The Victorian ideal of womanhood is “The Angel in the house”. How does Dickens’ handle his female characters in Great Expectations and how do they relate to this ideal? Ben A 11wd In Great Expectations, there are a wide variety of curious and eccentric characters, but it seems that overall, there are significantly more “curious” female characters (Estella, Miss Havisham, Mrs Joe) than there are male characters (e.g. Mr Pumblechook).
It is possible that the reason for the high number of strange women characters might be down to one or more personal experiences in Dickens’ life. Mrs Joe Gargery, for instance, was directly influenced by Dickens’ mother, Elizabeth Dickens, who sent Charles, at the age of twelve, to work in a shoe polish factory in order to support the family, who at the time were locked in prison due to the tremendous amount of debt Dickens’ father was in. Mrs Joe is an exaggerated caricature of Elizabeth, and the antithesis of “the angel in the house”.
The phrase “The Angel In The House” has its roots in a poem written by the British lyricist Coventry Patmore. He believed that his wife Emily was the perfect incarnation of womanhood; i.e. she was beautiful, obedient, polite, a good cook etc, and it was from her influence that the 211 page volume was written in 1854, and from that poem sprung the expression used to describe a proper housewife doing her duties.
Although popular, it received a lot of negative press from the more intelligent liberals both then and now, with some views being reflected by people such as Nel Noddings, who claimed that the Angel was “infantile, weak and mindless”. But surprisingly, Dickens was actually a supporter of the image presented by Patmore, as were the majority of individuals of the time, even if it does appear that he is criticising the angelic ideal with the character of Mrs Joe for instance, as Dickens actually held quite conservative views on the idea.
Mrs Joe is possibly the least angelic person in the entire book, primarily as step by step, Dickens parallels her on every single stage with the Angel, to make her as least angelic as he can, or at least, it appears that he does. She carries with her a stick used for whacking, which Dickens ironically christens “Tickler”, which she uses to attack both Pip and Joe regularly. There is the image of the thimble, which would usually be used by a housewife similar to the one described in Patmore’s poem in order to safely knit and sew clothes, and yet Mrs Joe uses it to bash Pip on the head, which is almost the exact opposite of its original purpose. Dickens also appears to cover the ideal of women being perfect cooks, usoing the symbolism of Mrs Joe dropping nails from her top pocket into the bread dough as she is kneading it.
being housewives, they would go out an earn money for the family. The women in Great Expectations range through the social classes from the very top to the very base, and yet all of them have severe defects and are not usually very friendly or caring at all. The most evident of these are the characters of Mrs Joe Gargery and Estella, and to a lesser extent, Molly, Jaggers’ servant. They all come from different backgrounds, and yet one deals out physical abuse to her husband and brother, one treats the main character with neglect and pretends to loathe him out of spite simply because he’s madly in love with her, and the other murdered her newborn baby, of which examples can give us quite a good idea of Dickens’ attitudes to class as it shows that there is no difference in how nice a person is just because of their status in society.
Dickens is trying to suggest that the idea that it was the social class that you were brought up in that defined your personality and character in later life was pure speculation and had no basis in truth whatsoever. It is therefore an opinion voicing not only Dickens’ personal and more subtly hidden opinions on women, but also another expression of his more widely-known opinions on the Social Class system of England in the Victorian era.
Dickens had a “sense of social justice” in that he was a firm believer that the poor of the country were being treated horribly by the people further up the class system, and although he was no radical or revolutionist, he did believe that it was wrong and so voiced his opinions quite openly in his books concerning this issue. He went from working in a factory when he was twelve to a world renowned author in 30 years, and so held these beliefs firmly and was not merely passing abstract comment on these issues.