Feminism In Great Expectations Essay, Research Paper
Biddy as the Anti-Feminist Feminine Ideal
Charles Dickens? portrayal of the female gender in the novel Great Expectations is generally one of disdain. Pip typically encounters women who are mean-spirited, self-centered, and unsympathetic. Throughout the novel Pip is in conflict with women who treat him poorly. He is the subject of Mrs. Joe?s tyrant-like upbringing ?by hand.? He is the tool of Ms. Havisham?s warped education of Estella. Most of all, Pip must endure the total disregard of his strongest emotions by his great love, the cold Estella. For the most part, Dickens does not intend the reader to have much sympathy for these characters when a tragedy has befallen them. At their roots, they are not good people and deserve what they get. It seems as though Dickens generalizes the entire female population as being corrupt and impure at the core. There is only one major exception to this trend of evil women. She is Pip?s friend and teacher, Biddy.
In the novel, Dickens displays Biddy as the feminine ideal. Biddy is the right girl for Pip. The reader can sense this early in the novel but Pip only realizes it until the very end. She is kind, sympathetic, and nurturing towards Pip and Joe. She is helpful, intelligent, and rather innocent. She is the only woman that is pure and genuine. Dickens gives Biddy understanding and a strong intuition. She is also the only woman that can provide for herself and think of others at the same time. Yet, with all these virtues, Biddy is seen as a plain, ordinary girl. Pip thinks of her before he left for London, ?She was not beautiful ? she was common and could not be like Estella ? but she was pleasant and wholesome and sweet-tempered? (130). She lives a humble life without an overwhelming desire for greatness. She takes on her responsibilities dutifully and admirably but does not take out her frustrations on others. She never really becomes angry at Pip for the mean comments he makes about her or how he forgets about her and Joe. She is always happy for Pip and seems to care for him unconditionally. She embodies the antithesis of everything that makes Mrs. Joe, Ms. Havisham, and Estella so deplorable.
Dickens? representation of Biddy as the ideal woman is not a very flattering perspective on women. The fact that she does have all these great qualities and an almost flawless character yet is happy with her small role in life can be paralleled with the ideal housewife of the 1950?s. Growing up in that time, a girl was expected to be sweet, obedient, and well mannered. After she graduated from school, a girl would eventually fall in love and marry. At this point she would be considered a woman and ready to start a family of her own. She would maintain the demeanor of a woman that has it all together. She was expected to keep up her appearance along with the appearance of her entire family. The next big step would be to watch her children marry and have kids of their own. There was no thought of a college degree or a high salary. If the family needed money, the housewife could become a teacher, or nurse, or any other position typically designated for a woman. This was the submissive role of the majority of women during the middle of the 20th century.
Biddy, as the ideal woman of the 1800?s, would fit this model woman perfectly had she lived during the 1950?s. Biddy is plain and not very elegant, but can be pretty, and elaborate if it were necessary, as on Sunday?s to go to Church (59). In the early section of the novel Biddy is Pip?s teacher and teaches him along his journey. Biddy takes care of all the chores around the house and also the invalid Mrs. Joe. Once Mrs. Joe dies Biddy thinks that she will get a job as a teacher in the new school. She is seen as always content with her life, just as a woman of the 1950?s was expected to be. Of course, it is not until the end of the book that Biddy marries the strong, male provider in Joe that every woman in the 1950?s was expected to love and adore absolutely.
The character of Biddy does not appear offensive to women when examining her apart from the rest. She happens to be a smart, loving girl who does not mind a life on the forge. Relative to the rest of the major female characters though, she is the only one the reader can stand. By making the wealthy, extravagant, and unhappy women all evil people, Dickens states that the only good woman is the type that can live at home and take care of a family and be happy with her lot in life. By viewing the novel and the characters within it as a group, a certain type of reader may be offended by the feminine ideal contained in the novel. The view of women is rather sexist and unfair, although no character actually states any beliefs in the inferiority of women. It serves as the beginning of the stereotypes of women that were held so strong after the industrial revolution. These beliefs allowed men to branch out and become part of the changing world but expected women to stay in their place at home and thus in the background.
There is one point left to be made. There is nothing wrong with the character of Biddy. She is a good person and the reader is supposed to like her. She may be the epitome of a sexist culture but she does have her male equivalent in Joe. Joe too is humble, uneducated, but truly happy and good. With these two characters Dickens indicates that people don?t have to be rich and proper to be happy. These two are better people than most of the wealthy and ?superior? people in the novel. The only reason why Joe does not present the male ideal is because there are other admirable male characters of all different societal stature. Examples of these men would be Wemmick, Herbert, and Magwitch.
Dickens may not have had the malicious intentions of disparaging all women. Furthermore, his mindset can be considered a product of the time he had written in. There is though, an overall attitude of resentment towards women. Dickens was most likely using his personal experiences as a model for the women in Great Expectations and wasn?t very conscious of the sexist point that the novel appears to make.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Boston: Bedford Books, 1996.