Feminism in Great Expectations
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”. 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...