A Feminist Criticism Of Dickens' "Great Expectations"

1991 words - 8 pages

A Feminist Criticism of Dickens' "Great Expectations"

Of all the modern theories that are embraced under the umbrella-term of `critical Theory', feminist criticism is undoubtedly the most agreeable to apply. Drawing on notions and theories from psychoanalytical criticism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and Marxist criticism, it seeks to bring to light the inequality between the sexes in literature, and how our entire social ideology is in fact structured according to `the male gaze'. As Barry points out in Beginning Theory, the representation of women in literature ."..provided the role models which indicated to women, and men, what constituted acceptable versions of the `feminine' and legitimate feminine goals and aspirations." (122)

It can be argued, then, that literature had in fact been a vehicle for indoctrination and control that had succeeded in ensuring that women conform to a stereotype based on unequal expectations - namely catering solely to the expectations of men. The voice of woman was either silent, or quietly fell on deaf ears. Particularly in 19th century fiction as well as in reality, a woman's fate lay in her being able to find a husband, and one of good repute and manner. This is easily identifiable in Dickens' Great Expectations. Even the books written by women - which were comparatively few - seem to follow the socially constructed male ideals of a woman's `place', such as Austin's Sense and Sensibility.

Barry notes that feminist criticism has divided into factions that follow certain aspects of feminism in literature, "The Anglo-Americans version [...] maintain[s] a major interest in traditional critical concepts like theme, motif and characterisation...has a good deal in common with...the liberal humanist approach..." (124) While conversely, "English feminist criticism [...] tends to be `socialist feminist' in orientation, aligned with cultural materialism or Marxism..." (124) This contrasts with the French feminist approach, which ."..is more overtly theoretical, taking as its starting point the [poststructuralist] insights of...Lacan, Foucault and Derrida...they write about language, representation and psychology..." (125)

When looking at Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, it is evident that this bildungsroman is typical in its depiction of the `necessary role' that women should play. Elements from all of the mentioned feminist critique approaches can help illustrate the social constraints and stereotypes that permeate the novel, and will enable us to observe how Dickens' own view of women helped to manifest such strictly antithetical female characters.

Dickens' women fall into clear categories - they either willingly undertake their `dutiful' domestic duties, very much in line with traditional Victorian values at the time - or rebel against it, and are thus depicted as almost villainous. A prime example is the depiction of Mrs Joe. Her constant abuse and...

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