Women and property is one of the central themes in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Dickens wrote this novel during the mid-nineteenth century, a period when women's property rights were being intensely debated in England. His depiction of propertied women in the novel reflects Victorian England's beliefs about women's inability to responsibly own and manage their own property. Miss Havisham is presented as the embodiment of women's failure to properly manage wealth and property. Mr. Havisham's settlement of the bulk of his estate on his daughter, despite the existence of a male heir, is unconventional, as the property system operated on a patrilineal basis. Estella's economic tragedy illustrates consequences of disposing property onto women who will inevitably marry. She suffers the loss of her property at the hands of an unscrupulous husband who misuses her fortune. The most recent analysis of the chronology of Great Expectations shows that the main action spans between 1812 and 1829 (Carlisle 5). Dickens clearly gives attention to wealthy women who own property and are susceptible to abuse. The social and historical context of the penning of the novel, and the period during which it is set, suggests a criticism of women's property rights.
Despite the existence of a male heir, Mr. Havisham rejects the patrilineal system of property distribution and wills the bulk of his estate to his daughter, Miss Havisham. Mr. Havisham is a wealthy brewer whose first wife dies during Miss Havisham's infancy. Later, Mr. Havisham "privately" takes his cook as a second wife and she bears him a son (176; ch. 22). After the death of his second wife, Mr. Havi...
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... her family in economic recovery and restores the family's patrilineal system. She financially helps Herbert secure his investment in a profitable business. She also wills Mathew Pocket "a cool four thousand" (423; ch. 57). By investing in her male relatives, Miss Havisham plays a vital role in preserving the patrilineal system. The novel's ending eliminates women as an economic force and repositions them in their proper place in Victorian society.
Carlisle, Janice. "Introduction: Biographical and Historical Context." Charles Dickens. Great Expectations. Ed. Janice
Carlisle. Boston: Bedford 1996. 3-21.
Dabney, Ross. Love and Property in the Novels of Dickens. Berkeley: U of California P, 1967.
Walsh, Susan. "Bodies of Capital: Great Expectations and the Climacteric Economy." Victorian Studies 37 (1993): 73-98.
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