Great Expectations - Miss Havisham
The mad, vengeful Miss Havisham, a wealthy dowager who lives in a rotting mansion and wears an old wedding dress every day of her life, is not exactly a believable character, but she is certainly one of the most memorable creations in the book.
What does ‘vengeful’ mean?
In this context, it means she wants to get her own back on men. All men, not just the man who jilted her.
What is ‘to be jilted’?
It’s an old word for ‘being left at the altar’ - in other words, someone gets 100% ready for the marriage, and the other person doesn’t show up.
Miss Havisham’s life is defined by a single tragic event: her jilting by Compeyson on what was to have been their wedding day. From that moment forth, Miss Havisham is determined never to move beyond her heartbreak.
Do you remember who Compeyson was?
He was the other convict, who was in the graveyard with Magwitch. In the film we do not see him, but he features much more in the book.
Miss Havisham stops all the clocks in Satis House at twenty minutes to nine, the very moment when she first learned that Compeyson was gone. She wears only one shoe, because when she learned of his betrayal, she had not yet put on the other shoe.
With a kind of manic, obsessive cruelty, Miss Havisham adopts Estella and raises her as a weapon to achieve her own revenge on men.
What is ‘manic’?
In this context, ‘manic’ means an idea that consumes everything Miss Havisham does, and makes her concentrate everything on that idea. And it makes her mad.
And what about ‘obsessive’?
That means she cannot let go of the idea; everything she does is aimed towards getting revenge on all men.
Miss Havisham is an example of single-minded vengeance pursued destructively: both Miss Havisham and the people in her life suffer greatly because of her quest for revenge.
We can see that Miss Havisham has an awful life - hidden away - through her own choice - in the old house, dust and cobwebs everywhere, rats, mice and spiders crawling over her and the wedding feast - the cake and food which has been left to rot away over the years.
Not only that, but those who are in her life are also hurt by her obsessiveness. Estella of course is hurt most because she is trained by Miss Havisham not to be able to love. When there is only one person in your life, they can manipulate you however they want - especially if they are an adult and you are much younger.
Who were the other family in Miss Havisham’s life?
Other people in Miss Havisham’s life were of course the family Pocket. They were more or less the only relatives Miss Havisham had - and they, although genuinely nice people, stood to inherit Miss Havisham’s money when she finally died.
Even when they visited Miss Havisham on her birthday - quite a journey in those days - Miss Havisham was rude, dismissive and spoke to them like they were only after her money.
What was Miss Havisham’s main failing?
Miss Havisham is completely unable to see that her actions are hurtful to Pip and Estella - or anyone else.
Miss Havisham, because she was so obsessed and determined to get revenge on all men, just could not see how much she was hurting other people. She certainly had no idea that Estella was so damaged by her teaching that Estella, when it came to it, could not even love Miss Havisham; but Miss Havisham could see how much Pip was hurt.
Whom did Estella marry?
And what was he like?
He was a nasty, rich, arrogant, angry and jealous man who really wanted what we call a ’trophy’ wife - one who is beautiful and desired by many other men.
Not only Pip was hurt by Estella’s marriage to Drummle but any other man who was interested in Estella. The choice of Bentley Drummle as Estella’s husband went wrong for Miss Havisham, because he was such a nasty man, that he hurt Estella far more than she could hurt him with her coldness and lack or real love.
In a way, though, that was why Estella was allowed to marry Drummle - all the other, kind, nice, decent and honest men - such as Pip - would be heartbroken when they knew that Estella had married a nasty rich man. And that’s what Miss Havisham wanted.
One of the themes of Great Expectations - and many of the books of Dickens - is ‘redemption’.
Do you know a simple definition of ‘redemption’?
Simply, in this context, ‘redemption’ means making everything alright.
The three characters of Pip, Estella and Miss Havisham get redemption, and so even does Magwitch, but in a different way.
We’ll deal with Magwitch first.
As you know, he was a convict - someone caught breaking the law and sentenced to prison, then transportation.
He escaped the police holding him, and that was when he met Pip in the graveyard. Much, much later, he came back to England - against the law and so in grave danger - to see Pip and to thank him personally for his kindness all those years ago.
The redemption of Magwitch comes when he has seen Pip, acknowledges that he has broken the law, but also when Pip forgives him for any bad Magwitch has done him. Magwitch dies in peace, in prison.
The redemption of Miss Havisham is more dramatic. She finally realises that Estella cannot one anyone - not even her - Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham sees, finally, the harm she has done to Estella. She fully expected that Estella loved her - Miss Havisham - as her mother.
When she realises that Estella does’t even one her, that is the moment when her redemption comes - as it happens, it is when Pip is there too - telling Miss Havisham how much he feels his life is worth (nothing) because the one love of his life has married Drummle and there’s no chance for Pip to be happy.
It’s at the same time that Miss Havisham knows that Estella doesn’t love her either - and suddenly Miss Havisham knows the harm she has done.
She is redeemed at the end of the novel when she realises that she has caused Pip’s heart to be broken in the same manner as her own; rather than achieving any kind of personal revenge, she has only caused more pain.
Miss Havisham immediately begs Pip for forgiveness, reinforcing the novel’s theme that bad behaviour can be redeemed by contrition and sympathy.
And it works; Pip does forgive her. His natural sympathy comes out again and in the novel he does show kindness to her - as he did to Magwitch.
The redemption of Estella is maybe a longer and more painful process.
All her life she was taught by Miss Havisham to be horrible to men of all ages; sadly for Miss Havisham you cannot teach someone to love some people and not others - and we know that Estella did not even love Miss Havisham.
Estella goes through a terrible marriage; Bentley Drummle, with his trophy wife - is cruel, unkind and uncaring. He doesn’t really love Estella, he loves the fact she is what lots of other men want.
Drummle dies, eventually, and Estella is left with no one. Miss Havisham has died; no one else in high society wants her because she was the hated wife of Drummle, and behaved like she was better than everyone else.
When Pip meets her in the ruins of Satis House, he is the only one to show his true love to her. She admits that she was awful to him, that she was taught to be so, and importantly she admits she has nothing in the world. That is the moment of her redemption.
So we can see that Miss Havisham is the cause of much heartache throughout the novel; she allowed Pip to think that the lawyer Mr Jaggers was giving Pip her money; she taught Estella to not be able to love anyone; she blamed the Pockets for things which they were not.
However, she was redeemed, and allowed to live (in the novel) a few years, regretting how nasty she had been.