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  • Female Figures in Great Expectations:In Praise of Mrs. Joe
  • John Gordon (bio)

Mrs. Joe Gargery of Great Expectations is a shrew. She bullies her husband, torments Pip, and constantly bewails her lot as a blacksmith's wife. Hard-featured and hard-nosed, she sums up in her person everything a woman of the time ought not to be.

After her death, Joe will marry the plain1 but thoroughly feminine Biddy and, in quick order, impregnate her. It is impossible to imagine any such thing having happened in his marriage to Mrs. Joe, if only because, as the narrator mischievously informs us, she is impregnable, in the military sense of unbreachable–that is, impregnable to impregnation:2

She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two loops, and having a square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles. She made it a powerful merit in herself, and a strong reproach against Joe, that she wore this apron so much. Though I really see no reason why she should have worn it at all; or why, if she did wear it at all, she should not have taken it off, every day of her life

(8; ch. 2).

The "bib" noted here, according to the OED, is an "article worn over the breast by adults, frequently as the upper part of an apron." So: not only is Mrs. Joe proof against impregnation; she will also not stand for being milked, at least not by any infant who doesn't want to have its little eyes impaled by those pins and needles of hers. Where other women have breasts, she has a breastplate. That is why Pip had to be "raised by hand," an expression that he takes to signify being manually knocked around but which really means being raised without benefit of breast-feeding.

In an earlier novel, Dombey and Son, this is made to be a very big deal. [End Page 244] Paul Dombey's "sharp weaning"–he loses his mother at birth, then is deprived of his wet nurse–is one major cause of his early death.3 In Great Expectations, we may be pretty certain that the second Pip, the one later born to Joe and Biddy, is breast-fed by his mother; also that the woman who conceived him has, at various times, lain lovingly, breasts etc. bared, beside her husband–and if that sounds obvious, try envisioning the same between Joe and Mrs. Joe. (One averts one's eyes.) Pip's account of her apron ("I see no reason why […] she should not have taken it off") at least allows the inference that she never removes it, that she wears it to bed, pins and needles included, as knights on campaign were said to sleep in their armor. It is a strange prospect, but, in Great Expectations, not altogether implausible. After all, Pip has gotten the impression that she brought her husband up by hand too, that in fact "she must have made Joe Gargery marry her by hand" (7; ch. 2).

Thus endeth my arraignment of Mrs. Joe. Without question it accords with that of most readers. It certainly reflects Pip's own assessment up to the time of Mrs. Joe's invalidship and death, and as such is, I suggest, fair, as far as it goes. Now I am going to argue that as far as it goes is not far enough, that the verdict is wrong, that in thus judging Mrs. Joe we do her the sort of injustice we are, elsewhere in the novel, taught to critique, that Dickens has encouraged us to read her as that stock figure, the breastless Amazonian harridan, while making available the means to catch ourselves out and learn a chastening lesson about our own overhasty readiness to find fault. In short, the man has set us up.

It comes down to the question of Pip's judgment, which is bad. Its badness, in fact, is the main story: if Balzac had not already named his own serial novel of youthful folly Les Illusions Perdues (1837–43), the title would have...


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pp. 244-255
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