Women in Charles Dickens’ "Great Expectations"

Term Paper, 2003

15 Pages, Grade: 2 (B)



1. Introduction

2.Characterisation of three main female characters
2.1 Mrs. Joe Gargery
2.2 Estella
2.3 Miss Havisham

3. The women’s relationship to Pip
3.1 Mrs. Joe Gargery
3.2 Estella
3.3 Miss Havisham

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Charles Dickens’ novel „Great Expectations“ as a Bildungsroman or gothic novel depicts the growth of a young boy from low social class origin to an adult gentleman containing the struggles with women, employers and relatives.

The main character Philip ‘Pip’ Pirrip introduces the reader to the novel as a young boy from about six years, although Pip indeed wrote down the story of his life as an adult. Pip has always dreamt of becoming well-educated and of being introduced to a higher social class than he actually belonged to at first. Fortunately, Pip is granted the chance of social rising and he gets to know a lot of people who influence him and his great expectations from his early youth crucially.

In Victorian times women and men were regarded to be different in their nature but nevertheless complementary. Women should be a guideline for their husbands in moral and religious questions. When the husbands were at home they were protected from “destructive tendencies of the market” (Farrell). In “Great Expectations” it is not easy to find one woman who fits into this ideal. Especially the three main female characters are rather destructive than protective for men.

However, throughout the novel Pip is confronted with several women of different calibre, from shrewd and hysterical, cold-hearted and distant to caring and loveable. On the following pages I am going to introduce and characterise the three main female characters who influence Pip’s life the most: his sister Mrs. Joe Gargery, Mrs. Havisham and Estella. Of course Pip gets to know more women, but since they play only a more or less minor role in his life, I am not going to put them under consideration. After having described and characterised the three women, I am going to analyse their relationship towards Pip and in the end come to a final conclusion.

2. Characterisation of three main female characters

2.1 Mrs. Joe Gargery

Pip’s sister Mrs. Joe Gargery is that special kind of woman one would definitely describe as ‘shrewd’. She almost resembles the complete antithesis of an ideal woman (c.f. Farrell). When introducing a new character, at first their outward appearance is described, but this description is mostly a simile of the person’s character. This is also the case with Mrs. Joe.

She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two loops, and having a square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles. She made it a powerful merit in herself, and a strong reproach against Joe, that she wore this apron so much. Though I really see no reason why she should have worn it at all: or why, if she did wear it at all, she should not have taken it off every day of her life. (Dickens, p.8)

Pip goes even further with his sister’s description. Although he only describes his conclusions on how his sister washes herself, he also presents a picture of an extremely prickly and trenchant character.

My sister, Mrs. Joe, with black hair and eyes, had such a prevailing redness of skin that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg-grater instead of soap. (Dickens, p.8)

Mrs. Joe is unable to behave like a loving wife towards her husband, though he would definitely deserve it for Joe is the incarnation of a warm-hearted and caring person – the complete opposite of his wife. Mrs. Joe has a deep need to control everything and everyone and tyrannizes Pip and Joe with her energetic, aggressive and not-at-all feminine way. From time to time Mrs. Joe threatens Joe and Pip with a cane, which she even got a name – “Tickler”. Furthermore she forces them to drink an awful liquid which she calls “tar-water”.

Not even been given a name of her own, on the one hand she fulfils the stereotype of an easy-minded housewife, whose only occupation is to serve to her family. On the other hand Mrs. Joe has taken over the traditional male and patriarchal role in her marriage with the village blacksmith Joe Gargery. She is much stronger than her husband and makes him feel this almost every second of his life.

Not satisfied with a dry cleaning, she took to a pail and scrubbing-brush, and cleaned us out of house and home, so that we stood shivering in the back yard. It was ten o’clock at night before we ventured to creep in again, and then she asked Joe why he hadn’t married a Negress Slave at once? (Dickens, p.96)

Unless having changed the traditional roles, Mrs. Joe considers herself something like a “domestic slave “ (Frost, p.61), who will never find some time for herself where she can do what she likes. But otherwise Mrs. Joe seems to love her position at home like a martyr. Although she repeats almost every few seconds how tired she is of serving Pip and Joe she never really changes anything to improve her supposed bad position. Frost puts this behaviour as follows:

Mrs. Joe constantly calls everyone’s attention to her fate, always blaming her frustration on a source outside herself, on someone or some circumstance over which she has no control. (…) Dickens intuitively recognises the behaviour of a neurotic who clings to her neurosis. (Frost, p.61)

It does not become quite clear which circumstances made her marry the village blacksmith when she is obviously so unhappy about it. In Victorian times it was the women’s duty to select the best husband they could get (c.f. Amstrong). The only possible solution is, that Mrs. Joe did not find a “better” husband, although she does not realize that it is probably not only to blame on Joe that she is so frustrated, as everyone is responsible for his own happiness.


Excerpt out of 15 pages


Women in Charles Dickens’ "Great Expectations"
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institute for England - und American Studies)
Charles Dickens - Great Expectatoins
2 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
547 KB
Double spaced.
Women, Charles, Dickens’, Great, Expectations, Charles, Dickens, Great, Expectatoins
Quote paper
Katrin Zielina (Author), 2003, Women in Charles Dickens’ "Great Expectations", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/24712


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