Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

"[S]imply Because I Found Her Irresistible": Female Erotic Power and Feminism in Great Expectations

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

"[S]imply Because I Found Her Irresistible": Female Erotic Power and Feminism in Great Expectations

Article excerpt

Great Expectations is a novel filled with mutilated women; Miss Havisham, Mrs. Joe and Estella all suffer terribly in the hands of the men. They are, as Lucy Frost argues, all tamed by violence. Energy in women appears as destructive and goodness as broken submissiveness (60, 77). However, it is also true that Great Expectations portrays male violence against women as a crime; the deaths of Bentley Drummle and Miss Havisham's half-brother are a direct result of their violent nature in the case of the former, and of their maltreatment of women, in the case of the latter. Conversely, Joe, who serves as the novel's moral center, is noteworthy for his refusal to become a wife-beater like his father. This essay reads Great Expectations as a novel with a central feminist core, not only in that it condemns male violence, but also in that it develops, in Pip, a form of masculinity which accepts a woman's sensual power and appeal. The male stare in Great Expectations is, I suggest, is liberating and inclusive, refusing to construct female sexual power as anything other than potent and appealing. In its treatment of Estella, Great Expectations can be read as a novel which endorses the woman's perspective and erotic power, promoting a form of masculinity which is unambiguous in its liberation from social norms of acceptable feminine and masculine behavior. Great Expectations contains a version of masculinity which is mature and broad enough to include feelings of tenderness towards other men and women, and to endorse a female ideal which is both erotic and powerful.

Any form of masculinity embodied in Pip is necessarily intertwined with the socially accepted figure of the gentleman and an ideal of the gentleman that involves both class and moral values. During his early years in London, Pip is a gentleman in appearance only--well dressed, arrogant and careless with money--traits that continue to define his behavior until he begins to re-evaluate his conduct and character. For John Lucas, Pip becomes a gentleman "only when his repugnance for Magwitch has melted away," only when he feels compassion for the hunted man, and remorse for his treatment of Joe. "Pip becomes a gentleman as he loses his gentlemanly status" (135-36). Although background and circumstance were important in defining a gentleman, Dickens refuses to separate the concept from moral worthiness, learning and manners. At the end of the novel, it is hard work, first as a clerk then later as a partner in the firm of Clarriker, Pocket and Pirrip, that transforms Pip "from an idle and debt-ridden snob to a solvent but no less gentlemanly businessman," willing in principle, Aaron Landau argues, however fleeting[ly], to work manually with Joe at the forge (163).

The novel's examination of the idea of the gentleman is symptomatic of a general scrutiny of gender codes in the novel. Critical opinion tends to see this scrutiny as a failure of Pip as a character. Kathleen Sell has argued that felt shame runs through Pip's narrative because he realizes he has failed "to fulfil the narrative of desire required of the typical Victorian hero," secure with a home attended by "an angel at its hearth," while he "toils in the public sphere" (212). The marriage plot, as Herbert Sussman has suggested, was "the approved script for bourgeois manhood" (63-64).

Sell's analysis, however, overlooks the meticulousness with which Dickens charts Pip's development from a snob to a man of character, and a man of action. Gradually, Pip moves closer to the clear-sighted self who is narrating the novel, revealing an increasing degree of self-knowledge with each step. From the crisis of identity he suffers upon learning that Magwitch had been his real benefactor (325; ch. 40) to the dark night of the soul at the Hummums (362-63; ch. 45), Pip emerges as practical, capable of translating his crisis into decisive action. He helps Magwitch hide, makes plans for them to leave England together and begins rowing practice with Herbert. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.