4 Strong Women From The Charles Dickens Classic Great Expectations

What is captivating in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and Ms. Havisham’s beautifully layered, complex character- is vulnerability.

What does the absence of love do, to people? Whether circumstantial or by design? Whether unrequited or broken? What love is the one we crave in the deepest crevices of our hearts? Love for liberating ourselves from the world we inhabit, or the love of being loved itself? Or, the love of feeling more than we actually are?

One of the greatest classics of English Literature, for all time, asks these questions from flawed, grey, people- some dramatic characters, some tethered to rationality, some only and deeply emotional- but flawed, broken nonetheless. Great Expectations. With every read, opens newer questions, deeper meanings and the fallacies of life that emerge.

Here are 4 Strong Women From The Charles Dickens Classic Great Expectations

Ms. Havisham

While the protagonist is Pip, in his various life-stages, battered at various times, caught in a web of emotions and circumstances when the core of what he believes is far from the truth, it is Ms. Havisham, who I believe is an architect of Great Expectations. Unable to have orchestrated her own life, she, insisting time and space freeze, has no choice but to decay with time. Because Time itself, is unrelentless, and just goes on.

What is captivating in Great Expectations, and Ms. Havisham’s beautifully layered, complex character- is vulnerability. The breaking of trust that led to a broken, shattered, vindictive existence, holding her misery and broken heart dear, because that truth, that time when it broke, was after all the only thing she could trust. It is important to liken Ms. Havisham’s existence to decay, much to what ‘depression’ in our modern day parlance feels like.

Where misery is so familiar, so comfortable, so dependable, that one is often at a deep conflict with oneself of how to and more importantly whether to, break out of it. The rational mind always tells you to move on, and actively address the unhappiness, but the weary, tattered emotional sides, insist that you stay in what is familiar- to not make oneself more vulnerable to greater pain that can come.

The description of Ms. Havisham, attempting to arrest time and hold it still, in the wedding dress she shrinks in, describes these feelings better than any other way to articulate them. Her anger, her vindictiveness at being discarded, or thwarted, is testimony to immense vulnerability and her attempts at shielding herself from greater pain. And the act of bringing up Estella devoid of emotions, is as much to watch as other’s go through insurmountable pain at her hands, and somewhere protect Estella from the pain that the ability to feel brings, and what in Ms Havisham’s words ‘was her fate’.

Ms. Havisham lives in the ruin of her life never stepping out of the four walls, that are her proverbial home as much as coffin, buried under melancholy and unrequited love, with not a wisp of sunlight. Yet, she is as strong as she is fragile. Completely aware of what she can do, omniscient from a single window, she quietly and irreversibly alters lives. She isn’t pitiable, and that is the genius of Dickens. She brings up Estella, is aware of her estate, manipulates Pip, and uses Jaggers, as pawns in the chess game she plays, without moving a piece.


Strong, defiant, stone. A woman very aware of her fortune, presence and beauty, Estella is what Ms Havisham makes her. She revels in the misery she causes- overtly. Pristine and elegant, yet devoid of feeling she is assertive with every choice she is allowed to make. And yet she suffers, and realizes that with life comes pain, and with pain the recognizable ability to feel.

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Offsetting these strong, complex female characters, there is Biddy. Warm, welcoming and rational. And the joy in the book really is interpreting how different women (and people), react to the idea of unrequited love. While Ms Havisham attempts to arrest time and melancholia, Biddy let’s rationality and the ability to love repeatedly decide her course of action.

By choosing Joe Gargery, she finds a way to make the love she has to give, find a purpose. And Biddy too, like Estella and Ms Havisham is a strong woman, articulating her choices, and makes conscious decisions. The ability to feel, and love is in fact, her strength.

Mrs Joe Gargery

Mrs Joe Gargery, the proverbial mother but a far cry from the stereotype of one, was another strong woman, ambitious and yet caught in a life that she detested- hoping to increase her own worth with the company she kept. Or Molly, who gave up her child for the child’s better future, living ‘tamed’ and subservient to a man, who was in many ways, her benefactor.

What is fascinating with all these women, is the relationship they had with love, and what/who they infact chose to love. While Ms. Havisham was melancholic and yet found hope in rearing a little girl (lost in both loves, one beyond her control and one within it), Estella didn’t recognize it or value it, Mrs. Joe Gargery who didn’t care for it, and Biddy who loved, lost and had the courage to love again. These relationships form the remaining for these undeniably strong, complex and flawed women.

The men, in Great expectations too were far from the mere tropes of masculinity. Each lived through life basis the choices they made in moments that in hindsight became pivots in the directions their lives took.

Great Expectations’ storyline, introduction of characters, the interweaving of emotions and the complex resolutions, mimic life at its rawest. Where more often than not, nothing is as it seems, and circumstances are almost always beyond our control. And truths that are difficult to accept must be accepted.

The joy of the book is the substance of each character, the separate journeys they undertake, and what those journeys enable, for the ‘expectations’ themselves to change. Are ‘Great Expectations’ finally, having none at all? The large questions that life brings, and we spend it, looking for answers we will probably never find.

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About the Author

Saumya Baijal

Saumya Baijal, is a writer in both English and Hindi. Her stories, poems and articles have been published on Jankipul.com, India Cultural Forum, The Silhouette Magazine, Feminism in India, Drunk Monkeys, Writer’s Asylum, read more...

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