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Masculinity in Great Expectations

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2146 words Published: 15th May 2017

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Late Victorian Masculinities are bound up with discourses of evolution and aesthetics. Analyse this statement in relation to Charles Dickens’ Great expectations and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture ofDorian Gray

This essay will try to assess the validity of the abovestatement using the texts stated, and also referring to existing criticism onthe subject. In answering the question, I shall break the statement into twosections. Firstly, I will discuss masculinity in Great Expectations inrelation to evolution, looking at Pip’s transition from humble beginnings to amore flamboyant existence, and how this fits in with Darwin’s theory ofevolution. As well as this, I will look at how masculinity is represented insome of the other characters, and lastly to what extent Pip’s life story cantruly be said to be an evolution.

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Next, I will discuss masculinityin The Picture of Dorian Gray in relation to aesthetics. This part ofthe essay will focus on how the portrayals of masculinity in the novel fit inwith the idea of Art for art’s sake, promoted by followers of the aestheticmovement. In particular I will examine the identity of the eponymous hero, whoembodies much of the aesthetic ideal. There will also be a consideration of theunderlying theme of homosexuality and how some criticism has suggested that theaesthetes used such themes in order to illustrate their own ideas aboutidentity and masculinity. I will then consider to what extent aesthetics arepart of the representation of masculinity in the novel.

Masculinity in Great Expectations doescertainly intertwine with the idea of evolution. Pip is in many ways thearchetypal bildungsroman, progressing from a simple domestic life in ruralKent, to London and fortune (although his ending does represent a variation onthis concept). His masculinity is developed along the way. In earlier chapters,he is governed largely by fear, as in the reader’s first encounter with Mrs.Joe, in which he is informed that he is in trouble. At this dismal intelligence,Ilooked disconsolately at the fire. Tickler was a wax-ended piece of cane.

Contrast this with his behaviour later on in the book, after he has begun to make his way in the world – Being on one occasion threatened with legal proceedingsI went so far as to seize the Avenger by his blue collar and shake him off his feet. By comparisons such as this, we can observe a correlation between the kind of personal evolution, common to the Victorian novel, undergone by Pip, and an increase in perceived masculine traits, such as dominance and physical aggression.

However, underneath this, there is perhaps amore scientific form of evolution under discussion. No novel exists in avacuum, and being published in 1861, Great Expectations Darwin’sgroundbreaking Origin of Species by only two years. Darwin mentions theStruggle for Existence, in which all life strives to be successful,identifies some key factors in this success. I should premise that I use theterm struggle for existence in a large and metaphorical sense, includingdependence of one being on another, and including, which is more important, notonly the life of the individual but the success in leaving progeny.

Pip’s struggle is clearly dependent on others, for example Magwitch, his benefactor, and it is ultimately Joe who helps him in his time of need. Interestingly, however, he does not have an heir. Indeed, in the original ending, Pip notes in an unmistakably gloomy tone Estella’s reaction to Little Pip, She supposed the child, I think, to be my child. In this sense, Pip’s evolution can be seen to be incomplete. But what does this mean with regard to masculinity?

It is interesting to note that masculinity in GreatExpectations is not limited to the male characters. One example of this isMrs. Joe, who, as one critic notes, wore the pants in the household, while Joeserves as an effete and effeminate child like figure.Since Joe’ssimple character evolves less than Pip, this might be seen as fitting in withDarwin, but, as has already been mentioned, Joe achieves the ultimate inevolution – leaving progeny – while Pip does not. Similarly, Mrs Havisham isgiven a somewhat masculine-tinted description – her voice had dropped, so thatshe spoke low,– and yet she is arguably the most static characterin the book, being unable to move beyond the trauma of her past. In the lightof this, it seems doubtful that Dickens intended a purely evolutionary picture.

Although there is a link in the novel between masculinity and evolution, the two do not go entirely hand in hand. Dickens uses the bildungsroman model, but Pip’s development is one of acceptance of his role in life rather than the outright triumph evolutionary theory suggests. However, I do not believe that Dickens set out to critique Darwin either. The novel’s discussion of masculinity sometimes coincides with evolution, and sometimes does not. I think it would be fair to say that Dickens was influenced by the effect of evolution on masculinity, but his characters’ successes and failures do not fit in with any definite theory.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray,masculinity is linked less to evolution and more to aesthetics. This is largelya result of Wilde’s adherence to the principles of the aesthetic movement,particularly that of Art for Art’s sake. This consists of the idea, outlinedin the novel’s preface, that Art is an entity in itself and that its ownbeauty, and not its meaning or purpose, is what gives it the right to exist -All art is quite useless.This idea permeates the main character,Dorian Gray, in lots of ways, not least in the identity of his masculinity.This can be seen in Lord Henry’s description of him in the first chapter -this young Adonis, who looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose leaves.Whyhe is a Narcissus.With its classical references and focus onphysical attributes rather than personality characteristics, this represents aquite different masculine ideal from that which the evolutionists favoured.Masculinity here is perhaps closer to the Platonic ideal, and there is noparticular emphasis on such traits as physical strength and courage, eitherphysical or moral, with which the bildungsroman might be associated.

Moreover, some of the most fundamental aspectsof masculinity are challenged. Wilde was, of course, a homosexual, and thistheme is implicitly covered in The Picture of Dorian Gray. For instance,although all of the main characters have heterosexual relationships, such asDorian’s love for Sybil Vane, there is a suggestion of homosexuality as well.The men are certainly homosocial, and there are implications in therelationship between Lord Henry and Dorian. The former talks very dotingly tohis protégé, right up to the end of the book, My dear boy, You are much toodelightful, and so forth, and perhaps more significantly, it isDorian’s good looks that first attract him. This affects the way masculinity isdealt with in the novel in the respect that it removes the element of trying towin the female love interest that we see in Great Expectations. DespiteDorian’s brief fixation with Sybil, women seem largely incidental to the livesof the principal male characters. This is arguably because they are onlyrequired when they are of aesthetic value, not for their emotional input.Dorian does not ultimately let Sybil’s suicide interfere with thepseudo-homosexual, and more aesthetic, relationship he has with Lord Henry.

Critics have suggested that thisis part of a movement in society in which Wilde and others brought forwardidentity politics, the concept that individuals can view themselves in thelight of their deviations from the norms of society, often enjoying aspects ofthemselves that some might consider abnormal or even immoral. As Audrey Jaffenotes, the contrast between beautiful and ugly images of Dorian Grayreproduces the aesthetics of contemporary identity politics, in which identitytakes shape as the difference between negative and positive culturalprojections.This is perhaps the biggest contrast with GreatExpectations.

Whereas Pip’s manhood is seen as complete when he has learned to accept his place in the world, Dorian’s masculinity is defined by his unwillingness to conform. It is his aesthetic makeup that makes him a man. The implied homosexuality is part of that, since it involves breaking the taboos of society. According to Jaffe, we may catch the early strains of an identity politics whose anthem will eventually become loud enough to make itself heard even on St Patrick’s Day.In this respect, aesthetics are central to the novel’s portrayal of masculinity, although characters like James Vane do represent a more traditional viewpoint, showing such traits as confrontation, family loyalty and defence of one’s honour.

In conclusion, the representationof masculinity in Great Expectations does nod to a discourse onevolution. Dickens uses the bildungsroman model, and there is a genuine senseof progression, and with it, the rise of masculinity. In some respects,Darwinian theory is supported, as in Pip’s dependence on others in thestruggle for existence. However, his failure to sire offspring and hissomewhat humbled ending conflict with theories of evolution. As well as this,there is the consideration that masculine characteristics are often given tocharacters that do not evolve, such as Miss Havisham, while the hen-pecked Joeachieves the ultimate evolutionary success in reproducing. This would seem tolead to the conclusion that Dickens was aware of evolution, and to some extentinfluenced by it, but did not use it as the sole basis for portrayingmasculinity.

By contrast, The Picture ofDorian Gray shows a direct link to the principles of the aestheticmovement. With his looks and his sensual approach to life, Dorian embodies muchof the movement’s ethos, and his masculinity is defined in terms of his charmand visual appeal. The undercurrent of homosexuality in the book reinforcesthis. By failing to conform to the ideals of Victorian society, Dorian isrepresentative of a form of masculinity that relates to identity politics.Rather than taking the moralistic route to manhood, he celebrates the beauty ofhis deviance. In this respect, his masculinity is entirely aesthetic, as it isdefined by his individual beauty, and the contrast between positive andnegative views of him. However, Wild does portray other, more traditional formsof masculinity, albeit marginally, in the character of James Vane.

Evolution and aesthetics,therefore, do play a major part in late Victorian masculinity. Thebildungsroman is an evolutionary figure, while aesthetic portrayals of men werebeginning to come to the fore in this period. However, it is important toremember that these ideas do not govern masculinity entirely, mainly becausewriters are artists and not merely theorists. Although Wilde does adhere to aprincipal more closely than Dickens, both authors show a willingness to breakaway from theory when it is necessary for artistic purposes.


Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, Wordsworth, 2003, (Ch. 2, pg. 7)

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, Wordsworth, 2003, (Ch. 34, pg. 223)

Charles Darwin, Origin of Species, 1859, (Ch 3 – The Struggle for Existence)

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, Wordsworth, 2003, (original ending)

Wayne Huang, Problems of autobiography and fictional biography in Great Expectations, www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/ge/huangcd.html (1997)

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, Wordsworth, 2003, (Ch. 8, pg. 50)

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Complete Illustrated Works of Oscar Wilde, Chancellor Press, 1991, (Preface, pg. 4)

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Complete Illustrated Works of Oscar Wilde, Chancellor Press, 1991, (Ch. 1,pg 5)

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Complete Illustrated Works of Oscar Wilde, Chancellor Press, 1991, (Ch. 19, pg. 147)

Audrey Jaffe, The Aesthetics of Cultural Identity: Embodying Culture, www.victorianweb.org/authors/wilde/jaffe2.html (No date)

Audrey Jaffe, Sympathy and the Embodiment of Culture in Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray, Cornell University Press, 2000 (pg. 167)


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