Criticism Psychoanalysis

Two Women Characters of Dickens: Cold, Bitter, Narcissistic Mother Images – VI

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Reading Time: 6 minutes

Miss Havisham has much in common with Mrs. Joe, including a cold heart, blinding self-preoccupation, and a need for omnipotent control. They represent similar images of a narcissistic mother, brooding, hypochondriacal, and inattentive to the child’s needs. Both women are furious with men, whom they regard as weak, ineffective, and, in Miss Havisham’s case, treacherous. The two women fail Pip in important ways, provoking his murderous rage. Before dying, they seek forgiveness for their crimes against the child. Their legacy of bitterness, however, outlives them, opines Prof Ashoka, in the sixth part, exclusively for Different Truths.

Enacting Pip’s secret thoughts and wishes, Orlick alone has the audacity to call Mrs. Joe a “foul shrew” to her face. He calls her “Mother Gargery,” a recognition of her symbolic role in the novel. Orlick alone is willing to challenge her matriarchal power, vowing to choke her into submission. His threat of violence intimidates Mrs. Joe, instantly transforming her from an omnipotent matriarch into a weak, hysterical woman. Orlick thus succeeds in magically dispelling her mythic power. Dickens does not allow us to overhear Pip’s thoughts, but we cannot escape the conclusion that had Mrs. Joe’s violence been challenged years earlier, she would not have continued to terrorise the helpless child.

Once Mrs. Joe’s mythic power is broken, her control over Pip comes to an end. Dickens does not dramatise Orlick’s savage beating of her — the account would be too violent for readers, awakening sympathy for a woman the novelist is not yet ready to forgive. Instead, we are merely told about the tremendous blow she receives on the back of her head, dealt by an unknown hand. Never again, Pip tells us, will she be on the rampage. Pip immediately feels guilty for the act, and indeed he is, through the omnipotence of thought: Orlick enacts Pip’s fantasy of the taming of the shrew. Pip is implicated in the crime since the weapon, a convict’s leg-iron, had been removed by Magwitch as a result of the file Pip surreptitiously brought him. Apprehended at the end of the novel, Orlick cunningly disclaims responsibility for the attack. “But it warn’t Old Orlick as did it; it was you. You was favoured, and he was bullied and beat. Old Orlick bullied and beaten, eh? Now you pays for it. You done it; now you pays for it” (437). Orlick echoes Pip’s rage over having been bullied and denied the rights to which he was entitled. Pip is both victim and victimizer, the abused child, demanding revenge, and the ambitious young gentleman, willing to displace others in the pursuit of great expectations.

Mrs. Joe’s change of heart raises several questions. Biddy reports how, with her assistance, Mrs. Joe placed her limp arms around Joe’s neck and laid her head contentedly on his shoulder. Mrs. Joe’s dying words indicate a plea for forgiveness. “And so she presently said ‘Joe’ again, and once ‘Pardon,’ and once ‘Pip’”. Insofar as she has always regarded herself as a victim, Mrs. Joe’s sudden willingness to see herself as a victimiser strains credibility. Ironically, she is now truly a victim, yet she uncharacteristically foregoes the opportunity to complain and vent her aggression. It is certainly poetic justice that the boy who has been raised “by hand” should have a hand in his victimiser’s death.  Dickens’ cartoon depiction of Mrs.  Joe prevents us, however, from taking her death entirely seriously. Dickens has it both ways by implicating Pip in Mrs. Joe’s death yet softening his hero’s crime, which makes possible his sister’s miraculous change of heart. Significantly, Mrs. Joe’s death does not release Pip from destructive mother figures, as he discovers from Miss Havisham.

Few minor characters in literature are as memorable as Miss Havisham.

Secluded in a dismal house of horrors appropriately named “Satis House,” which evokes its sadistic environment, Miss Havisham has tried to stop time. The clocks in her house are stopped at twenty minutes to nine, signifying the bridegroom’s abandonment of her on their wedding day.  The withered wedding gown she still wears every day reflects her faded, decayed life. On her dressing table lies a looking-glass, mirroring her only real interest in life. A jilted bride, she remains married to suffering. Miss Havisham has much in common with Mrs. Joe, including a cold heart, blinding self-preoccupation, and a need for omnipotent control. They represent similar images of a narcissistic mother, brooding, hypochondriacal, and inattentive to the child’s needs. Both women are furious with men, whom they regard as weak, ineffective, and, in Miss Havisham’s case, treacherous. The two women fail Pip in important ways, provoking his murderous rage. Before dying, they seek forgiveness for their crimes against the child. Their legacy of bitterness, however, outlives them.

No character, not even Victor Frankenstein, is more narcissistic. Both are consumed by monstrous rage, which temporarily sustains but ultimately depletes their lives. But Miss Havisham nourishes her injury, believing that it is the only way to keep alive her identity. “It is Miss Havisham herself who chooses to make her betrayal the central event and meaning of her life,” J. Hillis Miller observes. “And in so choosing she makes herself responsible for it.” Rage is the energy from which she draws her strength and the fire which eventually consumes her.  The rage defends against the deeper fear of depression and emptiness. Like Victor Frankenstein, Miss Havisham projects her rage onto a creature who finally turns against the creator.

But whereas we sympathise with Victor, at least until we recognise his unreliable narration and abrogation of parental responsibilities, we only pity Miss Havisham. She has created, deliberately and systematically, a monster in Estella, who will redress her creator’s grievous injury. “You can break his heart”, she  tells  Estella,  then  derives  malignant  enjoyment  as  she watches her weapon in action. Miss Havisham fully believes that she is entitled to revenge, and she cannot imagine any script in life other than revenger’s tragedy. The wish to break men’s hearts reveals the motives behind narcissistic rage: to right a wrong, undo a hurt by whatever means, humiliate the humiliator.

The most striking quality of Miss Havisham’s love for Estella is its sadomasochistic nature. She tells Pip: “If she favours you, love her. If she wounds you, love her. If she tears your heart to pieces — and as it gets older and stronger, it will tear deeper —love her, love her, love her!” Real love, she breathlessly continues, is “blind  devotion,  unquestioning  self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter — as I did!” .  The ravenous intensity with which she kisses Pip’s hand before lecturing him on the meaning of love intimates the insatiable orality of her desire, as if she wishes literally to devour the distance between self and other. Miss Havisham’s wish to merge with a hated love object calls into question her brief relationship with her mother, who died young, as well as the type of mother she becomes to Estella.

For all her apparent independence, Estella remains hopelessly tied to her mother. Taught at an early age to break men’s hearts, she succeeds in breaking her mother’s heart. In the process, she breaks her own. Estella is a sadistic Narcissus, coldly spurning her lovers, and a masochistic Echo, helplessly repeating other voices. Pip sees her as a brilliant star, but she also resembles a spectral moon, reflecting her creator’s nonexistence. She is Pip’s Medusa, turning his heart into stone. And she is, of course, the quintessential Frankenstein Creature, as Miss Havisham discovers too late. Estella’s story is not a psychiatric case history but a how-to book illustrating the creation of a monster. She marries Bentley Drummle, not because she loves him or expects happiness or independence, but because she wishes to revenge herself on her mother. Given Miss Havisham’s over-closeness with Estella, it is surprising that the young woman has anything to do with men. Estella is always bonded to her mother; her rebellion at the end, when she seems to turn against Miss Havisham, is, in reality, a confirmation of their essential oneness.

(To be continued)

©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Photos from the Internet


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