Arguably, Dickens’ novels portray the majority of the female characters in an extremely misogynistic light, and the character of Estella is no exception. Whilst modern readers may feel shocked at her portrayal, it is important to consider the Victorian era in which Dickens was writing and how its patriarchal society influenced his works. Estella is heart-breakingly beautiful and yet strikingly pernicious. She is the icy, cruel princess who plants the seeds of dissatisfaction and expectation into the nave and impressionable Pip. Her impact upon his life is immeasurable, and is maintained throughout the novel. Her frosty nature is developed through her twisted relationship with Miss Havisham, which defines and dictates not only Estella’s character, but also her actions throughout the novel. However, whilst she is ostensibly presented as cold and hostile, she is not the automaton she seems to be, and ultimately, we can view her as a character to be pitied rather that despised. Although she may appear to be a manipulative conductress who intentionally tortures men, she is fundamentally a victim of her society, class and circumstances.
Dickens introduces the character of Estella, through the young Pip’s perspective, as a “very pretty and…very proud” young girl. Although her age at the time is similar to Pip’s, her constant addressing of him as “boy” highlights her condescending attitude towards him, as the plosive sound captures her contempt and disgust of him. It also highlights the deeply ingrained division between the classes in the Victorian society, which was something that Dickens passionately wanted to change. He wrote his novels as social critiques that were intended to challenge and ultimately modify society: the rich lived in decadence and opulence whilst the poor suffered devastating deprivations. There was no movement between classes: if one was born into poverty, they died in poverty. Estella, having been brought up with wealth and luxury, sneers at and ridicules Pip, which emphasises her judgemental quality. This is ironic, as, eventually, she is destroyed by the class system, but also because she is actually a convict’s daughter, meaning she was born into a class even lower than Pip’s.
Estella’s external beauty encapsulates the archetypal Victorian woman, as she is graceful and elegant. However, inwardly, she is not the subservient, gentle and delicate creature that was expected. From a very young age, Estella is aware of her sexuality and her effect upon men, due to the teachings of Miss Havisham. She manipulates and confuses Pip when she challenges him with, “You may kiss me, if you like”. This confidence in herself foreshadows her stoic attitude in the future, as she deliberately lures men only to breaks their hearts. The repetition of her questions: “Am I pretty? …Am I insulting?” has a chilling nature as she forces the answers from Pip.
They are short, emphatic and aggressive and these qualities are reiterated in her character when she slaps Pip’s face, demanding, “Why don’t you cry again you little wretch?” The superiority that emanates from her language and the aggression and violence from such a young girl is astonishing. Pip is spiritually weakened by her tone and as the adult narrator he acknowledges the paradox in the fact that he kept allowing her cruel behaviour to shape and define him. He asserts that he will never cry for her, but recognises the deceit in that phrase: “I was internally crying for her then, and I know what I know of the pain she cost me afterwards.” This is a poignant image of a young child suffering internal pain at the hands of a girl, who is his contemporary, and it also conveys her power to continually wound Pip.
Indeed, this power that she holds over Pip is symbolised by the candle that she is frequently associated with. Pip’s world is plunged into darkness after meeting her: he would never have thought to be ashamed of his “coarse hands” and “common boots”, if it was not for Estella’s cruel words. She is the focal point of all of Pip’s dissatisfaction and his expectations revolve around pleasing her. However, the candle also underlines the fact that she lives in a world of shadows, claiming “Moths and all sorts of ugly creatures…hover about a lighted candle. Can the candle help it?”
Thus we see the recognition that she tempts and taunts men, and her arrogance in the rhetorical question, as she seems to absolve herself of any responsibility for damaging those around her and it arguably makes her a difficult character to feel sympathy for. Despite this lack of sympathy, Dickens needed to force the reader to understand what his characters represented and this need to educate his readers is instantly conveyed in the nomenclature of his characters. Estella, meaning star or love, is a prime example of this. Her name is ambiguous as it denotes several things. She is the “theme that so long filled [Pip’s] heart”: his thoughts and actions are constantly orbiting around her as if she is his life source, as if she is his star. However, stars do not simply illuminate beauty, but are inwardly destructive forces of energy that are raging and chaotic. Externally, Estella is pulchritudinous but inwardly she is catastrophically destructive, like a star. There is bitter irony in the sense that her name connotes love, yet she is unable to feel love or any other emotion.
Estella’s inability to love must be acknowledged not to be solely her own fault, as her natural development, from a very young age, was cruelly stifled by Miss Havisham. Her constant instructions to “break their hearts” and the fact that they are whispered into Estella’s ears shows the persistent and pernicious guidance that she receives. She lives with these teachings her entire life and is victimised by Miss Havisham. Although readers are often infuriated by Estella’s callous actions, we understand, but not necessarily forgive, her behaviour. The image of Miss Havisham embracing Estella “with lavish fondness” is tender and motherly, which undercuts the words that she constantly whispers, like a snake, into Estella’s ears. This eventually destroys Estella creating a monster that is unable to love.
However, as much as Miss Havisham tries, there seems to be something inherently good in Estella and this is evident in the way she does not want Pip to be hurt by loving her. Throughout their adult relationship, Estella constantly warns Pip away from her, telling him “I have no heart…I have no softness there, no sympathy – sentiment – nonsense.” The sibilance of her words creates, at once, an ambiguity that captures Estella perfectly. The hissing sound is ominous and sinister, but her words seem to plead with him to save himself, providing softness to her words, and therefore her character. It is as though she subconsciously feels a protective instinct for Pip and so dissuades him from falling in love with her, knowing she cannot offer any nurturing. Her warning is also poignant, considering the fragmented syntax: the cool and stoic woman feels, just for one moment, an emotion. This emotion is heart-breakingly truthful because it is so difficult for her to express.
Readers feel compassion towards Estella because of this, but it is not until her confrontation with Miss Havisham that we feel true empathy towards her. Miss Havisham is burning with rage and sadness whilst admonishing Estella’s “cold, cold heart” and yet Estella remains stoic: “Her graceful figure and her beautiful face [expressing] a self-possessed indifference to the wild heat of the other, was almost cruel”. This image shocks us because it is so unnatural to be so shut off from another’s suffering. We question how someone so young can remain so unemotional and dispassionate, in the face of the severe emotion that Miss Havisham reveals. Had she shown anger towards Miss Havisham, it would have been understandable, but the fact that she does not feel any emotion at all, the fact that she can only respond in “a calm wonder” with her robotic words is terrifying. Her relentless questions that she calmly asks Miss Havisham connotes that she cannot feel empathy: “When have you found me false to your teaching? Who taught me to be proud? Who praised me when I learnt my lesson?” Each question is swift and striking, presenting her as rational and collected, which shocks us but we also pity her for it: she is merely a puppet of Miss Havisham and Estella herself knows that she “must be taken as [she] was made”.
Miss Havisham’s lessons continue to have a detrimental effect upon everything Estella does, including her choice in husband: Drummle, “the blotchy, sprawly, sulky fellow”, is the most aggressive and immoral man that Estella could have chosen, which highlights her self-destructive nature. Drummle is frequently described as the “spider” by Mr Jaggers, suggesting that the character is as menacing and sinister as the creature itself. Estella does not care that Drummle does not love her, and Dickens makes it clear that the marriage will be an ill-fated one. It destroys Estella and she is fortunate that Drummle dies, but the experience undoubtedly softens her. When Pip sees her again, he is shocked: “what I had never seen before was the saddened, softened light of the once proud eyes”. The change is intangible, but it is there. Ostensibly, it is not a drastic change, but for Estella, the enlightenment is profound. Her words “I have been bent and broken but – I hope – into a better shape” are heart-breaking for readers, as we realise how far her experiences have affected her. The plosive sounds of her words reinforce her bitter feelings towards her late husband but also highlight her emphatic tone: she genuinely believes she has changed for the better.
The presentation of Estella’s character as a woman who takes pleasure in inflicting pain is shocking to contemporary readers. When she was a child she was crafted and controlled by Miss Havisham, but she maintains her cruel nature which infuriates readers. However, we come to empathise with her as we see that she is a victim of Miss Havisham, and genuinely does not know what it is to love. As difficult as heartache and emotions can be, we pity her for not being able to feel them. Dickens realistically explores what happens when society takes a child and oppresses all her natural instincts of self-discovery and awareness, and the result is the memorable creation of Estella. Although her presentation is shocking, her development from a precocious child to a cold, stoic woman is not surprising. Not only is it foreshadowed through Pip’s narration, but we can also foresee it in her childhood nature. Nonetheless, Dickens does not present her development as finite, rather she is a work in progress and we witness what, for Estella, is a remarkable change. Thus, we are left with the tentative hope that she will develop some semblance of emotion. Though it may be slow, it will be hard fought for and ultimately won.