charles Dickens uses the surroundings and appearance of Miss Havisham to portray her isolation. Her surroundings illustrate isolation and neglection, Dickens uses Satis House to effectively convey this. The house is neglected and is separated from society, ‘the great front entrance had two chains across it outside- and the first thing I noticed was, that the passage were all dark… only the candle lighted us’. The darkness of the house echoes the issue of isolation, because light is seen as a source of freedom. The chained doors reflect the neglection of Satis house and how Miss Havisham is locked away in her own house; separated from the rest of society. Also, Satis house is used to symbolise Miss Havisham’s mental and physical state. The whole house is decaying; everything has been left the same as it was twenty years ago, and just like Miss Havisham herself, the house around her was decaying with her. ‘Everything in that house had been stopped in time, like she doesn’t want move forward anymore’.
Another aspect which Dickens uses to illustrate Miss Havisham’s isolation is time, in Miss Havisham’s isolated and neglected world, time has no purpose. ‘… I saw that her watch had been stopped at twenty minutes to nine, and that a clock in the room had stopped at twenty minutes to nine.’ Twenty minutes to nine was the time when Miss Havisham was jilted on her wedding day, twenty years ago. This is very melodramatic, and in many ways very unrealistic, but it is used by Dickens to portray Miss Havisham’s isolation. Aswell as her surroundings, Dickens uses Miss Havisham’s appearance to show her isolation. Miss Havisham’s appearance is a catalyst that Dickens uses to represent her isolation, she wears the same clothes that she wore on her wedding day twenty years ago, ‘she was dressed in rich materials…all of white. Her shoes were white…she had a long white veil…’ here Dickens uses repetition to further strengthen his point, and effectively portray the theme of isolation.
As already noted, Miss Havisham’s character is very melodramatic, and highly unrealistic, but her theatrical character is used as a weapon by Dickens to strongly emphasise his belief that the rich of the time were arrogant and selfish. The very fact that she took the decision to separate herself from the rest of society brings up two different points, the first is that she only had that option open because of her wealth, and it is because of her stubbornness and arrogance that she chooses this path. Here Dickens is trying to emphasise the point that the rich have an open door of choice, which the poor don’t have, but their sheer arrogance and stubbornness makes them choose to ignore going through the hard way, and trying to piece back together their lives, rather they opt to take the easier way out and completely separate themselves from the rest of society.
The second point that Dickens is trying to put across is that the women of the time were over-reliant on men, when Miss Havisham was jilted on her wedding day, she chose there and then, that she would no longer be able to go on, because of the need of a manly figure in her life. This analysis of the situation is completely wrong though, Miss Havisham felt that she could not go on without a man, but in actual fact, she could very well have done so. It is only because of her wealth that she had the opportunity to separate herself from society, had she been poor, she would have been forced to get on with life.
What Dickens is trying to achieve here is to address his point that the upper class society were ‘diseased and unhealthy’, with Miss Havisham acting as the representative of the upper class of the time, and he purposely makes her look bad. She is a recluse who lives in the past, and despite all her wealth, instead of integrating back into society after being jilted, she instead used her wealth to isolate herself from society for good. One must also note that Miss Havisham’s upbringing would have played a major role in her decision to separate herself from society, because she came from a rich background, she was too proud to deal with being jilted, and so chose instead to create her own imaginary world, imprison herself in her own house, stop time, and separate herself from the outside world.
Throughout the novel; “Great Expectations”, Dickens uses imagery, language, characterisation and dramatic devices, this enables him to effectively convey his message to the audience. In many respects, Miss Havisham conforms to society’s standards of unmarried women in the Victorian age. Like many unmarried women, she is an outcast, she separates herself from society by choice; this choice is only open to her because of her wealth. It reflects the situation at the time, had Miss Havisham been poor, then she wouldn’t even have had the choice to be separated from society, she would have been forced to return to society or perish. The novel reflects Victorian England’s beliefs about women’s inability to survive without a male figure in their lives; this is why they were put under immense pressure to get married. Miss Havisham is presented as the embodiment of women’s failure in society, and their over-reliance on men.
After being jilted on her wedding day, Miss Havisham saw no way of going on without a man in her life, and took the choice of separating herself from the rest of society, even though she could have chosen to get on with life. In a metaphorical sense she turned a blind eye to the shimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Her reluctancy to get on with life becomes an obsession, and she purposely creates an imaginary world, which acts as a barrier between her own world and the real world. ‘…in shutting out the light of day, she had shut out infinitely more; that, in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences; that her mind brooding in solitary, had grown diseased…’
The word ‘light’ in the previous quote is used as the showpiece of inclusion and integration, because light is the opposite of darkness which represents isolation and segregation, Dickens’ use of imagery here works well and the reader can appreciate the point being raised here more effectively. Overall, one can conclude that the main reason for the characters isolation is because she chose to be isolated, and was able to choose to be isolated, as already discussed.
In Charles Dickens “Great Expectations” he uses imagery, language, characterisation and dramatic devices to show the effects and consequences of Miss Havisham’s choice to isolate herself from the rest of society. When she separated herself from the rest of society, in effect she turned a blind eye to reality, she couldn’t face up to the fact that she had been jilted, and dealt with this in her own little way- to separate herself from the rest of society. The second that she took this decision, she created a barrier between her own self-created world and the real world. Her house was an integral part of this new world that she created, and since light was part of the world she had chosen to separate herself from, not a spec of light got into Satis house. ‘…You are not afraid of a woman who has never seen the sun since you worn born?’ The decay of Satis house acts as a visual focus of the physical and emotional decay of Miss Havisham.
The food inside the house is decaying, just as Miss Havisham is, and is continuing to decay too. The effect of her isolation is that it slowly exonerated the house from all the good that was in it. One begs the question of how could a women living in conditions like that survive, but it was her growing obsession of gaining revenge over men for what had happened to her that kept her going. Her obsession of revenge reached its peak, and it was there and then that she acts upon her obsessions, using Pip and Estella to achieve these desires.
Miss Havisham raises Estella to be cold, emotionless and have no heart. Miss Havisham trained Estella to be her mouthpiece and representative in her bid to gain revenge over men. Miss Havisham’s obsession is so much, that she even tells Estella to ‘break his heart’; the male in question in the previous quote is Pip, a young ‘common labouring boy’ as Estella describes him. In all the exchanges between Estella and Pip, Estella is always rude to Pip, but Miss Havisham orders Pip to allow her to be rude to him, ‘You say nothing of her…she says many hard things of you, but you say nothing of her…’ This quote justifies the level at which her obsession for revenge had reached, she enjoyed seeing Pip’s life being destroyed right under her nose, under her commands, as if it were a film, and she was the director. Throughout the book, Miss Havisham persistently makes Pip acknowledge Estella’s beauty, ‘is she beautiful?’
One can sense the great enjoyment Miss Havisham has when she tells Pip that Estella has gone abroad, because she knew that it broke his heart, ‘”…. Educating for a lady; far out of reach; prettier than ever; admired by all who see her, do you feel you have lost her? There was such a malignant enjoyment in her utterance of the last words and she broke into such a disagreeable laugh’ The sheer coldness of the character is summarised in these three lines, she took pleasure in breaking Pip’s heart, partly making up for the trauma she went through when her heart was broken by a man twenty years earlier. Even after expressing this heart-breaking news to Pip with such joy and affection, her crazy obsession of revenge pushes her to continue destroying Pip’s life even more. Miss Havisham continues to urge Pip to love Estella and admire her beauty, it must be noted that this beauty was nothing more than physical beauty because Estella had no inner beauty, Miss Havisham had, in her own words ‘stole [Estella’s] heart away and put ice in its place’.
The following quote shows how determined Miss Havisham was in breaking Pip’s heart and ruining his life. ‘Love her, love her, love her! If she favours you, love her. If she wounds you love her. If she tears you heart to pieces…love her, love her, love her!’ The repetition of the words ‘love her’ are used to emphasise the level of brutal obsession that Miss Havisham had reached, she even told him that if Estella tears his ‘heart to pieces’ then he should continue to love her. This in reality is what she wanted to happen; she wanted Pip’s heart to be teared to pieces. The quote goes on to further say: ‘…I adopted her to be loved. I bred her and educated her, to be loved.’ Here Miss Havisham is acknowledging that she used Estella, she trained her to become cold and ruthless. When Miss Havisham says ‘I…educated her’ what she means is that she passed on her hatred of men onto her, and that she wanted her to be her representative and get revenge for her over men.
Miss Havisham’s obsessive revenge plot, if successful would result in the destruction of Pip’s life, and although she achieved this to some extent, her plan caused more than just one “casualty”. Miss Havisham destroyed Pip’s life, but sacrificed ruining Estella’s life in the process. Her “creation”, which she so carefully nurtured, who was to be her representative, was brought up in such a way that she is incapable of love, Estella herself highlights the point when she says to Miss Havisham; ‘I am what you have made me’. What Miss Havisham made her was a heartless creature whose heart could only be ‘stabbed in or shot at’.
Miss Havisham’s obsessive revenge plot backfires, and the pain that she causes herself is arguably the worse consequence of all her actions. Her plan was meant to give her the satisfaction of revenge, by using Pip and Estella to “act” out her plan. The whole purpose of the plan was to break Pip’s heart, which in turn meant, in Miss Havisham’s mind, that she had gained revenge over men. Her plan however, did not prove to be as successful as she would have hoped, and instead of her gaining the satisfaction of revenge, we see that the complete opposite happens and that she ends up even more miserable than before and begs for forgiveness. ‘She turned her face to me…and, to my amazement, I may even add to my terror, dropped on her knees at my feet’ this is when reality had finally struck reality, for the first time in over twenty years, Miss Havisham’s imaginary isolated world crumbled in a split second and reality hit her.
‘Until you spoke to her the other day, and until I saw in you a looking-glass that showed me what I once felt myself, I did not know what I had done. What have I done! What have I done!’ Miss Havisham is conscious that she has made Pip go through the same trauma that she had done, an inhuman and immoral deed, and she begs for his mercy. The level of guilt she feels leads to her crying, which showed that she still had some part of a heart, ‘ I had never seen her shed a tear before’. Through the use of imagery, characterization, language and dramatic devices, Dickens is able to effectively portray the effects and consequences of Miss Havisham’s isolation.
In Charles Dickens “Great Expectations”, the writer uses the character of Miss Havisham to criticise the upper class of his time. Although his portrayal of Miss Havisham is very negative, and was to show the arrogance of the upper class, one could also argue that he wanted the audience to feel some sympathy towards Miss Havisham. After all, Dickens does put forward some strong arguments to support Miss Havisham and create some sympathy, but at the same time the arguments criticise the split between the rich and poor too. One of these arguments which make the reader feel sympathetic to Miss Havisham for her actions is that a major factor which lead to her taking the choice to separate herself from the rest of society was her upbringing.
He shows that her decision, which in turn led to so many tragic events, was the product of a “diseased” society. He further proves this point through the character of Estella, he shows one is greatly affected by their environment and their upbringing, Miss Havisham made Estella what she was, and so Miss Havisham’s upbringing would have had an influence on her decision to isolate herself. However, one could counter the argument that Dickens wanted to create sympathy for Miss Havisham, rather he used her to criticise the women of the time, and their over reliance on men. He was very critical of women who he felt didn’t live up to his perception of the perfect female role model, but his feeling and views would probably have been influenced by both his own upbringings and the beliefs of the time.
This is ironic, because he creates sympathy for Miss Havisham by putting forward the argument that she was the innocent product of society and of her upbringing, but his views on women would tie in perfectly with that statement. In conclusion, I believe that Dickens wanted to create sympathy towards Miss Havisham, prompting people to think about the “diseased and unhealthy” society, and consider their positions. He uses the book to effectively put across his views, and his eagerness and desire to bring about change and create a better; more just society is evident in his treatment of the theme of isolation.
Through the use of imagery, language, characterisation and dramatic devices, Charles Dickens successfully explores the theme of isolation through Miss Havisham, and also put across his views and ideas.