Home > Essay examples > A Call to Re-characterize Miss Havisham: Why this Character in Great Expectations Deserves Our Sympathy

Essay: A Call to Re-characterize Miss Havisham: Why this Character in Great Expectations Deserves Our Sympathy

Essay details and download:

  • Subject area(s): Essay examples
  • Reading time: 10 minutes
  • Price: Free download
  • Published: 19 February 2023*
  • File format: Text
  • Words: 2,824 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 12 (approx)
  • Tags: Charles Dickens essays

Text preview of this essay:

This page of the essay has 2,824 words. Download the full version above.

Growing up, I was fortunate to have an extremely close relationship with both my paternal and maternal set of Grandparents. My sweet Granny and Papa (my Father’s parents), and my wonderful Grandma and Grandpa (my mother’s parents). Though over the years, our visits have become fewer and far between simply due to life becoming more hectic as I’ve gotten older, I suppose it is due to the close nature of these relationships that I have come to view all elderly people through the same lense that I have for my own Grandparents — a lense you could say I reserve for the elderly. I suppose it is this “lense” that drew me to volunteer at nursing homes while I was in highschool, what implores me to smile sweetly at an elderly person when I see them on the street or in a store, or what breaks my heart when I see an elderly person dining alone at a restaurant. Each and every time I see an elderly person, I cannot help but be reminded of my Grandparents — and be reminded of how they filled my childhood with love, kindness, patience, life lessons and stories, and an irreplaceable respect and adoration that came with each of their presence. I know that my situation is unique, as not everyone is fortunate enough to grow up close to their Grandparents, or see them in this type of light.

It is because of my relationship with my grandparents that I believe I feel inherently sympathetic towards elderly people, and why, in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, while the majority of readers seem to cast the elderly Miss Havisham as a cruel, vengeful, lunatic-villain who is well-deserving of our hatred, I see her very differently. I feel that in reality she is a victim of society, and of her own mental health, and is instead deserving of our sympathy. One of the major characteristics of the Victorian era is the gender-based inequality that existed in the period. Arguably, women bore the brunt of the inequality because of the inhumane treatment imposed upon them by the system. I am arguing that in Great Expectations, Miss Havisham is a victim of oppressive gendered impositions placed upon her by Victorian society that have caused her to suffer with mental health issues, and she deserves our sympathy. Instead of demonizing Miss Havisham, we should demonize the stigmas Victorian society imposed upon women, the stereotypes associated with those suffering from mental health issues, and how society failed to properly offer treatment to those individuals.  In this essay I will first discuss how Miss Havisham is a character who suffers from negative mental health issues. Next, I will describe how her mental health is worsened by the fact that, in addition to going undiagnosed and untreated, Victorian society isolates and ostracizes her due to her failure to marry and have children — two necessary aspects that consummate a successful woman. Finally, I will argue that the character of Miss Havisham is Dickens critiquing the way people who suffered from mental health issues were treated by members of Victorian society, which is why the protagonist, Pip, never demonizes her. In many ways, it can be said that “insanity,” i.e. the insanity label that follows Miss Havisham, is a gender stereotype associated with women that implies weaker, submissive tendencies. According to an article titled, Negotiating Illness: Doctors, Patients, and Families in the Nineteenth Century, written by author Nancy Theriot, this is in fact historically accurate, as Victorian psychiatric theory had evolved to explain mental breakdowns in women as evidence of innate inferiority. Before I can argue that we should feel sympathy for Miss Havisham and that her mental health illness is perpetuated by Victorian society, I will make it clear that her mental health is in fact suffering throughout the novel.

Miss Havisham’s eccentric tendencies are evidence of her mental illness and are frequently revealed. Her illness stems from over twenty years prior in her youth when she was the victim of a traumatic con-scheme by a man named Compeyson that was an attempt to steal her fortune — a scheme that left her alone at the altar on her wedding day, effectively breaking her heart. The most remarkable symptom of her illness is her skewed sense of time, which clearly displays her fragile mental state. In the Havisham household, time literally stands still — all of the clocks are frozen at the exact moment that the wedding plans disintegrated, a wedding cake and wedding feast remains untouched but crumbling and rotten from the passage of time, and Miss Havisham herself, wears the yellowed wedding gown and is forced to move by wheelchair from room to room due to muscular dystrophy as a result of her sedentary lifestyle. Satis House, the place Miss Havisham lives, acts an a permanent hideout for her, as it is isolated, confined, dark, filthy, and dismal-looking. The stoppage of time, the food, her wedding dress, and the state of Satis House all serve as painful external cues that force Miss Havisham to persistently re-experience her trauma day after day, causing her intense psychological distress. Throughout the novel, Miss Havisham undergoes rapidly changing moods, but is constantly full of sadness, depression, misery and anger, all emotions that she has felt constantly everyday since the tragic event. She admits she is not always right in the mind when she addresses Pip and Estella at her home and says, “I sometimes have sick fancies, and I have a sick fancy that I want to see some play. There, there!” with an impatient movement of the fingers of her right hand; “play, play, play!” (122).  Whenever Pip visits her, he describes the “impatient movement of her fingers” that are evidence of her rapid thoughts and constant restlessness. Though it is unclear what mental health issues Miss Havisham is specifically suffering from, in the light of today’s advanced psychiatric developments, her illness is comparable to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as severe depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts or a lack of will to live.

In Victorian society, the ultimate goal, expectation and stereotype imposed upon women was to become a wife and a mother. Simply put, those who failed to do so were looked down upon. Miss Havisham’s mental illness is worsened by the fact that, in addition to going undiagnosed and untreated, Victorian society isolates and ostracizes her due to her failure to take part in marriage and have children of her own — two necessary aspects that consummate a successful woman.  In short, the desertion of Miss Havisham on her wedding day causes her an irrecoverable social stigma in addition to the agony and trauma she experiences on a daily basis. I must clarify that I understand Miss Havisham largely isolated herself from the rest of society, outside of the company of Estella and Pip. Pip states this well when he says of Miss Havisham: “in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences” (176). However, I believe Miss Havisham’s self-seclusion was fully in response to the negative reaction and sheer disapproval she faced from society in failing to accomplish women’s normative social roles of marriage and mothering. Though there lacks solid concrete evidence of any intentional ostracization of Miss Havisham by members of society, she is a character who clearly resides at the margins of society, rather than the center, despite her high social class. How miss Havisham responded to the implied societal judgements and stigmas speaks volumes not about her character and her resilience, but more about the cruel current of Victorian society. Instead of characterizing Miss Havisham as a villain who chose to live in isolation, I am proposing her to represent a manifestation of what can happen to a woman who does not meet the standards of a traditional Victorian woman at the time, and therefore a victim deserving of sympathy. Miss Havisham’s insistent emotional pain and delusional perspective is evident of the fact that she does not receive the help she needs, and was not taught how to cope with emotional trauma. In A Re-vison of Miss Havisham: Her Expectations, Our Responses, author Linda Raphael cites Elaine Showalter to demonstrate the power of repressive forces in society:

The rise of the Victorian madwoman was one of history’s self-fulfilling prophecies. In a society that not only perceived women as childlike, irrational, and sexually unstable but also rendered them legally powerless and economically marginal, it is not surprising that they should have formed the greater part of the residual categories of deviance from which doctors drew a lucrative practice and the asylums much of their population. (402).

The treatment Miss Havisham experiences by society is significant because had she been from a lower Victorian class and exhibited the same eccentricities, she would likely have been forcibly committed to an insane asylum instead of being allowed to be a Mother to Estella. The true tragedy of her life is not that Compeyson failed to show up to the altar, or not even that her step-brother plotted against her to steal her fortune. The tragedy of Miss Havisham’s life is that she is forced to live in a society whose gendered system works against her, and all women.

The character of Miss Havisham is Dickens’ way of critiquing the way people who suffered from mental health issues were treated by members of Victorian society, which is why the protagonist, Pip, never demonizes her. Dickens utilizes Satis House and Miss Havisham’s discolored wedding dress to serve as symbols of her own physical prison as a result of the emotional trauma she has experienced, while her mind in her own mental prison. Her wedding dress is something she cannot break free of, just as the day her marriage disintegrated is something she feels she will never be able to break free of. Miss Havisham has sentenced herself to a life imprisoned in the confusion of reality and unreality, demonstrating how truly psychologically damaged she really is. According to an article titled, The Presentation of Madness in the Victorian Novel, written by authors Allan Beveridge and Edward Renvoize, many Victorian writers had personal experience of the effects of mental illness, including Dickens, which explains his passion for highlighting it in Great Expectations:

“Dickens visited asylums in England and America, and was also friendly with Dr John Conolly. His account reveals a mixture of benign condescension, concern for suffering and a vague uneasiness bordering on revulsion. For Dickens insanity is a ‘terrible calamity’ and represents the loss of ‘the greatest of Divine gifts’. Such unfortunates should be treated with humanity and kindness — a theme Dickens enlarged upon in his novels” (411).

The purpose of Miss Havisham is not to represent an individual fit for an insane asylum. Rather, her purpose is to represent a woman who is characterized as insane simply for undergoing negative mental health issues in response to the oppressive impositions placed upon her by Victorian society. These heavy impositions are represented by her decaying, debilitated body, and the fact that she must resort to isolation in order to escape it. Thus, in Great Expectations, Dickens seems to be ahead of his time, as he problematizes the limitation of the current Victorian psychiatric standards of care and treatment by emphasizing that Miss Havisham suffers mental health issues related to her emotional suffering. According to Beveridge and Renvoize, “Gender is a considerable factor in the Victorian conceptualization of mental illness, as women are thought to be naturally more susceptible to external influence than men and therefore more prone to states of affected mental capacity (412). Taking into account today’s more advanced medical and psychiatric standards, it is very obvious now that very few of the women throughout history previously deemed insane were not insane at all, but rather were merely women who could not handle the expectations, gender barriers and pressures that society imposed upon them.

Pip and Miss Havisham have a complicated relationship. Miss Havisham relies on Pip because she sees him as someone for Estella to “practice” on, that is — practice breaking the hearts of men, and explicitly urges Pip to love Estella. Although Miss Havisham hates all men as a result of her trauma, she arguably seems to take a subtle interest in Pip’s life as she watches him grow up alongside Estella on his visits to her home. When Pip’s “great expectations” are announced and he is to go to London to become a gentleman, Pip is under the delusion that Miss Havisham is his benefactor, and that she is sending him to London to be transformed into a gentleman so that he can marry Estella. His heart is full of extreme gratitude and devotion for Miss Havisham and he even regards her as his “fairy godmother” (334). It is clear that as a result of her fragile mental health, Miss Havisham is guilty of manipulating Pip for her own personal reasons. Though, deceived by his aspirations of social mobility and infatuation with Estella, Pip is oblivious to her manipulation. Miss Havisham eventually realizes the magnitude of what she has done and regrets her actions towards Pip. Miss Havisham and Pip can each identify with each other the agony and emotional pain that comes when one’s heart is broken — Miss Havisham with Compeyson and Pip with Estella. By sharing the same emotional pain, Pip understands the true nature of Miss Havisham’s mental health issues and thus, he forgives her manipulation in the end. By her moral awakening and his sympathy, she reverts to a functional human being and her mental health improves. Yet, shortly after, a tragic accident strikes and Miss Havisham is horribly burned when her wedding dress catches fire. Though Pip saves her and is badly burned himself, Miss Havisham later dies of her injuries. It is important to emphasize that while Pip experiences emotional manipulation and suffering at the hands of Miss Havisham, he never demonizes her, denounces her, or reacts cruelly to her in any way. This is likely because Pip understands her agony, trauma and grief at an emotional level, as he has experienced the same emotions during his life-long courtship of Estella, and realizes that she is not as insane as she is often depicted to be. Pip recognizes that Miss Havisham suffers from mental health issues that impact her emotions and her actions, and Pip understands that the only way to treat it is not by demonizing Miss Havisham like the rest of society, but by being kind to her, forgiving her, and allowing her to gain a new perspective of the choices she has made to inflict suffering upon people. Thus, in Great Expectations, Dickens is challenging readers to understand the psychological and emotional needs that are present beneath Miss Havisham’s bizarre behavior, and emphasizing how Victorian women bore the brunt of suffering due to inequities of a gender-based society.

In conclusion, while I realize that Miss Havisham does not fulfill the sweet, loving, grandmotherly figure I would wish for her to be, I also believe that she is certainly not the demonic, cruel lunatic, undeserving of sympathy who got what she deserved when she died after the fire. Throughout this paper I have argued that in reality, she is a victim of oppressive gendered impositions placed upon her by Victorian society that have caused her to suffer with mental health issues, and she deserves more sympathy than she receives. I can accept that Miss Havisham died as a result of the fire, and while I am not religious, I feel as though the afterlife would be much more peaceful for her. I am grateful for my  relationship with my grandparents for causing me to feel inherent sympathy for the elderly and not accept this initial characterization. After examining Miss Havisham with a different lense than the majority of others, I feel as though she truly is representative of a failure to meet the ideal high standards expected of Victorian women. How miss Havisham responded to societal judgements and stigmas speaks volumes not about her character and her resilience, but more-so about the cruel norms of Victorian society that were never questioned. It is my opinion that Miss Havisham is courageous for finding the will to keep herself going for over twenty years since her emotional trauma, despite suffering day after day in near-isolation. Despite making some questionable ethical and moral choices, she should be characterized as a strong and truly independent woman, who eventually mourned the mistakes she made. I believe Dickens utilized her character to highlight the inequitable and unjust gendered realities of Victorian society, and emphasize the enormous societal pressures and stigmas women were forced to overcome. In addition, I believe Dickens wished to call attention to the low standards of psychiatric care available in the Victorian era in an attempt to spark conversations around the stigma against mental health.

...(download the rest of the essay above)

Discover more:

About this essay:

If you use part of this page in your own work, you need to provide a citation, as follows:

Essay Sauce, A Call to Re-characterize Miss Havisham: Why this Character in Great Expectations Deserves Our Sympathy. Available from:<https://www.essaysauce.com/essay-examples/2018-10-30-1540862966/> [Accessed 17-07-24].

These Essay examples have been submitted to us by students in order to help you with your studies.

* This essay may have been previously published on Essay.uk.com at an earlier date.

NB: Our essay examples category includes User Generated Content which may not have yet been reviewed. If you find content which you believe we need to review in this section, please do email us: essaysauce77 AT gmail.com.