Heart Imagery in Great Expectations

Heart Imagery in Great Expectations

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Heart Imagery in Great Expectations

The heart is a symbolic barometer in Great Expectations that carries us from chapter to pulsating chapter. The novel's characters are forever wearing their hearts on their sleeves and in the process end up baring their souls within the text itself, and without, to the reader. What is the significance of hearts and their many states as described when Pip unfolds his own dramatic rags-to-riches-to-grace tale? Several scenes probe Miss Havisham's psyche with words about the condition of her heart. By analyzing them, we may be able to guess to what purpose Charles Dickens employs the heart imagery so frequently and so effectively.


For all the allusions which connect Miss Havisham to death-upon seeing her at the dressing table, Pip is immediately reminded of "some ghastly waxwork" and "a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress," (93) -she is far from dead. Keeping her alive is the promise of youth: Estella and Pip. The promise the children give Miss Havisham, however, is not wholesome or optimistic, and neither is her communication with them. The first thing Miss Havisham reveals to Pip is that she suffers from a broken heart, "[uttering] the word...with strong emphasis, and with a weird smile that had a kind of boast," (94). This seems an odd confession for an adult to heave upon a child. Private miseries are kept quiet in order to spare children from the harsh reality of adult life.


But Miss Havisham is not worried about sparing anyone. Because she holds the family fortune, no one will insist that she snap out of her reverie of grief. Her intention is that Estella will learn to break men's hearts as recompense for Miss Havisham's having been broken. She admits to "sick fancies," and her demeanor so troubles Pip that he remarks, "Her contempt for me was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it" (95). Yet Pip is ready to forgive Miss Havisham for reducing him to self-hatred, even on that very first day: He tells us that as she watches the card game, Miss Havisham had "the appearance of having dropped... under the weight of a crushing blow" (96). Her posture softens him and he returns to Satis House over and over, even as he knows he is "under" the house's "influence" and it makes him "continue at heart to hate [his] trade" (158).

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Years later, Miss Havisham's bitterness about her failed engagement emerges with even more guile. She tells Pip, "Real love is blind devotion...self-humiliation...giving up your whole heart to the smiter-as I did!" (269).


Pip eventually recognizes the depravity to which he has given in, but when he confronts Estella and Miss Havisham with his heartache, he refuses to assign blame. He explains, "I think that in the endurance of her own trial, she forgot mine," (386) excusing Miss Havisham for allowing him to think he might be given Estella as an entitlement of his place in society. Miss Havisham awakens to her own complicity; Pip "saw Miss Havisham put her hand to her heart" (386), a gesture steeped in guilt. She finally sees the people who love her as they are in the light of day, no longer held up as salves or foils to her past. Later, she again calls Pip to Satis House, seeking his forgiveness. Pip tells us, "[she] dropped to her knees at my feet; with her folded hands raised to me in the manner in which, when her poor heart was young and fresh and whole" (421).


Miss Havisham discusses her crimes against nature, saying, "I stole [Estella's] heart away and put ice in its place" to which Pip replies, "Better...to have left her a natural heart, even to be bruised or broken" (422). Pip is able to forgive Miss Havisham because he loves her, and because he too has withheld his natural heart, from Joe and Biddy, in order to ascend the ladder of class. As a boy, he came under the spell of Miss Havisham's grief, was led astray by it, and must finally acknowledge his own complacency in order to forgive himself and become a proper man.


Dickens cleverly employs the viscera of the heart to symbolize the burdens and pleasures of personal relations, and to serve as a reliable gauge of a character's moral center. Miss Havisham is an obvious example of his efforts: She hoards pain in her heart, teaches others to withhold in their hearts affection, and in the end is wretchedly sorry for having allowed the past to kill any promise of a happy present. In the end, Pip is able to learn from Miss Havisham, and thus exiles himself from Joe and Biddy in order to let go of the ghosts of his childhood. Only then can he encounter Estella on equal footing, in the ruins of Satis House, to forge an ambiguous, though certainly not ruinous, future.


Work Cited:

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1942.

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