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.