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Great Expectations - Estella

Often said to be Dickens’s first convincing female character, Estella is an ironic creation, one who darkly undermines the notion of romantic love and serves as a bitter criticism against the class system in which she is mired.

This means that although Dickens had written about females before, Estella was the first one that seemed to be like a real person, not just a character in a book.

She is ‘iconic’ because she represents the struggle of women against men.

What is an icon?
An icon is something which stands in for something else. For example, we all know emojis - they are small pictures standing in for writing lots of words about how we feel in a chat.

She shows that love is not always romantic, but can be hard, hurting and destroying.

In the social structure of the time, women were often married not so much for love, but to marry into, or join, families for money.

Raised from the age of three by Miss Havisham to torment men and “break their hearts,” Estella wins Pip’s deepest love by being deliberately cruel.

Unlike the warm, kind heroine of a traditional love story, Estella is cold, cynical, and manipulative.

She has a cold heart - and is ‘manipulative’.

What is ‘manipulative’?
It’s when someone tries to make you do things you do not really want to do, but they say things or promise things to make you do it.

Though she represents Pip’s idea of life among the upper classes, Estella is actually even lower-born than Pip; as Pip learns near the end of the novel, she is the daughter of Magwitch, the coarse convict, and so comes from the very lowest level of society.

But life in the upper classes does not give happiness to Estella.

Instead, she is victimised twice by her adopted class.

This means that at least two situations cause her hurt.

First - rather than being raised by Magwitch, a man of great inner nobility and therefore an emotionally honest man, she is raised by Miss Havisham, who destroys her ability to express emotion and interact normally with the world.

And rather than marrying the kindhearted commoner Pip, Estella marries the cruel nobleman Drummle, who treats her harshly and makes her life miserable for many years.

In this way, Dickens uses Estella’s life to reinforce the idea that happiness and well-being are not so connected to social position, or money: even if Estella had been poor, she might have been better off in love and happiness marrying the Pip without money.

Despite her cold behaviour and the damaging influences in her life, Dickens nevertheless ensures that Estella is still a sympathetic character.

Do you know what ‘sympathetic’ means here?
It means we can feel sad for her, knowing that she is damaged in her emotions.

By giving the reader a sense of Estella’s inner struggle to discover and act on her own feelings, rather just letting Estella being horrible to all men, Dickens gives the reader a glimpse of Estella’s inner life, which helps to explain what Pip might love about her. She is obviously beautiful for Pip, but there’s something else too.

Estella does not seem able to stop herself hurting Pip, but she also seems not to want to hurt him; she often warns him that she has “no heart” and tries to tell him as strongly as she can, to find happiness by leaving her behind.

Finally, Estella’s long, painful marriage to Bentley Drummle causes her to develop the same way as Pip—that is, she learns, through experience, to rely on and trust her own inner feelings.

In the final scene of the novel, she has become her own woman for the first time in the book. This means that she realises what she has done and how she has hurt people.

As she says to Pip, “Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching . . . I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape.”

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