Analysis of Brontë's Villette

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Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, which is loosely based on the author’s time as a student in Brussels, Belgium, is a first-person narrative of development, with Lucy Snowe at its center, both as protagonist and as a sometimes unreliable narrator. In the course of the novel, Lucy grows from a shadowy, self-effacing adolescent into an independent, self-possessed woman, learning to live her own life and tell her own story. She narrates that story from within the framework of the conventional female narratives of domestic or romantic love even while her story critiques those conventions.

The novel moves about her decisions in life and the courses of action she takes in order to either better herself or get away from something. In her living a troubled past in England she takes shelter in France to start a new life. (Retrieved from novel’s first two scenes, which are centered on other characters, reveal Lucy as passive, virtually invisible, and cynical.

At the Bretton home, Lucy exists on the margin, and she observes and describes the household’s domestic activities rather than participating in them herself. The lives and loves of Mrs. Bretton, her son Graham, and little Polly Home are the central focus. After Lucy leaves the Brettons and is orphaned by the deaths of her own family, she again experiences life vicariously through Miss Marchmont, a wasted woman for whom Lucy is a companion and nursemaid. In neither place does Lucy feel a part of the scene, and in both places she is treated as little more than a hand to serve and an ear to listen. Lucy is defined, and she defines herself, within the narrow confines of her duties to others.

It is at Madame Beck’s school in Villette that Lucy’s struggle for independence and self-definition begins. Here, despite the restrictions of being female, she first encounters the opportunity to distinguish herself in opposition to those conventional restrictions. Adamantly Protestant and unable to speak French, Lucy is isolated in the bustling, strange world of foreign Catholics, under the supervision of a woman who silently patrols her school and searches its inmates’ possessions. Lucy is appalled by this “woman’s world” of well-tended but lazy, cunning females, and to some extent she keeps herself separate from that world. She is however also attracted to these women, who represent dimensions of Lucy’s own characteristics and desires—Madame Beck with her independence and authority, Paulina with her magnetic delicacy, and Ginevra with her narcissistic beauty. Lucy experiences contradictory impulses. Proud of her calm detachment, she is also pained by being deprived of the traditionally feminine joys of motherhood and romance. Lucy is caught in the conflict between her desire to stand outside conventional feminine roles and her attraction to those same conventions.

The men in the novel play an important part in Lucy’s struggle for self-definition as a woman. Lucy at first cherishes a strong, and secret, passion for Graham Bretton, and hopes that he will someday return her love. Graham however views her as an “inoffensive shadow,” and, blithely telling her to “cultivate happiness,” he unknowingly tortures her by confessing to his love first for Ginevra and then for Paulina. In contrast to Graham, who sees Lucy as devoid of passion, Monsieur Paul sees Lucy as a woman of just barely contained emotions. He reprimands her for her “finery” when she wears a simple pink dress and for her “flirtatiousness” when she jokes with Graham. On the other hand, Monsieur Paul encourages her to cultivate her intellect and her emotions, and as their friendship (and later romance) ripens, she becomes more assured and self-confident.

In Villette, Charlotte Brontë effectively uses the format of the traditional romance novel to tell a story of a most unlikely heroine who achieves an unusual fate for ladies who inhabit the pages of such works. Like many of her fictional sisters, Lucy Snowe is an orphan; unlike them, however, she is plain looking and seemingly unaffected by the social interactions that characterize the lives of so many heroines in women’s novels of the nineteenth century.

As a teenager, Lucy spends a brief time with her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, and Graham Bretton, a haughty young man given to ignoring Lucy and innocently flirting with ten-year-old Polly Home. That interlude in Lucy’s life plays a key role in determining many of her later actions, but it hardly characterizes her early adult years, eight of which are spent in lonely service to an elderly lady whose only gracious act is to die and free the heroine to travel to the Continent in search of employment. Aided by advice from a shipboard acquaintance, Ginevra Fanshawe, and a mysterious stranger who helps her find her way in the foreign city of Villette, Lucy ends up at the Pensionnat, where Mme Beck runs a girls’ school. Hired by Mme Beck initially as a governess, Lucy soon becomes a teacher, and much of the novel relates her efforts in dealing with the students at Mme Beck’s establishment.

Through Lucy’s first-person narration, Brontë introduces readers to Paul Emmanuel, an unlikely hero to match with her unlikely heroine. Emmanuel teaches at Mme Beck’s school; he is opinionated, cantankerous, and demanding. He seems to be unusually critical of Lucy’s dress and deportment at various social functions; she is decidedly put off by his behavior on more than one occasion. Beneath his gruff exterior, however, he is deeply concerned about Lucy; eventually, he expresses his love for her, and he provides for her when an emergency calls him away from Villette. (Allott, p108)For most of the novel, however, Lucy is not interested in Paul Emmanuel. First, she is infatuated with the school’s physician, Dr. John—who turns out to be Graham Bretton, grown up and living with his mother in Villette. Lucy is reunited with her godmother in circumstances that lend a Gothic atmosphere to the novel. Left alone at the school during a break in the term, she becomes exceedingly distraught and eventually leaves the Pensionnat to wander aimlessly about the streets of Villette; she even stumbles into a church and makes her way into a Catholic confessional. Collapsed outside the church, she is discovered by the priest and is brought to the home of Dr. John, the school physician; there, she awakes to an even greater shock, finding the house exactly like the one she knew as a child. The similarities are explained when she discovers that Dr. John is really Graham Bretton and that he and his mother are living in Villette. The happy reunion proves, however, to be bittersweet. In love with Graham, Lucy vies silently for his attention with Ginevra Fanshawe, who attends Mme Beck’s school. She feels pangs of jealousy, too, when Polly Home reappears in her life and Graham’s as the eligible and attractive Mademoiselle de Bassompierre. Only gradually does she come to realize that she and Graham are not meant for each other; readers may sense the problems between them, but since Lucy is controlling the narrative, the realization is delayed.

She is infuriated with Paul Emmanuel, however, when he forces her to perform in a play. She defies him on occasion, expresses frustration at his awkward attempts to express affection, and even seems to fear his attention. When she finally realizes that he cares for her and she for him, it is too late for the traditional happy ending.

The final pages of the novel offer an unusual twist. In most works of this genre, the heroine is united with the man she adores. In Villette, however, Lucy ends up separated from Paul Emmanuel. Although he sets her up as a schoolmistress in her own school, he departs for the West Indies and does not return; there is a suggestion that he has died. Lucy goes on with her life, however, and since she reveals at one point that she is now a white-haired lady telling a story of long ago, readers realize that she has been, for years, independent of both male and female benefactors.

Beneath the surface story that resembles so many other romance novels of the Victorian period, Charlotte Brontë examines in Villette several important and enduring questions about women’s roles in society and their obligations to others and to themselves. (Allott, p111)Brontë originally intended to name her heroine Lucy Frost; the name and the change are significant. Although both names convey the heroine’s cold nature, Frost suggests a frigidity not softened by the paradoxical warmth conveyed by snow. There is significance in the given name as well; Lucy calls to mind images of lumination or lucidity but also suggests the pride exhibited by the first light-bearer, Lucifer. Lucy Snowe is a proud young woman, too proud on occasion to reveal her innermost thoughts not only to other characters but also to readers. As a result, she is an unreliable narrator, and readers are often left wondering how to interpret the actions of those whose stories Lucy relates, or those of the heroine herself.

Works CitedAllott, Miriam, ed. Charlotte Brontë: “Jane Eyre” and “Villette”: A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1973, p78-111.

Allott, Miriam, ed. The Brontës: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974, p100-115.