In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens depicts men and women as existing within different social spaces. With the exception of Estella, who travels from Satis House to London, all of Dickens's female characters are contained within the home. Men, on the other hand, have a social existence which their female counterparts lack. Pip, for example, constantly moves between the private space of the home and the public space of London itself. Joe Gargery, though often confined to the forge, has a social existence at the Three Jolly Bargemen, the local tavern. Unlike Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning does not confine her female characters to the home in her novel-poem Aurora Leigh. Aurora is a woman who lives independently in London and whose writing earns her a space in the public world. Marian Erle is likewise independent and not confined to the local space of the home. Despite these different depictions of men's and women's spaces in the social order, Barrett Browning's notion of womanhood and femininity resembles Dickens's more than it differs from it. We shall explore how, for both Dickens and Barrett Browning, the ideal woman is a moral repository, a being whose function is to infuse men with spirituality and to protect them from the evils of the social world.
Recent historiography of gender constructions of the nineteenth century focuses on the different spheres in which men and women lived. Mary Shanley points out that “Husband and wife occupied 'separate spheres,' and each had distinct, but complementary, functions to perform. In addition to bearing children, middle-class women directed, and working-class women performed, the work involved in maintaining the household--care of the children, sewing, cooking, and cleaning. Men earned the money to purchase goods needed by their households and debated matters of public concern" (5). The historian Catherine Hall has observed that women in the domestic sphere did more than just sew, cook, and clean. They functioned as moral and religious guides for their husbands. The “division between male and female worlds had a religious connotation, for the marketplace was considered dangerously amoral. The men who operated in that sphere could save themselves only through constant contact with the moral world of the home, where women acted as carriers of the pure values that could counteract the destructive tendencies of the market" (74). This construction, which placed women firmly in the home and men in the marketplace, developed within the middle-classes. Lower class families which depended on two incomes for survival clearly could not conform to this construction. Hall argues that, while working-class families could not operate according to the middle-class construction of the family, they did accept many of the ideals of middle-class domesticity. The notion that the home provided a moral center and a place of comfort for the husband was particularly popular with the working-class family (81).
As Michael Slater illustrates, Dickens subscribed to the bourgeois construction of femininity and domesticity. He, like most Victorians, imagined men and women as having different, yet complementary, natures. The place where these two natures come together most “naturally" is, of course, the bourgeois home. “This idea of virtuous womanhood as possessed of innate, God-given powers to uplift, regenerate and redeem, which is so ubiquitous in Dickens's writing, is inextricably bound up with his celebrated idealization of the domestic. It is always in terms of personal relationships, especially within a family grouping, that woman, for him as for most Victorians, realized her full moral and spiritual potential." (Slater 309) Great Expectations strikingly lacks female characters who fit this womanly ideal. The only female character in the novel who comes close to fitting this ideal is Biddy. Most other female characters are horribly deficient at performing the duties which Victorian culture prescribes to them. Miss Havisham, for example, raises Estella as a heartless femme fatale, rather than as a virtuous, self-effacing “angel of the house." As we shall see, conflict in the novel emerges when its characters do not conform to this Victorian gender construction.
The first woman Pip describes in the novel is his dead mother. Because he has never seen his parents, nor any likenesses of them, he imagines his mother as “freckled and sickly" (35). The novel thus begins with a negative image of motherhood. Absent mothers and deficient mother substitutes are integral to the narrative from its very beginning. The next female character Pip introduces is his sister/mother substitute, Mrs. Joe Gargery. He describes his sister as harsh and unapproachable, far from the loving mother of Victorian fantasy. “She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two hoops, and having a small impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles." (40) Mrs. Joe is clearly the opposite of the ideal Victorian woman. Pip depicts her more as a monster than as a woman. U.C. Knoepflmacher points out a humorous scene from Chapter Four which illustrates Mrs. Joe's lack of a feminine identity. After Mr. Wopsle claims that “What is detestable in a pig, is more detestable in a boy," Mr. Hubble adds, “Or a girl." Mr. Wopsle then responds: “'Of course, or a girl, Mr. Hubble,' assented Mr. Wopsle rather irritably, 'but there is no girl present.'" (58) Mr. Wopsle thus presents the Gargery household as operating without any sort of feminine influence (Knoepflmacher 78-79).
Since Mrs. Joe is the antithesis of the womanly ideal, Pip must look elsewhere for maternal nurturing, which he finds not in another woman, but in his brother-in-law, Joe Gargery. Throughout the novel, Dickens presents Joe as a maternal figure in Pip's life. Like the ideal wife in Victorian culture, Joe neglects his own comfort and well-being rather than disturb the family setting. Joe has internalized the beatings his father gave his mother to such an extent that he refuses to return the blows Mrs. Joe deals to him and Pip with the Tickler.
I see so much in my poor mother, of a woman drudging and slaving and breaking her honest hart and never getting no peace in her mortal days, that I'm dead afeerd of going wrong in the way of not doing what's right by a woman, and I'd fur rather of the two go wrong the t'other way, and be a little ill-conwenienced myself. I wish it was only me that got put out, Pip; I wish there warn't no Tickler for you, old chap; I wish I could take it all on myself. 
Dickens's depiction of Joe is like that of the self-effacing mother who sacrifices her own well-being for the sake of her children. Joe re-assumes his role as mother substitute towards the novel's end, when Pip is recovering from his illness. Pip states that he “was like a child in [Joe's] hands," and that Joe “did everything for me except the household work, for which he had engaged a very decent woman" (476). While Joe's role as a mother stops at his performing strictly feminine household chores, he still functions as a maternal figure in his caring for Pip.
What, then, are the consequences of this reversal of gender roles? Certainly Dickens would not advocate an arrangement like the Gargery's, in which the woman is characterized by her masculinity and the man by his femininity. For Dickens, the only possible result of a situation in which gender roles are confused is violence and disorder. Pip is the victim of this gender inversion. Growing up in the Gargery household, as Carol Siegel claims, leads Pip to internalize the belief that “it is either beat or be beaten in marriage" (7). Siegel characterizes Pip as a masochist, as one who has so internalized the beatings from his sister that he comes to identify female love with violence and pain. Thus, when it comes to choosing a sexual-object, Pip chooses the heartless Estella over the compassionate and loving Biddy. Although Pip recognizes that Biddy is clearly the more suitable love-object of the two, his desire for pain overwhelms his sense of reason. He comes to realize, when walking with Biddy on the marshes, that “Biddy was never insulting, or capricious, or Biddy to-day and somebody else to-morrow; she would have derived only pain, and no pleasure, from giving me pain; she would far rather have wounded her own breast than mine" (157-58). Despite this realization, Pip masochistic tendencies lead him to over-value Estella and to hope that, “perhaps after all Miss Havisham was going to make my fortune when my time was out" (160).
Dickens's solution to the problem of women who do not act in accordance with Victorian gender construction often involves a violent taming of them: Mrs. Joe is beaten into submission by Orlick, Molly is tamed by Mr. Jaggers, and Estella is beaten by her husband, Bentley Drummle. Any deviance from gender norms on the part of women in Great Expectations is greeted with violence. It is interesting to note that all women, whatever their class background, are forced to submit to Dickens's bourgeois construction of gender. Thus Dickens, like many Victorians, held up the middle-class definition of gender as the ideal which the lower- and upper-classes should emulate. This ideal woman, then, is one who is firmly rooted in the home and who subordinates her own self in favor of her husband and children.
Last modified 1996