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Estella, the central female character of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, is an object and creation. She is the object of protagonist Pip’s affections and the ultimate prize of achieving gentleman status; incredibly beautiful and covered in expensive jewels and fabrics. Yet, Estella’s life is argued to be more tragic than Pip’s given her low parentage and for the reason of Miss Havisham adopting her to punish and torture men. Her high status was given to her, but it had to be maintained. Though the relationship between the two women can be interpreted as a troubled master-student one, critic Sharon Marcus argues the two women having a Victorian mother-daughter relationship where the two suffocate and bring the worst out in each other. Estella achieves her high status in through suffering and participating in Miss Havisham’s spiteful agenda toward men. It’s the death of Miss Havisham—teacher, mother, and master—where Estella is truly free: “Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching…. I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape.” (Dickens Ch. 59 457)
Similarly, the Monster and Estella are the resulting products of mad masterminds. The only differences are Estella being beautiful in contrast to the Monster’s ghastly appearance and Estella’s presence serves a purpose to the plot; she is meant to create a longer lasting impact over time. Estella’s beauty draws Pip to her like a moth to a flame. Sparking this attraction further is Miss Havisham adorning Estella in rich gems, further establishing how refined she is. The placement of gems upon Estella’s body serves not only to contrast with the “coarse and common” Pip, but also to symbolize Estella as a “doll” manipulated by Miss Havisham to attract and toy with men (Marcus 179). She herself is self-aware of her lack of emotion and empathy toward Pip and the men who call upon her, thus embodying the persona of a doll. Though a protégé of Miss Havisham “bred…educated…to be loved” and “developed”, it is critical to remember that Estella is someone tormented and alone; the only family she knows is Miss Havisham and her identity correlates with her adopted mother’s (“There has always been an Estella, since [Herbert] heard of a Miss Havisham.” (Dickens Ch. 22 177)). As the closest to a parental figure Estella has, Miss Havisham brings her up to look down on Pip and the men who wish to call upon her. When Estella complains of Pip being a “common laboring boy”, it is Miss Havisham who replies, “break his heart.” As a child, Estella might view this as a game, but the words carry a sinister logic; they are the result of Miss Havisham’s past torment with men (Mukherjee 116). It is the abuse Miss Havisham suffered in the past that makes her abusive toward Estella and Estella abusive toward Pip.
Estella’s upper-class status was earned through Miss Havisham’s “training” with “almost no room to maneuver through.” (DARBY 58) Like Frankenstein’s Monster, both had the potential to become good at heart, but when turned away and put in an unknown environment, a monster is created. From the age of three, Estella was raised in a home of “glowing fire” where her development is “struck out of the iron on the anvil, extracted from the darkness of night to look in at the wooden window…and flit away.” (Dickens Ch. 29, 228). The fire symbolizes Miss Havisham’s hatred and bitterness of men, and the violence of beating iron into a sword in darkness represents the instruction Estella was taught in a home where her adopted mother and master refused to leave. The finishing of the sword—Estella—to then be placed at a window to be gazed upon comes back to Miss Havisham’s statement of creating Estella for the sole purpose of revenge. She is at her foster mother’s beck and call to be dangled in front of Pip and dressed and embellished with to enhance her beauty and to taunt him. However when Estella returns from abroad now a young woman, Darby states Estella is:
“…prepared to offer Pip a unique companionship based in her very different memories, as well as to ignore her foster mother’s need to add him to the list of suitors whose hearts must be broken. Her words are never indifferent… a perspective that is chilled, sardonic, unable to love, but ready to be friends. She offers Pip a clear alternative… a position… quite different from that of her other admirers.” (51)
This is one of the first steps Estella takes in redemption and renewal; starting to acknowledge all she has done to Pip when they were children. The second step is confronting Miss Havisham when she accuses Estella of not loving her for taking her in. Miss Havisham is trying to manipulate Estella into having an emotional response to the declaration; the irony being that Miss Havisham has taught Estella not to feel. The time Estella spent receiving an education has made her aware of what she has become, similar to the Monster. She states, “I must be taken as I have been made. The success is not mine, the failure is not mine, but the two together make me.” The success and failure refers to Estella retaining the lessons Miss Havisham taught her, thus causing Estella to become a “proud” and “hard” young woman to those around her (Dickens Ch. 38 294-5). This unintentionally resulted in Miss Havisham getting the treatment originally intended for Estella’s suitors. In this confrontation, the dynamic of abuser and victim is shifted; Estella now holds the power over Miss Havisham by reminding her that she got what she wanted. Miss Havisham’s revenge plot is responsible for the creation of Estella’s behavior; her coldness, spite, and her failure to love and express her emotions. As a mother-daughter duo, Miss Havisham and Estella are a stark contrast from the typical loving mother and daughter, but they represent a Victorian-style mother-daughter relationship. Estella’s identity is tied to Miss Havisham and the confines of Victorian society; she is the heiress to her adoptive mother’s fortune and is expected to marry. Estella is made into an object and an investment of “lapidary desire” through the adornment of jewels (Marcus 180). This investment is meant to bring Estella into marriage, something she succeeds in doing, but finds no gratification in much like Miss Havisham. Both, like Victor and his monster, find their happiness through honesty and forgiveness for one another.
The gradual journey of self-discovery for Miss Havisham and Estella come full circle upon the death of Miss Havisham. When the Satis house—a place frozen in the memory of Miss Havisham’s would-be wedding—is set ablaze, Miss Havisham symbolically overcomes her painful past and is let into the sunlight of the world she once hid from. Although her injuries from the fire contribute to her death, Miss Havisham’s dramatic end does not appease her regrets nor end her search for Pip’s and Estella’s forgiveness. On her deathbed, she declares to Pip, “Take a pencil and write under my name, ‘I forgive [Estella]!’” (Dickens Ch. 49 383,4). When both are apart, their relationship appears to be the healthiest, and a burden can be released from the both of them. Miss Havisham, though burned and in pain, is able to die in peace knowing she has forgiven Estella and that Pip has forgiven her. Meanwhile, Estella has a longer road of recovery to travel. The psychological damage of Miss Havisham’s agenda has placed her into a violent marriage to Drummle. Having been used and manipulated all her life by others, Estella puts such a low value on herself to the extent that she does not care whom she marries, so long as “It is [her] own act.” This choice overplays her isolation and confronts both Pip and the reader in accepting her rejection of romance. In addition, Estella’s choice breaks the pattern of abuse she faced; always dangled in the moment of “teasing coyness” in front of men that fed Miss Havisham’s insatiable desire:
“Miss Havisham would have had me wait, and not marry yet; but I am tired of the life I have led, which has very few charms for me, and I am willing enough to change it” (Dickens Ch. 44 347).
Estella’s choice bonds her to her adoptive mother as both made their own willful and costly choices forged in the confines of what their class in society determined for them (DARBY 56-57). Neither character receives a standard happy ending; they find some sort of satisfaction. Estella finds hers after her first husband dies and marries an English doctor. They both live off of her fortune, but the couple find satisfaction by living more simply.
In a Charles Dickens novel, happiness seems to be a fickle and intangible concept few of the characters achieve, no matter their social status. Estella’s happiness and love could have been achieved through being adopted into a rich family, but maintaining a comfortable life resulted in her becoming an emotionless woman. Dickens uses Estella’s life to reinforce the idea that one’s happiness and well-being are not deeply connected to one’s social position: had Estella been poor, she might have been substantially better off (Sparknotes). Miss Havisham’s single-minded pursuit of vengeance and refusal to move on from heartbreak bring her no happiness or comfort; they result in bringing pain to those in her life, especially Pip, Estella, and herself. Similar to Victor Frankenstein and the Monster, neither one’s life was made for the better when brought together. Both abandoned one another and were only brought together after their respective masters and creators died. In the end, it is Estella befriending that brings her new life together. This moment allows the two to reflect and have a connection about their shared pasts, where they can be “bent” and “broken” into better versions of themselves (Dickens Ch. 59 457).