Experience vs. Upbringing

December 27, 2010
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An old, rotten plant in a dark room constantly whispers in the ears of an immature blossoming flower, “Break their hearts, my pride and hope. Break their hearts and have no mercy.” This pretty young flower perpetually becomes accustomed to the harsh words of vengeance and hatred spoken to her, destroying her ability to express emotion and interact normally with the world. However, through experience of a bad marriage, she learns to rely and trust her inner feelings rather than letting the words of bitterness mold her character. Regarding this brainwashing of the youth by the old, the famous American poet, essayist and lecturer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, says, “Children are all foreigners; it the upbringing that molds them into who they are.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson Quotes 2010) As suggested by this quotation, Estella’s personality is shaped by her adopted mother, the rich and proud Miss. Havisham. Just like all adolescents, Estella struggles to discover and act on her own feelings rather than on the imposed motives of her upbringing. By giving the readers a sense of Estella’s inner struggle to be herself, Dickens helps to explain what Pip, the protagonist of the novel, might love about her. The development of Estella’s character from a proud, stone-hearted girl as molded by the affluent Miss Havisham to a sympathetic woman marks the bitter criticism against the upper class and makes her one of Dickens’ unforgettable characters.
From a young age of three, Estella has been taught to be cruel, cold and disinterested in men. With a kind of obsessive manic cruelty, Miss Havisham adopts Estella and raises her as a weapon to achieve her own revenge on men. The first impression Pip has about Estella is characterized by ambiguity—he thinks she is proud, but extremely pretty. Miss Havisham obliges Estella to play “beggar my neighbor” with Pip. The card game represents the battle between men and women with Estella providing Miss Havisham the spectacle of men’s agony. Unfortunately, Pip becomes a target for Miss Havisham’s plans for Estella in continuing her hatred for men. As Estella and Pip grow up together, she wins his heart by practicing deliberate cruelty. “Why, he is a common laboring-boy!” (Dickens 57) Though Estella represents Pip’s first longed for ideal among the upper class, Estella is actually even lower born than Pip. As Pip learns at the end of the novel, she is the daughter of Abel Magwitch, the coarse convict, and thus springs from the very lowest level of the society. Dickens uses Estella to reinforce the idea that one’s happiness and well-being are not deeply connected to one’s social position: had she been poor, she would have been much kinder and happier. Thus, Estella proves the idea that her upbringing by Miss Havisham made her who she is.
Throughout the novel, Estella’s experiences change her from a supercilious girl with no feelings to a sensitive woman through her experience of a bad marriage. She becomes tired of carrying out the vengeance of Miss Havisham and for the first time Pip observes a combative relationship between her and Miss Havisham. “Estella treats Miss Havisham as coldly as she treats her suitors. She uses the metaphor of the sunlight and dark to remind Miss Havisham that she made her as she is and that Miss. Havisham is responsible for her creation. This indicates her gradual arrival at self-knowledge, which eventually enables her to overcome her past and become a different person. Later, Estella marries the cruel nobleman Drummle who treats her harshly and makes her life miserable over the years. Finally, this long, painful marriage to Drummle causes her to develop along the same lines as Pip; she learns to be her own woman. “I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her to understand what my heart used to be.” (Dickens 468) Thus, Estella changes from a scornful, indifferent girl to a sympathetic, sensitive woman.
Estella is often cited as one of Dickens’ unforgettable characters for she forges a link between economics and sexuality. Remarking on the beautiful jewels that Miss Havisham puts on Estella whenever Pip comes to visit, he says, “Miss Havisham watched us all the time, directed my attention to Estella’s beauty, and made me notice it the more by trying her jewels on Estella’s breast and hair.” (Dickens 86) Miss Havisham uses jewelry to objectify Estella and to arouse men’s interest by calling attention to her beauty. Both beautiful and valuable, these jewels illustrate the connection between money and love. The jewel imagery follows Estella throughout the novel with her telling Pip, “I am to write to her constantly and see her regularly, and report how I go on—I and the jewels—for they are nearly all mine now.” (Dickens 261) Estella speaks as if the jewels are part of her. Pip also constructs Estella like the jewels: beautiful and cold. Knowing the connection between money and love, Miss Havisham gives her all the jewels. Analogous to the jewelry, Estella’s value as a potential lover comes from her beauty and her wealth. This connection between wealth and love depicted by Dickens’ through the characterization of Estella makes her one of Dickens’ most unforgettable characters.
Through Estella’s character, Dickens’ portrays the problem of social class that was rampantly present in Victorian England and has not yet lost ground today. This theme of social class is central to the novel’s plot and to the ultimate moral of Great Expectations. Estella represents Pip’s first longed-for ideal among the upper class, inciting Pip’s desire to improve and attain any moral, educational and social advancement. His longing to marry Estella and join the upper class makes him treat Biddy and Joe snobbishly. This problem of social class is even evident today in some parts of the world such as India, where the Shudras or the lower class are not allowed to enter the temples or touch the upper class saints or Brahmins. Through Dickens’ words, the readers are ultimately made to realize that it is ultimately the character that matters and leads the person on.





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