by Michael Woods
This poem is a dramatic monologue and gives a powerful insight into the potential thoughts and feelings of the character in Charles Dickens’s novel, Great Expectations (1861). Miss Havisham was jilted at the altar and never recovered from the experience.
A mentally tortured Miss Havisham, riven by the conflict between being in love and hating the man who jilted her is encapsulated in the first two sentences: ‘Beloved sweetheart bastard. Not a day since then / I haven’t wished him dead.’ The plosive ‘b’ and dental ‘d’ sounds immediately establish the bitterness and violent aggression in the woman’s voice. The psychological damage done to Miss Havisham is presented in the physical image of eyes that have become ‘dark green pebbles’ and the tendons of her hands are ‘ropes’ she ‘could strangle with’.
The root of her hatred lies in the fact that she is a ‘Spinster’ (line 5). The word, as a sentence in its own right, is isolated like the woman who is defined by society in terms of her unmarried state. She is so obsessed with her predicament that she spends entire days ‘cawing Nooooo at the wall’. The sound suggested is, perhaps, that of a parrot endlessly repeating the same sound. It certainly conveys a visceral, animal-like howling too. Miss Havisham still wears her wedding dress, playing the role of bride, causing her to ‘stink and remember’. The sight of the yellowing dress is seen in a ‘slewed mirror’. What does this suggest? Seeing herself in the mirror rekindles her hatred of the man who deserted her, resulting in the ‘Puce curses’ of line 9.
She has dreams that are sexual fantasies about what she might have experienced with the husband she never had. Her ‘fluent tongue’ explores his body but as she moves near his loins: ‘I suddenly bite awake’. This suggests that in doing so she could emasculate him with her teeth, re-establishing the overriding emotion of anger that she still feels. The enjambment that links stanzas 3 and 4 draws attention to this conflict as it reminds us that such an opposition can co-exist in one person. In terms of the layout of the poem’s lines, the physical distance between the stanzas neatly presents the simultaneous tendency of Miss Havisham to love and hate the man. The mixture of emotions she articulates in line 1 is developed in the oxymoron ‘Love’s / hate behind a white veil’ (lines 12–13). This veil, like Havisham, has decayed; it has yellowed and she is physically and mentally diminished. The power of ‘red balloon / bursting in my face. Bang’. is conveyed again through the use of plosives. Also, through the use if the plosive onomatopoeic ‘Bang’ we see her faced with the truth of her situation erupting through the ‘veil’ of her dream as she becomes fully conscious. There may also be a subconscious reference to the rupturing of the hymen that she has never experienced. She remembers stabbing her wedding cake, which leads to a disturbing expression of both homicidal and necrophiliac tendencies.