Victorian gender roles and Dickens’s image of women as represented in the female characters in "Great Expectations"

Term Paper, 2004

21 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents


1. A short summary of Great Expectations

2. Victorian construction of gender

3. Dickens’s image of women

4. The female characters in Great Expectations
4.1 Estella
4.2 Mrs. Joe Gargery
4.3 Miss Havisham
4.4 Biddy



The following work is an analysis of the female characters in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations especially with regard to Victorian gender constructions and Dickens’s image of women. Dickens’s biography and the depiction of very diverse female characters in his novels stimulated the idea of a closer analysis.

First of all, a short summary of Great Expectations is provided. Then, the Victorian construction of gender will be discussed. As will be shown, a very strict ideology regarding gender roles existed during the Victorian age. Obviously, Dickens must have been influenced by the ideas of his contemporaries which should then be presented in the novel.

Another focus will be on how his relationships to women influenced his image of women and also, consequently, the depiction of his female characters in Great Expectations.

Finally the female characters, with reference to Victorian gender roles and Dickens’s image of women, will be analyzed in greater detail. The focus is on four women who I believe to be the most important female characters in the novel and powerful representatives of the author’s image of women and Victorian gender construction.

1. A short summary of Great Expectations

The story opens with the narrator, Pip, visiting the graveyard in which his parents and siblings are buried. Suddenly Pip is terrified by the runaway convict Magwitch who demands food and a file to free him from his leg iron. To steal what he was told, Pip runs home to his sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, and his adoptive father, Joe Gargery, a blacksmith.

Not long after this, Pip is invited by the wealthy and eccentric Miss Havisham to visit her and ‘play’. “Jilted in love years previously, she has had her clocks stopped and shut herself up, attired in her wedding dress, in rooms in Satis House.”[1] Pip’s role at Miss Havisham’s turns out to be as a toy for her adopted daughter Estella. Miss Havisham is raising the beautiful young girl to break men’s hearts in revenge for her own broken heart. Pip falls in love with Estella, who scorns Pip, and becomes self-conscious about his low social class and unpolished manners. From then on he is dreaming of becoming a gentleman.[2]

One day a London lawyer, Jaggers, comes to Pip’s village and announces that he has ‘great expectations’ of wealth and social advancement from an unknown benefactor, whom Pip supposes to be Miss Havisham.[3] Joe releases Pip from his apprenticeship at the forge and he goes to London. In the mean time, one night, Mrs. Joe Gargery is being attacked by Orlick, leaving her dumb and paralyzed. In London, Pip lives beyond his allowances, turns his back on Joe and Biddy – a young woman who helps to take care of Mrs. Joe, who will later marry Joe – because he is embarrassed of his roots, and is frustrated in love when Estella favors Bentley Drummle.

Magwitch reappears one night and reveals himself to be Pip’s benefactor. Pip feels sick at heart when he realizes that his fortune didn’t come from Miss Havisham after all, and there’s no plan to marry him to Estella.[4] Pip wants to help Magwitch and bring him abroad since, as a returned transportation convict, he is liable to execution if recaptured.

Pip returns to Satis House to ask for money to set his friend Herbert up in business. Miss Havisham’s dress catches fire and Pip is burned putting out the flames. Asking for Pip’s forgiveness, Miss Havisham dies.

Pip finds out that Estella is the daughter of Magwitch and the murderess Molly, whom Jaggers, having defended from the charge, maintains as a housekeeper.[5]

Magwitch’s escape fails and he’s supposed to be hanged but dies first. Pip, whose feelings for Magwitch have undergone a complete change, was at his side during his struggle with death. More and more Pip seems to realize what’s really important in his life and what being a gentleman should be all about.

He returns to the forge, wanting to propose to Biddy, whose true character he’s discovered, to find that she has married Joe. So, Pip joins Herbert in his shipping firm in Egypt and, years later, returns to England and meets Estella, now the widow of Drummle.[6] It remains a matter of debate if Estella and Pip, in the end, walk towards a future together.

2. Victorian construction of gender

Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations was published in 1860-61, in the Victorian period. When reading and analyzing Victorian literature the special historical circumstances of that time need to be considered and, with regard to the topic of this paper, the Victorian construction of gender should receive special attention.

England in the nineteenth century was a world in which ethical values stemmed directly from teachings of the church. The position of women, and the construction of femininity as well as masculinity, owed as much to religious values as to biological difference or to the changing requirements of the economy. Women were doubly bound by the church’s teachings; “in the biblical texts of St Paul, their submission to men had become an item of religious law, and further, in the religious revivalism of the early nineteenth century, their task as bearers of religious moral values was clarified and strengthened.”[7] Women were granted a role in spiritual life which at the same time empowered and confined them. They were empowered on the one hand because moral education became their prescribed duty in the family context, on the other hand they were thus restricted to the family responsibility it entailed. The effect of this assumption of moral guardianship was a major factor in the creation of what was coined the ‘domestic ideology’ of nineteenth-century England.[8] Cohen states: “The Victorians talked incessantly about the meaning of the home. Sociological and political thought generally lauded the home and family for being the highest form of social organization.”[9] Waters explains that the characterization of the home as an enclave of family warmth and harmony and its superintendence by a woman who embodies the domestic ideal are key elements in the ideology of the Victorian middle-class family.[10] This already suggests that men and women were supposed to live within separate social spheres. In the nineteenth century the idea of separate spheres entailed that women were responsible for creating and maintaining the home, while men were associated with the working world of industry and commerce.[11] According to Levine the ideology of separate spheres, “was to idealize a situation created by the new industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century.”[12] In this period, as Altick points out, the nation’s wealth increased and the complexity of the mercantile economy grew. This required a special kind of managerial expertise which supposedly was a peculiarly masculine trait. The prosperity was often accompanied by a separation of business premises from the home which encouraged the detachment of women from the money-making world. The “powerful concept of ‘refinement’ prescribed that all women outside the working class abstain from gainful employment except in cases of extreme necessity.”[13] Victorian society was a patriarchal society which expected women to be subservient to men and to be devoted wives and mothers. Convention dictated women a rigorously stereotyped personality. They were to cultivate fragility; their lack of sexual passion was universally accepted as a biological fact. There “[…] was the wider implication that woman was inferior to man in all ways except the unique one that counted most (to man): her femininity.”[14] In addition to these restrictions, women were also second-class citizens in the eyes of the law. Women lost their political status when they agreed to get married. At marriage, possessions and control of a woman’s property usually passed to her husband; the children of the marriage were his children and in case of a divorce, custody was ceded to the man.[15]


[1] Schlicke 1999, p. 263

[2] cf. Hughes, 1984, p. 6

[3] cf. Schlicke 1999, p. 263

[4] cf. Hughes 1984, p. 7-8

[5] cf. Schlicke 1999, p. 263

[6] cf. Schlicke 1999, p. 263

[7] Levine 1987, p. 11-12

[8] cf. Levine 1987, p. 12

[9] Cohen (with reference to Laslett’s Household and Family) 1998, p. 71 original source not available

[10] Waters 2001, p. 121

[11] cf. Waters 2001, p. 122

[12] Levine 1987, p. 12

[13] Altick 1973, p. 51 This does not apply to women of the lower social class since families within this social spheres desperately depended on the female’s income.

[14] Altick 1973, p. 53-54

[15] cf. Levine 1987, p. 133-34; also Altick 1973, p. 58

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Victorian gender roles and Dickens’s image of women as represented in the female characters in "Great Expectations"
University of Potsdam  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Great Expectations and Hard Times by Charles Dickens
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Victorian, Dickens’s, Great, Expectations, Great, Expectations, Hard, Times, Charles, Dickens
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Anja Dinter (Author), 2004, Victorian gender roles and Dickens’s image of women as represented in the female characters in "Great Expectations", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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