That she had done a grievous thing

Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Discussion | Title: Great Expectations (in Context) | Author: Charles Dickens | Ch: Chapter XLIX

One of the novel's most significant paragraphs, in part because it marks Pip's increased understanding of both Miss Havisham and himself. In speaking of her "shutting out the light of day...," Pip is more a pathologist than a moralist. Succumbing wholly to her hurt and wounded pride, she had sealed herself off from potentially healing influences—the sun symbolically, society and friendship in reality. Instead she "reversed" the appointed order of things—birth, life, decay, death—and sought a stasis closer to death than life.

She chose the opposite path from Joe and even Magwitch, though both of them endured maiming psychological as well as physical violence when young that would have explained their turning vindictive, had they become that. She might not have been cured but leaving herself in the world and open to friendship and love produced her surrender to her "master mania" through the "vanity of sorrow" (Dickens intends both meanings of "vanity.") Miss Havisham dwelt exclusively, monomaniacally on the insult to her psyche, what Freud calls the "narcissistic wound." But Dickens also means vanity as in futility, for nothing but barrenness results from such behavior. Instead of crippling Estella, she might have reared a loving woman.

The proof of the effectiveness of being open to natural, healing influences appears right now in Miss Havisham's outburst of affection and pity for Pip, which fosters in him a deeper understanding of her and her pathology of mind. He advances another step in his maturity and deepening compassion. 

Miss Havisham's refrain, "What have I done?" is both question and statement. Either bespeaks her pained astonishment at the mind's tortured pathways and at its capacity to inflict terrible harm, first upon itself. 

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