The Thread of Unrequited Love in Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations”
Since its publication in 1860, Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations has garnered a reputation as one of the most powerful and moving works of the nineteenth century. Great Expectations follows the story of a poor young boy named Pip into his more fortune adult years of transforming into a gentleman. One constant through Pip’s ever-changing life is his love for the beautiful and cold Estella. Pip is introduced to Estella when he is just a boy, and his affection for her only grows as the years pass. However, Estella will never return his love due to the fact that she was adopted and raised by Miss Havisham, whose sole purpose in life is to wreak havoc on men. By using Pip and Estella as pawns in her sick game of revenge, Miss Havisham transforms into a twisted puppeteer, she sits behind the scenes pulling the strings just to watch tragedy ensue. Though Miss Havisham eventually gets what she wants, both her, Pip, and Estella’s hearts are all left in shambles.
The unrequited love as shown between Pip and Estella throughout the novel illustrates the negative effects of ruthless revenge from love gone wrong. Throughout Great Expectations, both Miss Havisham and the people in her life suffer greatly because of her quest for revenge. Not always being heartless, Miss Havisham vowed to take revenge on men the day that she was left at the altar. Miss Havisham, “passionately loved him… [but] he practiced on her affection in that systematic way,” (Dickens 166), all her husband to be, Compeyson wanted from Miss Havisham was her money. Yet, now Miss Havisham uses Estella to use men in a systematic way, therefore literally dropping herself to the low level of Compeyson’s heartbreaking games. Haunted by this day, Miss Havisham never again takes off her decrepit wedding dress, her one shoe, and all of her clocks are forever stopped at the time twenty minutes to nine, the time her life of happiness ended. Herein, Miss Havisham is determined to freeze time by refusing to change anything from the day unrequited love came to menace her. To exact her revenge on mankind, Miss Havisham grooms Estella to play men from a young age saying, “’break their hearts my pride and hope, break their hearts and have no mercy!’” (87). Estella only being a little girl at this time, Miss Havisham was able to easily mold her into the shape she wanted her to be. In addition to influencing Estella, Miss Havisham also curses Pip into being forever in love with Estella, chanting: Love her, love her, love her! If she favors you, love her. If she wounds you, love her. If she tears your heart to pieces—and as it gets older and stronger, it will tear deeper—love her, love her, love her! (219) However, as time goes on and she realizes Estella’s coldness to everyone (including herself), and Pip’s true feelings, Miss Havisham feels terrible about her hell-bent revenge. While speaking to Pip, Miss Havisham reveals, “until you spoke to her the other day, and until I saw in you a looking-glass that showed me what I once felt myself, I did not know what I had done.’” (365). “What have I done!” (364) becomes a mantra for Miss Havisham. The shame and guilt of her actions in encouraging unrequited love leads her to such extreme devastation that she thrusts herself into the flames. As Miss Havisham’s decaying bridal dress burst into flames, so did all of the hate, revenge, and hurt that she was holding on to for all of those years.
Paradoxically, Miss Havisham’s greatest sin was against herself. Ultimately, unrequited love and the negative effects of it brought on Miss Havisham’s final demise. Estella, Miss Havisham’s pretty little pawn, ends up leading arguably the most devastating life out of all of the characters affected by unrequited love. As a girl, Estella was essentially brainwashed by Miss Havisham and she has no autonomy to do what would really make her happy in life. Her sole purpose on the earth was to “wreak Miss Havisham’s revenge on men.” (276). From childhood on, Estella had tried to warn Pip the best she could to stay away from her because she knew she had no heart. Contending, “’oh! I have a heart to be stabbed in or shot in, I have no doubt… but you know what I mean. I have no softness there, no—sympathy—sentiment — nonsense.’” (217). However, despite her warnings of heartlessness, the lovesick Pip could not stay away. One cannot help but feel sorrow, when Estella is even cold to her adoptive mother, claiming, “’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.’” (277). By acknowledging the fact that she is just a puppet for Miss Havisham, readers cannot help but feel sympathy for her dethatched character. Arguably the most soul crushing moment of the novel is when Pip professes his love for Estella and she says, “’you address nothing in my breast, you touch nothing there. I don’t care for what you say at all.’” (331). In a sense, Estella’s character does not fully develop until the end of the novel. Leading up to the end of the novel, Estella is a one-sided character whose sole purpose is to make men miserable through her unrequited love. However, after marrying Bentley Drummle—to presumably make Pip unhappy, Estella ends up being the despondent one.
When Pip runs into Estella at the close of the novel he says: The freshness of her beauty was indeed gone, but its indescribably majesty and its indescribable charm, remained. Those attractions in it, I had seen before; what I had never seen before, was the saddened softened light of the once proud eyes; what I had never felt before, was the friendly touch of the once insensible hand. (441) Essentially, Estella marries Bentley Drummle without loving him, and suffers for it. She is no longer the great, beautifully, terrifyingly cold figure, she is now just a worn down woman—all of her grandeur disappeared due to the negative effects of unrequited love. Pip’s unrequited love for Estella is arguably the main driving factor of the plot, and the sole thing that inspires Pip to seek the status of a gentleman, even if that means leaving his old life and family behind. Similar to Estella, Miss Havisham groomed Pip as a boy to fall head over heels in love with Estella. The “curse” Miss Havisham put on Pip haunts him to the point that Estella is almost all he can think about.
After being haunted his whole life by his love for Estella and Miss Havisham, Pip finally breaks down and says, “I am as unhappy as you can ever have meant me to be.’” (328). Arguably the turning point in this novel for the theme of unrequited love is when Pip fully bears his heart to Estella in this moving passage: Out of my thoughts! You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since—on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. (333) Estella brushes off these heartfelt lines, as she was programmed to do, and after this important moment in time, Estella no longer possesses the same pull on Pip. Pip finally comes to the realization that the two are never going to be together and were never meant to be together. Which leads Pip to realize that it, “was an unhappy life that I lived, and its one dominant anxiety, towering over all its other anxieties like a high mountain above a range of mountains, never disappeared from my view.” (349). Herein, the “dominant anxiety” referred to in the passage above alludes to Estella and their unrequited love. Though her love never “disappears from [his] view,” it no longer takes center stage in Pip’s life; his friends and family begin to fill that void, which is ultimately the result of the negative unrequited love.
In Great Expectations, Dickens explores the theme of unrequited love and he ultimately turns it into a cautionary tale. Miss Havisham, Estella, and Pip have all devoted their lives to unrequited love, and are therefore all victims to its life consuming poison. None of the characters having a truly happy ending alludes to the fact that when love is toxic, tragedy will ensue.
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