‘Great Expectations’ – Where is the love?

Great Expectations

I’ll tell you…what real love is. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter.” – Miss Havisham

Contrary to what the title of this post might suggest, this won’t be some sort of Dickens/Black Eyed Peas mash-up, incredible as that might turn out to be. However, the theme of love in ‘Great Expectations’, or rather its absence, is just as remarkable.

Used to the romanticism of other Victorian novels such as Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Dickens’ novel is far bleaker in its treatment of love. Whilst the far more prevalent themes of class and social justice have undoubtedly been exhausted, love is a theme that is often overlooked. However, the sheer lack of loving relationships, which we can often take for granted in other novels, certainly enhances Dickens’ biting commentary on Victorian society and is worth exploring.

‘Great Expectations’ is defined as a bildungsroman – a novel that follows its protagonist, Pip, as he grows up. During his childhood, the only love he experiences is from his brother-in-law Joe and is one of the few examples of familial love in the text. What makes the novel even bleaker, however, is the complete destruction of conventional Romantic love, with Miss Havisham as its figurehead.

Going back to the quotation at the beginning of the post, Miss Havisham symbolises the other side of love; away from the flowers and chocolates, her character represents the vulnerability and defencelessness of ‘real love’, and what happens when this is exploited. Most tragic of all, is Miss Havisham’s certainty – her use of the declarative ‘it is’ before such a list of emphatic adjective and noun clauses (in particular, the ‘blind’ nature of devotion and trust) is so strong in its bitterness and condemnation that despite her manipulation of Pip, we can’t help but feel for the rawness of her pain.

Perhaps more a context comment than a stylistic one, but Dickens’ choice of lexis is notable too; ‘devotion’, ‘submission’ and ‘smiter’ are arguably more than emphatic word choices, but are tinged with religious connotations. Religion was of course a hugely important part of Victorian society – a part of Bronte’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ springs to mind, however, when the protagonist’s husband criticises her for not treating her ‘earthly Lord’ with as much devotion and reverence as God. Whilst Bronte’s Helen reproaches her husband for making such a comment, it could be argued that Miss Havisham’s pain is all the more exacerbated; if it was expected for her to, and she was content to, treat her husband as her ‘earthly Lord’, then his betrayal is not only an emotional and physical betrayal, but also a spiritual one.

There are of course many other examples of the rejection of conventional Romantic love in the novel, from Pip’s unrequited love of Estella, to his rejection of Biddy’s affections or indeed his sister’s apparent complete lack of familial warmth towards him. However, what makes Dickens’ treatment of Miss Havisham’s views on love all the more poignant is the fact that, unlike the aforementioned examples, there was once potential for her relationship before it was snatched away. It has to be said that this particular exploration of love is my favourite in the novel; with its toxicity, amplified by the chilling religious connotations, Dickens uses Miss Havisham to depict the way vulnerability can twist love into a far darker force.

“True love believes everything and bears everything and trusts everything”
– Charles Dickens, ‘A Message From the Sea’

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