Miss Havisham’s Legacy and the Liminal Woman


Great Expectations rarely opts for subtlety with Miss Havisham. As discussed in class, Miss Havisham sections demonstrate the novel’s most gothic element. Her character acts as a ghost, anchoring Pip and Estella to her history of tragedy even if its activators are long gone. Still, Miss Havisham stands as a unique gothic figure as her dueling status as an aristocratic woman and “the Witch of the place” (Dickens 85). Yet, the basic archetype of Miss Havisham, or the aged, corrupted distortion of the aristocratic maiden archetype has maintained itself throughout ensuing time.

In one lens, Miss Havisham demonstrates the somewhat sexist “mad” older woman trope, despite not being that old. Still, characters are rendered monstrous in their aging and their refusal to accept. And so, they exist as a “perversion” of maidenhood. Though lacking personal concern about age, Havisham still aims to defy time, and is rendered grotesqueness and uncanny in the process. For example, a witch implies an older disrupter, someone not bound by “normal” rules of reality. Miss Havisham’s faded white dress speak to uncanny perversion, too. The white wedding dress may connotate youth and purity, but its’ yellowing and shriveling connotates a distortion of the same effect. This “pure” thing isn’t as it “should” be. This archetype will not submit to time or societal demands, thus making this person a monstrous other in youth-oriented society.

One well documented descendent of the Miss Havisham archetype descent which even Wikipedia acknowledges also applies to the antagonist of the classic noir, Sunset Boulevard, which very name implies a prolonged ending. Norma Desmond is probably the most direct descendent of the Havisham archetype. Essentially, the film centers around former silent film star Norma Desmond’s attempts to get back into the film industry. However, her own incredibly volatile grip on reality and bitterness impedes her at every step. Like Havisham, Norma still mentally lives decades in the past, sustained by her bitterness. In the present day, she too lives in a decrepit mansion and spurns most human contact. Her “sick fantasies” include constant indulgent in the form of adoration and is much more directly sexual, rather than frustration by proxy with Miss Havisham. Still, both make innocent lives a misery because they are not willing to acknowledge the present. Still, as a quick IMDb search will say that Norma’s maddened reclusiveness was based on several reclusive female silent film stars, in a moment of art reflecting reality. Or rather, art and life reflecting the misogynistic societal constraints that do not metaphorically, or literally in Norma Desmond’s case, have societal roles for women beyond that “maiden” stage. But as Havisham and Norma show, the clock does not stop. The “choice” remains to either disappear and pass onto a more passive role or to simply cling to existence who would deny these characters the value associated with youth. Instead, Miss Havisham and all her descendants show how prevalent these ideas of thinking about women, age, and purity remain- and haunt- literature to this day.

Sunset Boulevard Movie Poster









Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Penguin Classics, 2003.

File:Sunset Boulevard (1950 poster).jpg – Wikimedia Commons

Sunset Blvd. (1950) – Trivia – IMDb

Sunset Boulevard. Directed by Billy Wilder, prefromances by Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich Von Stroheim, and Nancy Olsen, Paramount Pictures, 1950.

3 thoughts on “Miss Havisham’s Legacy and the Liminal Woman”

  1. This is an excellent close reading of Miss Havisham. It also reminds me a lot of how female celebrities are viewed still to this day. When they age, they are seen worn out and past their time, but male celebrities can still have fame and popularity at an older age. This is also reflected in the fact that it is expected of older female celebrities to get plastic surgery to slow their aging, while it is normal for male celebrities to just age naturally.

  2. The concept of the liminal, aging woman in the context of Miss Havisham was really interesting and well-explained! I agree Miss Havisham is placed in a complicated position as she tries to grip to the past with her yellowing wedding dress, and your analysis of the novel’s reflection of the reality of the social expectations and constraints of the aging woman represented the effects of 19th century society on Miss Havisham’s characterization. As well, your analysis of the “perversion of maidenhood” represented through the yellowing of the wedding dress, I wonder how you could extend this analysis to her relationship with Estella and how Miss Havisham nurtured her as a young girl.

  3. I really enjoyed your post about Miss Havisham and how the various aspects of where she lives to how she acts is symbolic of an overall misogynistic stereotype that can be seen and is prominent in other forms of media after the novel. I thought that your post was well constructed and wonderful to read and it reminded me of a silent film I watched as a kid called White Sister about a young girl from a wealthy family who loses everything in a day and goes to live in a convent as a nun only to find out that her dead lover is actually alive and is left to choose between him or remaining a nun only for a suiter whom she does not love to trigger the eruption of a volcano after her refusal to marry him and for her sister, lover, suiter and half the village she lives in to die in the destruction. She then goes on to live the rest of her life as a nun and your post reminded me of the film due to it’s nature of the solitude and isolation of the young woman who has lost it all and as a result, her whole life course is changed for the better or worse as a result.

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