The Monstrous Women in Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations": "For God's Sake", They're Human Beings

UNCP Author/Contributor (non-UNCP co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Brigitte M. Knight (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP )
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Abstract: During the Victoria era, two images of women were prominent in novels and reflected the disparity between the ideal women and the reality of women's live: angels and monsters. Angels, such as Charles Dicken's Rose Maylie, Agnes Wickfield, and Lucie Manette, affirm domestic ideology and lead lives of piety and purity, ad they are delighted to assume their places as submissive and subservient wives and mothers. In contrast to angels, their monstrous literary sisters fail to live up to their womanly ideal: not only do they often lack a virtuous and maternal nature, but they are also aggressive, passionate, sexual, immoral, amoral, violent, and mad and branded as witches, fiends, and hysterics. The unruly women actually have traits that would have been appropriate and desirable for a Victorian man in the public sphere of commerce and industry, but would not have been appropriate for a delicate, innocent, and virtuous woman. Although novelists continued to preserve the angel's sanctity and purity, the monstrous female characters were a creative outlet for authors to depict the Victorian women with a wide range of realistic experiences and emotions that dismantle assumptions of femininity.Like his fellow Victorian authors, Dickens in Great Expectations creates a cast of monstrous women who deviate from the womanly ideal and ultimately pay a high price for their transgressions. Mrs. Joe, Molly, Miss Havisham, and Estella lack female virtue, tenderness, and nurture and, therefore, demonstrate behavior that would have been considered unfeminine during the Victorian era. Because they thwart acceptable gender norms and threaten patriarchal order, they are severly emotionally and physically punished. By the close of the novel, the narrative is littered with the broken bodies and spirits of all the monstrous women. However, despite their punishment, these unruly creatures expose the womanly ideal as an impossible model for women to live up to because it failed to accommodate their particular situations, needs, and desires. Although Dickens in Great Expectations follows the Victorian literary convention of punishing women for their transgressions, he also reveals a great deal about the lives of women, especially the circumstances that compel them to deviate from established gender norms. Moreover, rather than just slapping on excessive tendencies and raw emotions onto a stock female character, Dickens, instead, individualizes the portraits of the monstrous women to depict the complex and realistic motivations that result in unfeminine behavior - but real nonetheless. Subsequently, the monstrous women make it difficult for the readers of the novel to remain complicit in their punishment because they challenge their audience to understand that the etiology of their unruliness emerges from oppressive conditions in a masculine world. Hence, what emerges from the novel is not a didactic lesson on appropriate female behavior, but a richly textured and complex depiction Victorian womanhood.Not only are the portraits of the monstrous creatures realistic, but the female characters in the novel also resist their objectification and victimization to reveal that Victorian women could be independent, aggressive, passionate, intelligent, and powerful in a patriarchal world. Even through the novel ends with the angelic Biddy rewarded with a happy marriage and children and the unruly women beaten, broken, and silenced. Great Expectations is not a simple affirmation of the womanly ideal and domestic ideology; instead, the novel fails to reach closure on the Woman Question because what has been exposed can not be effaced: rebellious and powerful women whose life experiences gave them no choice but to dare to journey where angels fear to tread.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2007
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, Monstrous Women, Virtuous Women, Patriarchal Society, Victorian Convention Writing, Emotions, Unfeminine Behavior

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