Charles Dickens' self-destructive women

Thomas George Mellor, University of Rhode Island


This study examines the pattern of self-destructive behavior engaged in by eleven female characters in five novels of Dickens: Edith Dombey and Alice Marwood in Dombey and Son; Lady Dedlock and Mademoiselle Hortense in Bleak House; Louisa Gradgrind in Hard Times; Mrs. Clennam, Fanny Dorrit, Tattycoram, and Miss Wade in Little Dorrit; Estella and Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. A review of the literature about these women indicates that critics to date have not scrutinized this self-destructive pattern. Analysis of the characters reveals that self-destructive behavior emanates from low self-esteem caused by parental exploitation, guilt induced by false values and distorted religion, stifling of the imagination and the patriarchal marriage system.^ The six characters examined in the second chapter--Lady Dedlock, Mademoiselle Hortense, Mrs. Clennam, Miss Wade, Fanny Dorrit, and Miss Havisham--differ from those in chapter three--Edith Dombey, Alice Marwood, Louisa Gradgrind, Tattycoram, and Estella--in that the former tend to direct part of their resentment outward toward a particular goal or person while the latter tend to have even lower self-esteem and direct almost all of their anger towards themselves.^ The self-destructive behaviors exhibited by these women include physical self-abuse, neurotic invalidism, purposive accidents, suicide, provacative aggression, self-imposed isolation, deleterious passivity, and conscious acceptance or pursuit of damaging relationships with men.^ One conclusion drawn from this study is that Dickens has little faith in institutions like schools and organized religion. Another is that Dickens' belief in the essential goodness of human nature is tempered by a realization of its vulnerability to the distortions and excesses of individuals and institutions whose value systems derive from a belief in the essential depravity and sinfulness of human nature. The alternative Dickens offers is a simple Christian love modeled on the compassion and humility of Christ.^ Dickens' view of human nature accounts for the importance he attaches to an unstifled childhood development which allows the imagination of the child to flourish along with the intellect and the body. This balanced growth allows the individual to acquire "wisdom of the heart," the capacity to establish fulfilling human relationships. ^

Subject Area

Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Thomas George Mellor, "Charles Dickens' self-destructive women" (1988). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI8901715.