The portrayal of society in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is that of a symbol of contemporary British civilization, with Miss Havisham representing the epitome of such. By utilizing this particular character as the conduit between social body and physical body, the author successfully blends together the kinship inherent to these aspects of British life. Miss Havisham is instrumental in establishing the link between the traditional Victorian society and the manner in which women finally gained significant changes in their investments. The economic health of society at the time of Great Expectations
can easily be determined by the manner in which Miss Havisham’s personal history
of poor investment strategy reflects the community’s somewhat fragile situation.
Also pertinent to the social aspect of Dickens’ Great Expectations is the relationship between younger and older generations, as effectively portrayed between Miss Havisham and eight-year-old Philip Pirrip. Upon meeting this rather outrageous representation of womanhood, the boy – in a child’s infinite innocence – he is compelled to separate himself from what he deems is a strange and unusual existence of alcohol. To him, the rotting barrels that once housed unlimited supplies of beer were symbolic of how he viewed Miss Havisham, a fermentative essence that had long since dried up from disuse and moribund old age. In comprising these thoughts, the young boy was left with the conclusion that such descriptive characterization is both frightening and hostile, choosing to abide by his inner instinct and institute avoidance.
"Better not try to brew beer there now, or it would turn out sour, boy; don't you think so?"
"It looks like it, miss."
"Not that anybody means to try," she added, "for that's all done with, and the place will stand as idle as it is, till it falls. As to strong beer, there's enough of it in the cellars already, to drown the Manor House" (Dickens PG).
Clearly representative of an impoverished society is that of Miss Havisham’s forsaken brewery, left in its decaying state with barrels and their “sour remembrance of better days” (Dickens PG). Indeed, the decrepit condition of the brewery is indicative of a more affluent class of social acceptance that once existed, only to ultimately give way to the likes of Miss Havisham’s degraded reality. The life that has left the brewery can be equated to the life that has been lost from society, as Miss Havisham has led an existence rife with humiliation, deception and heartache. Inasmuch as she attempted to make a go of the brewery, her failure to do so was instrumental in exemplifying women’s alleged shortcomings within culture in general and society in particular. She was also responsible for dismissing the role women played in the family’s economic system, which was a business model clearly associated with Victorian society.
Another connection to society that Dickens makes in Great Expectations is that of the manner in which the author measures the relationship between men and women as it relates to the commercial parameters within the Victorian society. It can be argued that Miss Havisham’s character, who had been swindled in investments, is indicative of a society that operated under false pretences when it came to honesty and integrity. Critics have suggested that this implication speaks to the rash speculation and reckless overtrading which some claim ultimately led to stock fraud, bankruptcies and bank crashes.
One obvious portrayal of society in Dickens’ Great Expectation is the role that women played during that era. Not only was she an unmarried heiress who managed her money rather questionably, but she was also representative of the upper echelon with respect to social status. This characterization is indicative of the changing roles women faced, as well as how these roles correlated with financial commitments. This aspect of the story matches that of a time when larger corporations were beginning to overtake the traditional structure of commercial operations, which often led to dangerous and flagrantly unsafe business practices. This was occurring at a time when women were fast pushing themselves into the workplace, whether the men wanted them there or not. Also indicative of Miss Havisham’s character portraying society is the fact that married women were finally allowed to own and dispose of property as what was known as “feme sole,” to which she was already privy in the context of Great Expectations. It is quite apparent from the book’s commencement that Miss Havisham is consistent in her ability to act independently of male advice, readily able to follow her own instinct when it comes to money. This does not bode well for her finances, however, inasmuch as she is caught more than once by swindlers and frauds.
It is through Miss Havisham’s mistakes and misunderstandings of the issues of money that stood to reflect women in general in a bad light, yet it was more that women were already established in this bad light long before she came along; indeed, all she was guilty of was resonating back what was already in existence. Women of that era had typically compromised their ability to manage economic concerns, inasmuch as men forever took the lead in that department. As a means by which to gain greater freedom as women, Miss Havisham represents the blunders and inconsistencies that were associated with that quest.
There is no denying the relationship between Miss Havisham as an economic figure – both literally and figuratively – which one can argue is what resides at the story’s nucleus. Also apparent is the connection between her physical body
and that of the social body, of which historians have long debated its homologous relationship. Is Miss Havisham the symbol of prosperity as it relates to society as a whole? In some manner she is, however, in other ways she better represents social decadence and depravity, as well. The inherent relationship between health and prosperity as compared with starvation and economic disaster is clear: the various stages of physical soundness equates to that of society’s stable existence.
Dickens’ own disillusionment with society bleeds through in the words of Great Expectations. The author was painfully aware of the economic conditions in the 1850s, noting that there were little opportunities for such young men like Pip and Herbert Pocket who were continually “looking about” (Dickens PG) for their one great chance. Dickens’ own sons are seen through the actions of characterization, demonstrating the author’s exasperation with their undistinguished careers. Critics have long contended that Dickens placed himself in the role of Pip as a means by which to illustrate the difficulties of society’s pressure.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. (Tor Books, 1998).