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.

Gothic Character Paradoxes in Wuthering Heights

“[Mr. Earnshaw] died quietly in his chair one October evening, seated by the fire-side. A high wind blustered round the house, and roared in the chimney: it sounded wild and stormy, yet it was not cold, and we were all together—I, a little removed from the hearth, busy at my knitting, and Joseph reading his Bible near the table (for the servants generally sat in the house then, after their work was done). Miss Cathy had been sick, and that made her still; she leant against her father’s knee, and Heathcliff was lying on the floor with his head in her lap. I remember the master, before he fell into a doze, stroking her bonny hair—it pleased him rarely to see her gentle—and saying, “Why canst thou not always be a good lass, Cathy?” And she turned her face up to his, and laughed, and answered, “Why cannot you always be a good man, father?” But as soon as she saw him vexed again, she kissed his hand, and said she would sing him to sleep. She began singing very low, till his fingers dropped from hers, and his head sank on his breast. Then I told her to hush, and not stir, for fear she should wake him.”

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Page 30


In Wuthering Heights, cruelty embeds every development. Though Mary Barton dealt heavily with the exploitation and dehumanization of the working class, Wuthering Heights arguably displays much more of the darkness of the heart. Thus, when reading these incredibly complicated characters, curiosity arises on as to why, and whether they are deserving of sympathy anyway. This is most certainly true of Catherine Earnshaw. Catherine dominates much of the novel, through her literal ghost in the beginning, or even her daughter’s name. Yet, Heathcliff’s emotional damage from familial abuse and societal dehumanization provides psychological background for him, Catherine does not have equal exploration for her volatility. Partly, Ellen’s narration consistently lacks sympathy to Catherine. Ellen repeatedly cites Catherine’s selfishness, while often participating in the same judgements herself. For example, after the Linton’s visit in chapter 7, Ellen automatically thinks ill of Catherine for disregarding Heathcliff, though Ellen does little to help, either (Bronte 41).

Yet, the book does offer subtle insights into Catherine’s anger, such as in her father’s death scene. Interestingly, this scene both breaks with and conforms to Gothic conventions present in the novel’s other parts. As discussed in class and Roger Luckhurst’s introduction to Late Victorian Gothic Tales, the Gothic can be defined as exploration of “The Other” (Luckhurst 10). In Wuthering Heights, this theme can most obviously be seen in the characters. Catherine’s undying passion and Heathcliff’s mysterious origin both push them outside what is considered “normal.” Yet, the scene where they are both sitting quietly reflects a gentler attitude from Heathcliff and Cathy. However, this “normal” behavior for the expectations of a typical child comes off as strange behavior from what Cathy and Heathcliff are usually portrayed as. Still, a powerful storm rages outside, a reflection of the Gothic element of the sublime, as discussed by Bowen’s video (Bowen 6:18).  Perhaps this signals that although things may be briefly calm, the Earnshaws’ dysfunction always rages underneath.

Unsurprisingly, this silence cannot be maintained forever. When Mr. Earnshaw implicitly scolds Catherine by asking why she cannot always be good, Mr. Earnshaw displays a disregard for Catherine that could explain her behavior. This “goodness” only comes from her silence and lessened energy from illness. Only when she pushes back by questioning him as to why he cannot always be a good man that he becomes “vexed.” To Mr. Earnshaw, Cathy being a “good girl” comes in the form of her being reserved and obedient, whereas being a good man would likely have different connotations to him. After all, Mr. Earnshaw does say earlier that he “cannot love [her]” simply because of her mischief, which “made her cry….then, being repulsed continually hardened her, and she laughed….” (29 Bronte). Even on his deathbed, his last words are to chide Catherine. Still, the rest of the passage follows Catherine’s coping mechanism, while still displaying her love for her father when she tries to make up by singing to him in a “low” manner. Despite the casual cruelty Catherine displays later and earlier, this action indicates she is genuinely trying to think of others. And then, Ellen tells her to be quiet and still once more, to not bother her father further, emblematic of her entire childhood up to this point. Catherine cannot stop herself from being her mischievous self, and instead of working to understand her, the adults in her life tell her to be quiet. The world does not want to understand Catherine. Thus, it comes as little surprise she becomes an emotional storm unto herself as an adult, and as wild as the winds over the Heights.

Citation (Other edition):

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1847. Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1992.

Defending Daisy Miller

In the fourth chapter of Henry James Daisy Miller, the narrator states, “[Winterbourne] felt very sorry for her—not because he believed that she had completely lost her head, but because it was painful to hear so much that was pretty and undefended and natural assigned to a vulgar place among the categories of disorder” (54). The keywords I want to focus on here are “pretty,” “undefended,” and “natural.” To really unpack the meaning of these words though, I would first like to make two considerations: one of perceptions of Daisy Miller in relation to gender and history, and the other of another a specific scene in which Daisy’s prettiness and rebelliousness is responded to.

While reading Daisy Miller, I instinctually want to defend Daisy against accusations of her having “lost her head” or any other accusation of there being something fundamentally wrong with her mentally. She does show signs of narcissism and can be manipulative, but from my standpoint as a feminist in the 21st century, I would like for the most part to consider Daisy as something more along the lines of a liberated woman. Of course, women’s liberation, in more formal movements, would not come for nearly another hundred years’ after the novel was published, and the first wave of feminism was only just starting to really blossom at the time. Any hey, in the 19th century, wanting to deviate from societal norms was generally enough for a person to be diagnosed with a mental illness or otherwise shunned or invalidated. Putting aside histories of feminism and mental illness, I bring this up because I want to make clear that I do not believe that Daisy is supposed to be a liberated character, nor that her lack of concern for societal norms is supposed to be read as a thing that other women should be striving to achieve. No matter how much my contemporary lens is willing to forgive Daisy Miller, she would not have been perceived in the time period the way I perceive her now.

But if Daisy’s liberated character is clearly not supposed to be read as a positive thing considering historical contexts, then why is Winterbourne so enamored with and forgiving of her? For a brief moment I hoped, rather naively, that perhaps James was simply ahead of his time and that he wrote Daisy Miller to advance sophisticated portrayals of women that position them outside of conventional roles. Daisy is after all a representation of a certain kind of woman that existed historical that can be contextualized and understood today within larger histories of gender construction. But when looking at the context of some of the interactions between Daisy and Winterbourne, almost all of which include an observation of her beauty, I discovered the less feminist reason for Winterbourne’s fixation on Daisy Miller.

In chapter three when Winterbourne meets Giovanelli for the first time, Giovanelli makes a comment on Daisy’s character and Daisy immediately chastises him. She claims, “I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do” (40). Whether or not this statement is true is a debate for another time. What I want to examine is the way that Daisy is described when she makes this statement and its content in conjunction with Winterbourne’s response. Before she makes this statement, Daisy is described as having “eyes that were prettier than ever” (40). Winterbourne then responds, “I think that you have made a mistake. You should sometimes listen to a gentleman—the right one” (40). The implication of the combination of Daisy’s prettiness, her defiant statement, and Winterbourne’s immediate correction demonstrates that Winterbourne is willing to excuse, even appreciate, Daisy’s deviations from the societal norms because of her beauty. More importantly, however, he, in his position as a real gentleman of proper society, would is capable of reforming, or in a way saving, her, if only she would listen.

Returning to those three words mentioned earlier, “pretty,” “undefended,” and “natural,” it is now possible to understand these words more deeply. Daisy’s prettiness is one of her most notable qualities, and her beauty is what draws Winterbourne to her. However, she also presents a wildness, one that is “natural” for a woman who has not been taught and sheltered properly (by a proper gentleman) to present. She has also not been properly defended, i.e. she does not have someone of proper society like Winterbourne to vouch for her in appropriate ways. A relationship between Daisy and Winterbourne would in a way, then, save Daisy. But if she were to accept such a thing, would she really be Daisy Miller anymore?