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.
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.
Brontë’s chief concern in Villette is to expose and examine the role of women in her society. Having been the jilted lover in a triangle that included an older teacher when she was a governess, Brontë fully understands the plight of her heroine. She realizes the expectations society places on women such as Lucy, who are constricted in their opportunities for both economic and personal advancement. Although she seldom talks candidly to the reader, Lucy Snowe is clearly a woman with a sensitive nature and a strong personal desire to succeed in the world on her own terms and to make choices about her lifestyle. Unfortunately, being a single woman in her century, she finds herself circumscribed by...
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