Monday, December 20, 2010

Miss Havisham

When I taught Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, I framed Miss Havisham as a villain.  Or, I should say, I thought the novel framed her as a villain.

She's a woman who was jilted on her wedding day by a lover who turned out to have double-crossed her with the help of her brother.  In the aftermath of her heartbreak, she becomes angry, bitter, and hateful.  She adopts a baby girl, Estella, and raises her to have no understanding of love, purposely training her to break men's hearts.  She toys with Pip, the narrator and hero of the novel, letting him assume that she is his benefactor, that she ultimately wants him to marry Estella.  She is cruel to her family (although, to be fair, all of but one of them are just waiting for her to die).  She is utterly absorbed by her own pain.  She doesn't understand why Estella finally turns away from her, even though she deliberately made Estella the way she is.

We talked about her in class as one of the "monsters" of the novel--an example of what a human being becomes when they allow themselves to get so caught up in their own pain that they come to enjoy inflicting pain on others.  An exaggerated depiction of someone who lets a bitter disappointment infect their entire life, their entire future, and even blight the lives of the next generation.

I never had a lot of sympathy for Miss Havisham.

And now?

Now I feel like I am Miss Havisham.

I understand her in a way I had never expected.  I, too, want to stop all the clocks and refuse to move forward.  I want to wear the same clothes day after day, letting them slowly fall apart.  I want to take the food and flowers that people have sent and leave them sitting on the table, rotting and attracting bugs and spiders.  I want to keep the shades drawn and the room dark.  I want to refuse to see people.  I want to never leave my house.  I want to be like Miss Havisham.

Instead, I make myself take a shower.  I write.  I read.  I do laundry.  I watch TV.  I look at Eliza's pictures and cry.

I don't want to become a monster.  I don't want to become so overwhelmed by my own sadness that I cease to function entirely.

But still.  I don't want to leave the house by myself.  I get dizzy and realize that I've forgotten to breathe.  I put on clean clothes everyday, but then I spend the day curled up on my couch, waiting for David to get home from work. 

I am not Miss Havisham, I tell myself.  I am clinging to the hope that my life is not marked by tragedy forever.  I am holding fast to the possibility that, as a friend wrote to me in an e-mail, this is a great sadness, but not a harbinger of things to come.

Sometimes I believe this.  Sometimes I do not.

Either way, I understand Miss Havisham differently.  Dickens depicts her as a monster, but I know what it feels like to want to be monstrous.  Because sometimes being human is just too hard.


  1. B- will full respect for your creative comparisons and insightful musings, you are no Havisham. Your life is filled to the brim with people who love and support you. Even if you feel reclusive now, they're not going anywhere. And, Miss H. was caught up completely in her own pain. Your pain as a parent is different and more selfless. Your loss isn't only about you. Dark feelings do not make you a villian. Love is still love even when it's painful, and your love makes you heroic.

  2. i'm so sorry things are this impossibly hard. i'm thinking of you, brooke, and your husband, and eliza.

  3. Brooke, I found your site from Glow and just had to stop by and read about Eliza and you. I'm just so sorry. Your words are bringing me back to those early days and I remember how hard it was.

  4. Feel whatever you need to feel in these early days and know there are so many people lifting you up in their thoughts. You're right sometimes being human is so incredibly hard ((hugs))

  5. Hi Brooke- I found you fro your glow post and read Eliza's story. I just wanted you to know how truly sorry I am and that I am here following your journey.
    My son Cullen was stillborn at 34 weeks in September. We have no real idea why.
    Reading this post brings back a deeper understanding of all of the 'greats' in literature and how we can view characters so differently at certain points in life.
    Thank you for sharing your story... I hope that the days ahead will be full of love, support, and grace.

  6. As a fan of Victorian literature, this was a seriously amazing post. And the fact that you are able to view Miss Havisham with new sympathy, drawing on your own recent tragedy, tells me you are in no danger of actually becoming her. I find that the loss of my daughter has opened me up to the pain of others -- pregnancy loss related & otherwise -- in ways I never would have imagined before. I consider it one of her gifts to me. (((hugs)))

  7. Well, Loribeth stole the words out from under me. I also feel that my son's loss has rounded out my edges and made me more compassionate. Not that I don't feel angry and reclusive at times...especially in the early days. It is so hard to get out of bed, to face the day, to live life in a new reality. As someone else said, do it however you can right now. Each day dressed is a victory.

  8. I became so selfish after my son's death, embarrassingly so. (At least to myself. I'm not sure anybody else noticed.) All the things everyone else wanted me to do, for others (yes, there were people who wanted me to reassure other pregnant relations that all would be well with their babies--like hell I would!), I refused to do. I stated, unequivocally, "For once in my life, it's all about me!" (And if you don't like that, you can go suck it, was the implied message.)

    I do have a great deal more sympathy for other people these days--I understand more why that crotchety old person might be crotchety and wish them well, wish them peace, for I don't know what they've suffered, but I can understand maybe why they became who they did.

    I don't know--I've rambled. Only this, I suppose: I understand.