Gender Roles in Great Expectations
The importance of the Victorian ideal of motherhood is glimpsed in Charles Dickens's personal life. Dickens's main complaint against his wife when he separated from her was her terrible parenting. Around the time that his separation from his wife was being finalized, Dickens complains of Catherine in a letter to his friend Angela Burdett Coutts: "'She does not -- and never did -- care for the children; and the children do not -- and they never did -- care for her'" (qtd. in Slater 146). From evidence in other letters and the seeming abruptness with which Dickens took on this point of view, Dickens biographer Michael Slater suggests that this was "something that Dickens had to get himself to believe so that he could the more freely pity himself in the image of his own children" (146; original emphasis). That Dickens would use this "psychological trick" in this way implies the severity of such an accusation for Dickens personally and for Victorian society in general. Dickens's accusation suggests the immense value placed on motherhood and maternity, qualities that, in Great Expectations, Mrs. Joe clearly lacks and that Pip is not accustomed to receiving. In creating a marriage where the wife is supremely un-nurturing and the husband is caring and kind, Dickens uses distortion of accepted gender roles to draw attention to and perpetuate the cult of domesticity. The blurred gender roles in the Gargery home cause Pip to have difficulty making decisions acceptable to bourgeois status quo, because the values he learns at home vary significantly from societal ideals.
Pip himself uses physical descriptions of his parent figures to show Mrs. Joe as masculine and Joe as feminine. Catherine Waters points out that Pip's descriptions of Joe and Mrs. Joe's physical appearances echo in his fancied perceptions of his parents, but the similarities cross gender lines. From the writing on his gravestone, Pip perceives his father as"square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair" (23; ch. 1). Similarly, Pip reports Mrs. Joe as having "black hair and eyes" (28; ch. 1).Pip infers his mother's appearance from her gravestone as well: "from the turn of the inscription ... I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly" (23; ch. 1). Joe, although not freckled, has light skin with features far more feminine than Mrs. Joe's: "Joe was a fair man, with curls of flaxen hair on each side of his smooth face, and with eyes of such a very undecided blue" (28; ch. 1). Pip's physical description of all these parent figures reveals the ambivalent gender identities in the Gargery home. Joe's physical appearance seems more feminine, and he is much more nurturing than Mrs. Joe, who is described in terms similar to Pip's deceased father.
Mrs. Joe is described in some masculine ways, but her behavior is the most significant indicator of her desire not to be...