Defending Estella from ‘Great Expectations’

A case for one of Dickens’ frostiest characters.

To match with the chilly weather that we are getting this January I thought I’d write about one of the iciest characters out there, Estella from Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations.’ Her reputation precedes her, and I for one can’t understand Pip’s infatuation with her… or people’s hatred of her. Yes, she is coarse, and haughty and horrible to Pip but by the end of the novel, in my opinion, she becomes the most rounded character still around, whose journey has had actual meaning and impact. I got so bored of all the other characters that Estella was the only reason I could keep reading, and here’s why.

Estella’s initial behaviour towards Pip throws a narrative hook to the audience, as for quite some time we are asking ourselves why she is such an annoying little thing. Her behaviour is enthralling to Pip, and his motivation to become a gentleman stems from his, slightly annoying, obsession with her. Without her, there really is no story, as although she isn’t the physical money, she is the reason as to why Pip wants, and uses the money. It also presents, what the audience think will be, the greatest love story ever. It would probably send Shakespeare spinning in his grave, crying that his ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ had been nicked by Dickens. She’s also the cause of Pip becoming an unlikeable character, as a lot of the time, he considers what Estella would do, or what she would think, prompting his disapproval towards other characters like the boringly kind Joe. She may not influence every single character, but she influences the most important – Pip. That’s enough to cement her importance in the novel and Dickens canon, no matter how many people dislike her.

So, upon her introduction, Estella throws out certain signals to the reader and the characters. She propels the story forward as she gives Pip the motivation to become a gentleman, and wills the reader to stick with her, in the hope that she becomes a bit nicer, and in the hope that her and Pip run off into the sunset together. I am making the assumption now that everyone wants Pip and Estella to get together, and I think from the offset people just assume that it is going to happen… what makes her such a great character, and in my opinion the best in the novel, is that of course, this doesn’t happen. But more on that later.

Estella’s character development builds throughout the novel but isn’t stretched out enough to deter us from being interested. It becomes clear that, as Pip is the plaything of Estella, Estella is the plaything of Miss Havisham. Personally, I wouldn’t like the idea of living with a jilted psycho lady who should be in one of those McDonald’s ‘like getting your money’s worth?’ adverts… as she’s always in her wedding dress. In her later life she plucks up the courage to tell Havisham that she is the cause of her coldness, and the reason she cannot love. Estella has been conditioned this way, and has been forced to dispel one of humanities’ greatest instincts – to love and to be loved. She’s really a tragic heroine. We see that here:

“You stock and stone!” exclaimed Miss Havisham. “You cold, cold heart!”

“What?” said Estella, preserving her attitude of indifference as she leaned against the great chimney-piece and only moving her eyes; “do you reproach me for being cold? You?”

“Are you not?” was the fierce retort.

“You should know,” said Estella. “I am what you have made me. Take all the praise, take all the blame; take all the success, take all the failure; in short, take me.”[1]

Some critics think that we never truly get to know Estella, but she never really knows herself. A whole part of her, her ability to love, and be loved, is shut down by Havisham very early on in her life, and in Victorian society, there isn’t much else for a woman to do. Nobody can control someone else’s ability to love, we choose who we love and we ourselves are aware of it. Estella has this taken away from her, probably before she could even walk. For a character who has a whole part of her identity taken away from her before she understands it, I argue that we get to know Estella pretty well, and that she oozes with tragic complexity. Havisham has literally stolen Estella’s ability to love, and Estella is rightly mad about it. It’s here that we understand her, as she isn’t cruel to Pip as she is cruel herself but is cruel to him because she knows no different. She doesn’t have the capacity to be kind, and we can see that it greatly upsets her.

Estella also provides a real ‘EastEnders’ ‘duff duff’ moment, with the revelation that she is the daughter of Magwitch. The character provides a great dramatic revelation, one that drums home the main theme of the novel, subverted expectations. The haughtiest character in the novel is brought down to Earth by her paternity, which levels all the characters. No one is fully pure, no one’s status is fully preserved, there is social mobility and every character represents this in some respect. Estella’s ‘fall from grace’ is particularly notable, as she goes from one extreme to the other. She goes from being the most uppity little missy out there, to being the daughter of the lowest of the low. Dickens knows how to pack a punch.

Her abusive marriage to Bentley Drummle brings her to the end of her character arc, and this abuse, unfortunately, is what she needs. She has been moulded by Miss Havisham, and her suffering at Drummle’s hands breaks this mould. She now can start afresh, as she has had an emotional, traumatic experience that she can reflect on, and learn from. This experience makes her more vulnerable, and probably more empathetic. It is unclear what this abuse specifically is, but it obviously adds a dimension to what she has already suffered at Havisham’s hands, meaning this has shaken her up that bit more. Be it physical or verbal, it serves as proof that someone so brainwashed needs a significant experience to be roused from such a state, and clearly marriage to Mr Drummle is enough to compel Estella to change. In comparison, majority of the other characters just fade away, or conveniently die.

It’s so right that Pip and Estella don’t end up together, as if they did, her character development would have been hurried along in a fairly unnatural fashion. Estella isn’t ready to love after her marriage to Drummle, and it makes sense that Dickens left the ending ambiguous. We don’t know whether they get together, and it would be nice for them to in the future, but it wouldn’t make sense for Estella to be with Pip at the end of the novel. She is still discovering herself and how to love, and Dickens made the right in decision not to rush this huge development in the last few pages.

In comparison, Pip pretty much lands back at square one, having squandered all of his money. Sure, he learns things, but there’s not a lot of implication that he will grow, learn and develop. Estella will, and its right that this happens off the page, as she is now free from the grasp of Miss Havisham, and the grasp of Dickens’ pen.

[1] Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, (London, Penguin Clothbound Classics, 2008), Chapter 38.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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