May be Dickens wanted to teach us something deeper than the usual, conventional discourse narrating the troubles impeding women’s psychosocial independence during the Victorian age. Thinking about Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, I realized what if Dickens was trying to comment on the futility and overrated disposition of marriage as an institution? What if he was trying to comment on the emotional fragility of women which makes them their own foe? Despite Dickens’ inspiring sense of social depiction in the 19th Century, certain aspects about his real life—that not many people know of—lend him a very Khaleel-u-Rehmanish convenience in treating his female characters. After all, for someone who dumped his wife after 22 years of marriage and abandoned some ten children, this assumption could not be just too far-fetched. Dickens’ infamous affair with the much younger Ellen Ternan, was a reason why his marriage was on the rocks for years before he finally divorced the poor old, sagging mother of his ten children, Catherine, in 1858.

Coming back to our wrinkled, dirt-draped Miss Havisham whose cob-webbed life lapidated her existence for years, I wonder why she could never move on with her life. For all those who might have forgotten about her harrowing experience:  as a young girl, Miss Havisham was all set to tie the knot with the love-of-her-life. Being interested solely in her wealth and property, the love-of-her-life unabashedly left her a farewell letter stating his unwillingness to proceed with the event, on the very day they were to get married. That day she declared herself in a state of eternal mourning, renouncing all forms of worldly pleasure. She spent all her years to come, in that god-forsaken wedding gown and veil— punishing herself perhaps for not being able to realize the fault in her judgment about him or may be for so blindly trusting this man with her life so easily... 

However, the question is as to why could she not move on? Did she not realize that had she been married to him, he would have diseased her life in so many unthinkable ways? She should have been thankful to the honesty he offered in that farewell letter of his, where he generously admitted harboring insincere intentions towards her. He would have never been a good husband or father anyway, and so could Dickens not fashion a more mature, sensible woman out of Miss Havisham’s character? A character who could grasp the simplicity of the notion that watching her wedding day-preparations crumble into nothingness was still better than wasting away her life facing the brunt of an unhappy marriage later.

So why it is that centuries later, Dickens still continues to be revered by the world’s literary circle? His novels still read and enjoyed with enthusiasm. May be because it was through the impactful characters like Miss Havisham, that he immortalized himself—producing literature that he knew would stand the test of time.

One-and-a-half century later, are we all not the proverbial prodigies of Miss Havisham? In the 21st Century, as South-Asian women, we continue to live in a society where we feel so bogged down by social pressures that marrying Mr. Wrong at the so-called right age of 25 years or below, is considered better than getting married to Mr. Right at 25 or above. And of course, “Social Pressures” is one blanket term we all profusely use, believing that it would evidence and manifest its implications in people’s minds conveniently, but here it is essential to identify some important social pressures from today’s time.

The first of all is a recent example. Just yesterday I happened to browse facebook, where a “Rishta Group” had an anonymous post by a lady. The post read: “Rishtas from Respectable and Well-Mannered Boys’ Families. We encourage professional girls. GIRLS, 25 YEARS OLD OR ABOVE, WILL BE CHARGED SEPARATELY. Inbox us for further details”.

The second example that I cannot brush out of my head is that of a lady who apparently does not charge money for the matrimonial matches she helps fix, but deals only in “Maad-Scaat young bachiyaan”. Upon inquiring as to what “young” was like to her, she told me that around 27 was okay, but better it would be if the girl is somewhere in between 20 to 25 years old. To team her point of view with a seemingly more analytical and rational approach, she quoted her experience in the business and stated a weird ratio of 1 to 8, wherein each kunwara guy she had on her list had the choice of around 8 kunwari approvable girls. So in her eyes, the younger the girl, the more potential she had of being approved by His Highness.

Another of the cases is that of an elderly, religious couple with one son and a daughter. They got their daughter married at 25 years and recently she was looking for a doctor to examine her in her final pregnancy weeks. The couple insistently wants her to get examined by a female gynecologist only, and it so turned out, that the couple now also wishes for this female doctor to ensure that the operation theatre solely consists of female assistants/doctors/nurses at the time of delivery. Ironically, the same couple wants a wife for their son who is educated, but does not have any intentions to work after marriage.

The most pinching of the incidents is that of a 24-year old girl from Lahore, educated and well-read. Sometime back she had to give up her career because her in-laws-to-be were not happy about her desire for professional growth after marriage. Her five-month long nikkah revealed to her that her parents-in-law were greedy and selfish people, whose ruthless pre-rukhsati demands and her husband’s incapacity to take a stand for her, had rendered her feeling strangulated in the nikkah contract that she was now bound within. Not only did they want her to bring a car for her dowry at the time of her rukhsati, but also demanded a plot in DHA along with several other goodies. She kept telling her family about this, but they all kept quiet and surrendered before all these demands, for now they feared their daughter would be labeled as a “divorced girl” if they broke off the nikkah. She lives now with the same person… and of course it is not a happy marriage. The question is, did her parents not fathom as to what good a marriage, whose foundations are besmirched with such fraudulent schemes, be in the longer run? And so really, whose fault is the unhappy life she is living? Is it the in-laws or is it her own parents, who despite knowing the character of the family left their daughter to rot in hell for the fear of a “divorcee” tag at 24 years? She was educated, well-read, from a good family and had her entire life spread in front of her, could she really have never found a better person later?  

These are the issues that generate the kind of pressures pushing girls into accepting any guy, regardless of how problematic or difficult he is, the moment they turn 25. Even the term “single” is used for girls who are either 25 or below, whereas the more disturbing “unmarried”/ “spinster” is used to label the ones who are above this crucial age bracket. As we ponder over the disturbing picture of girls in well-to-do families, we wonder what would be happening to the ones in the downtrodden belts. If we send our educated women to the gallows of regressive households just so that they be married at the magical age of and around 25, what good are we contributing to our society? By marrying unsupportive men who do not encourage their financial independence and/or further education, what kind of mothers will they be for their generations to come? And as a society, do we never think that these women with the kind of unhappiness that they received from their married lives, will be psychologically indoctrinated with a certain bitterness, which they would like to reciprocate and channelize later to other women, and so what kind of mothers-in-law would they be to their sons’ future wives?   

Unhappy marriages in turn breed unhappy households that later subdivide into so many unhappy men and women then transferring their personal frustrations and disturbances onto every person they meet. They politicize their domestic as well as their work environments, creating a toxic atmosphere everywhere they go. We live in this society.

Something that this society needs to understand is that marrying girls late is better than marrying them wrong. Why as a society are we hell-bent on creating depressed and destitute Miss Havishams out of our educated lot, when they need to be strengthened and empowered as Ibsen’s Nora Helmers?

Let us educate our daughters at institutions and at home in such a way that they respect and value themselves well enough to not be presented, accepted or rejected as ornaments. Let us educate also our sons in such a fashion that they do not take the presence of their wives for granted, and value them for their contributions. This and this alone can ensure a better society for us and our future generations.