Essay, Research Paper
Criticisms of Great Expectations: Psychoanalytic and Gender Perspectives
Psychoanalytic and gender literary criticisms are important as individual analyses and are similar in some respects, namely sexual and gender issues, which make them ideal choices for analyzing Great Expectations. Reading the novel from a psychoanalytical perspective invites an interpretation based on symbols, repression, dreams, and the nature of the conscious vs. the unconscious mind. The central thesis of psychoanalytical criticism is based on the theories of Sigmund Freud, who recognized the link between literary works and human psychology. Just as Freud?s theories on human psychology have changed the way in which the world thinks, so has psychoanalytical criticism changed the way literature is read and studied.
If, by understanding human psychology according to Freud,
we can appreciate literature on a new level, then we should
acquaint ourselves with his insights. (464)
A gender criticism of the novel can be based in deconstructing oppositions in the text that are related to gender issues, such as masculine vs. feminine and heterosexual vs. homosexual.
Gender criticism evolved from feminist criticism in the early 1980s, raising issues ?that are endlessly contested and perhaps necessarily problematic.? (558)
Peter Brooks?s essay on repetition and repression in the plot of Great Expectations is especially useful because Brooks presents the psychoanalytic criticism through the text itself, not through the characters. A Freudian approach to literature views the plot of the text as the object to be analyzed ? the patient, if you will. Dickens uses plot and manipulation of plot effectively throughout the novel until the end, when, as Brooks says, ?none of the schemes machinated by the characters manages to accomplish its aims? (496). Brooks uses Freud?s theory of the relationship between the ego and the id, or the conscious and the unconscious, as though the actual text of Great Expectations has a mind of its own, its own psyche, and he references Freud?s words that ?the basic human drive is ?to return to the quiescence of the inorganic world? ? ?the aim of all life is death?? (478). Brooks?s interpretation of Freudian theories helped me see Dickens?s characters more vividly. Psychoanalytic criticism aims to show that literature is always structured by complex and contradictory human desires and power relations. Assuming that Freud?s premise of the conscious vs. the unconscious (and how they, in turn, relate to repetition, repression and return) is a valid hypothesis, then Great Expectations in general, and Pip in particular, are classic studies in Freudian behavior.
Dickens?s characters seem to take on enormous symbolic significance when the reader begins to see these theories in practice . For example, the crazed figure of Miss Havisham is always clothed in her wedding dress, which is evidence of both repetitious and repressed behavior. Brooks comments on Pip?s first encounter with Miss Havisham, when Pip thinks that she looks like ?some ghastly wax-work at the Fair? (71). Brooks insists that:
The passage records the formation of a memory trace from a moment of
unmastered horror, itself formed in repetition of moments of past visual
impression, a trace that forces its way through the mind without being
grasped by consciousness and is refused outlet in a cry. Much later in
the novel, Pip ? and also Miss Havisham herself ? will have to deal
with the return of this repressed. (485)
Another psychoanalytical concept that Brooks describes is Pip?s relationship with Estella, which he terms a ?frustrated courtship? (492). Brooks writes that Pip and Estella have the capacity to engage in a pseudo-incestuous relationship, a concept with which I agree. Miss Havisham is both a mother figure to Pip and an adopted mother to Estella, and Magwitch is a father figure to Pip as well as Estella?s natural father. While their relationship is not really incestual, Brooks describes it by saying that:
Estella will turn out to be approximately Pip?s sister?natural daughter
of Magwitch as he is Magwitch?s adoptive son?which lends force to the
idea that she, like so many Romantic maidens, is marked by the interdict,
as well as the seduction, of incest, which, as the perfect androgynous
coupling, is precisely the short-circuit of desire. (492)
Because Magwitch is not Pip?s natural father, and because he was not a presence in Estella?s life, Brooks believes that Magwitch assumes the role of father both to Estella and to Pip, and that Magwitch ?becomes not a figure of authority so much as a principle of interdiction, of prohibition? (492). If Pip and Estella do, indeed, share the same father figure, in absentia, in Magwitch, the Freudian concept of sexual repression is of great significance. Pip?s sexual desire for a woman who is pseudo-family reeks of incest and taboo familial relations.
As a contrast to psychoanalytic criticism, gender criticism explores ideas about what it means within the text to be either male or female, and how men and women are represented in literature. Sexuality and gender are viewed as very complex ranges of possibilities rather than just categories, which is why I believe that William Cohen?s essay erroneously focuses on a much too narrow interpretation of masturbation in Great Expectations. Cohen seems to be a deconstructionist and a gender critic when he writes:
Even as the novel strove to redirect its readers away from masturbatory
vice, however, this now-dominant form of imaginative literature could
hardly cease its sexual provocations. The novel increasingly learned how
to perform this simultaneously regulatory and arousing function while
having ever less to say about sex overtly. (572)
Cohen wants the reader to look ?at a scene in Great Expectations in which Dickens raises the issue of masturbation? (573). The scene is the one in which Pip, just home from his first encounter with Magwitch in the graveyard, hides a piece of bread from Mrs. Joe down his pants leg. Cohen wants the reader to believe that Pip?s actions are ?Dickens?s most vivid account of the pleasures and anxieties of autoeroticism? (573). Cohen believes that the bread and butter are cover for Pip?s alleged erection, although it can also be argued that Pip was hiding his bread and butter from his domineering sister.
Throughout his essay, Cohen is preoccupied with the relationship between hands and masturbation, writing that ?For the Victorian reader, the hand would immediately be available both as a site of sexual signification and as a dangerous sexual implement? (576). Pip becomes an ?avid? masturbator, in Cohen?s opinion (577), wears gloves to cover his shameful hands, was brought up ?by hand?, Mrs. Joe has a heavy hand, Joe laid his hand on Pip?s shoulder, Molly has powerful hands, and the sexual act of handshaking, each taking on an erotic connotation in Cohen?s criticism. He further insists that both Magwitch and Herbert ?handle? Pip excessively, what Cohen terms as ?adult male homosociality? (586). Cohen even suggests that Magwitch ?embodies a certain pedophilia? (586). Cohen is obviously basing his criticism on what we know of the Victorians, that they were a repressed society. ?Foucault suggests that homosexuality as we now think of it was to a great extent an invention of the nineteenth century? (562). According to Foucault, gender and sexuality are constructs of society and culture and the Victorian society and culture considered homosexuality and masturbation unacceptable behaviors. Freud believed that all things repressed will eventually manifest themselves in some form or another. Cohen believes that the masturbatory manifestation was through the repeated imagery of the hands in Great Expectations, which I believe is an oversimplification, possibly even an erroneous portrayal, of Victorian repression.
Gender criticism is so much more than Cohen represented in his essay. In the introduction to the section on gender criticism, Murfin states that:
One of the principal achievements of gender studies?arguably,
its principal achievement?has been to stress the importance of
differentiating sex, gender, and sexuality from each other, while
at the same time, recognizing their relationships to each other. (559)
When I consider a gender criticism of Great Expectations, I think, primarily, of Joe and the role reversal he undertook as a mother figure to Pip. The gender roles of Joe and Mrs. Joe were reversed and Pip noticed. ?Joe laid his hand upon my shoulder with the touch of a woman? (143). Joe has a kind and loving heart and felt sorry for and took care of Pip for most of Pip?s life. Joe had developed, probably out of pity for young Pip, the maternal instincts that Mrs. Joe lacked. Later, when Joe marries Biddy, he continues to be a kind and caring man to his new wife and his new child, in all probability a result of what he learned to do for Pip while he was married to Mrs. Joe. Joe?s hand on Pip?s shoulder is not a sexual or autoerotic act, but rather a loving caress from the only parental figure that Joe had known in his early life.
Psychoanalytic and gender criticism are very closely linked in literary theory. Freud?s work was based on the belief that the unconscious is the part of the mind beyond consciousness and that it influences how people act. Freud believed that to strengthen the ego (the conscious), one must bring repressed memories or emotions into the conscious mind. Freud also studied sexual development and had very definite ideas and theories about sex and gender. Brooks?s essay on psychoanalytic criticism was more informative and helpful in interpreting Great Expectations than was Cohen?s gender criticism, though Cohen?s approach was certainly unique and fascinating to read, impossible to ignore, and difficult with which to agree.