illustrated portrait of English author Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë

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Charlotte Brontë World Literature Analysis

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Brontë learned her craft from the available literature of the day and through practice. In childhood, she imitated the style of literary magazines and popular fiction while writing stories, plays, and poems with her brother and sisters. In these collaborative productions, she often chose to create the persona of a historical hero—a particular favorite was the duke of Wellington—and tried to speak in the elevated, stylized language that she imagined was appropriate to such distinguished public figures. The effort, although a considerable amount of imaginative fun, resulted in characters who sounded bombastic and unnatural.

In her mature fiction—four novels and an unfinished fragment of a fifth—Brontë found greater success creating narrators who shared a measure of her life experience. The most autobiographical of her novels, Jane Eyre and Villette, focus on the private world of women and their restricted choices in male-dominated Victorian society. Narrated by female characters, both Jane Eyre and Villette make use of the popular nineteenth century motif of the orphaned child who must make his or her own way in an antagonistic world. Brontë also successfully exploited elements of the romance novel and the gothic novel when she constructed her plots. Jane Eyre discovers a madwoman concealed in the attic of her employer’s mansion, and Lucy Snowe (the narrator of Villette) is frightened by the recurrent appearance of a ghost who haunts her school.

Feminist critics have been extremely interested in Brontë’s work because it exposes the limitations placed on women’s lives in the nineteenth century. Women of the respectable middle class had very few ways of earning their keep. Marrying, teaching, or serving as secretary-companion to a wealthy woman were nearly the only choices that a moderately educated woman could expect to have. Brontë, though not an outspoken feminist, regretted that women were not encouraged to make the same kinds of contributions as men and were often treated as intellectually inferior. Her characters, male or female, demand respect as individuals and strive to work in conditions where their potential will be fully realized.

Brontë’s ideas about nature were shaped by the Romantic poets and her life in the Yorkshire moors. In her novels, cities tend to be places of corruption, where human beings conspire against or neglect one another. Outdoors, there is a purifying element that allows people to approach one another honestly, and natural forces often act to promote correct moral behavior. Brontë makes use of the pathetic fallacy—nature mimicking human feeling—and personifies nature in various ways, most notably when the moon becomes a mother figure in Jane Eyre. Both techniques emphasize Brontë’s view that the landscape plays an important role in determining human action.

Jane Eyre

First published: 1847

Type of work: Novel

An orphaned, friendless governess achieves independence and finds contentment in marriage to her former employer.

Jane Eyre appealed to the Victorian reading public on both sides of the Atlantic. Published under a pseudonym, the novel had its London enthusiasts at first speculating about the real author, then marveling at the achievement of a little-known, isolated vicar’s daughter from Yorkshire. In America, the plot and narrative technique of Jane Eyre were quickly imitated by women writers hoping to capitalize on the novel’s popularity. The plot contains many elements to capture and maintain the reader’s attention: an abused orphan who rebels successfully against her oppressors, a mystery involving screams in the attic and a burning bed, a marriage stopped at the altar, sensual temptation and moral victory, and the reformation of a good man gone wrong.

The appeal of the book is not dependent solely on a lively...

(This entire section contains 1668 words.)

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plot; Jane Eyre herself is an engaging character. Unwilling to accept others’ definitions of her as an unattractive, dependent relation, Jane asserts herself against those who treat her badly. Faced with unpleasant cousins and oppressive schoolteachers, Jane fights for what she thinks is right. She is made to feel that her passionate responses are a character flaw, but the reader is made to see that her rebelliousness is appropriate.

In a book that explores the conflict between individual and society, it is not surprising that there are a number of structural oppositions as well. Jane’s worldly cousins, the Reeds, are countered by her intellectual cousins, the Riverses. The tyrannical schoolmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst, is paired with the soothing headmistress, Miss Temple. Most important is the contrast between the two proposals of marriage that Jane receives, and the men who make them: Mr. Rochester recognizes Jane’s true character, but he would pamper and oppress her with riches; St. John Rivers respects Jane’s intellectual capabilities and self-control, but he would withhold true love and expect Jane to destroy her health doing difficult missionary work in India. Jane is able to resist both of them because she has developed a healthy sense of self-worth and has risen above the abuse she received as a child. Her emotional independence is matched by an unexpected inheritance, which alleviates Jane’s need to work in subservient positions. Thus strengthened, Jane can return to Rochester after his first wife dies. The physical mutilation he has undergone—blinding and loss of an arm—makes him dependent on Jane for more than amusement. In a marriage of mutual respect and support, Jane’s self-image can continue to prosper.

Villette

First published: 1853

Type of work: Novel

Orphaned and nearly friendless, a young Englishwoman seeks to earn a living by teaching in a Belgian school.

In Villette, Brontë once again tells the story from the point of view of an autobiographical narrator. Unlike Jane Eyre, however, the narrator of Villette, Lucy Snowe, is neither entirely reliable nor likable. Her unpleasant nature and habit of withholding information from the reader is responsible for the lack of critical consensus about Villette. While some literary scholars see the novel as a well-constructed discourse on the repressive nature of Victorian society, others view it as a disordered representation of a neurotic character. The mixed response to Villette was evident in the first reviews it received, and it never achieved the popularity of Jane Eyre.

There are marked similarities between Villette and Jane Eyre: Both narrators are orphans, both teach to earn their livings, and both consider themselves unattractive. In both novels, Brontë drew on her own experience to create a realistic setting; indeed, Villette is placed in the same Belgian territory as Brontë’s first novel, The Professor. Yet Villette differs from the previous novels in a number of important ways. Formally, the shifting focus, plot coincidences, and length of time that passes between Lucy’s narration and the events that she recounts all challenge the conventions of the realistic novel. This departure is particularly evident in the ending, when Lucy refuses to explain what has happened to her fiancé, Paul Emanuel, and instead tells the reader to imagine that she has been reunited with him and has embarked on a blissful life. The reality, which Lucy condescendingly assumes the reader is too sentimental to accept, is that Paul has been drowned in a violent storm at sea.

Lucy’s open ending of her story points to another important difference between Villette and earlier Brontë novels: The delineation of the narrator’s character is such that she cannot be trusted. Like Jane Eyre, Lucy feels that her inner self is not expressed or evident in her passive, public existence. Unlike Jane, however, she does not rebel against this disjunction; instead, she manipulates it in order to satisfy her voyeuristic impulses. Powerless, Lucy gains perverse pleasure in thinking that she is more observant about others than they are about her. She works at disguising her true character, an effort that fails only with Paul, the man whom she eventually comes to love.

Lucy Snowe, named carefully by Brontë to suggest her cold personality and buried life, emphasizes those experiences that support her assertion that fate has deprived her of any kind of happiness. She hastily summarizes her childhood, spent happily with a godmother, and begins a detailed account of her life at the time of her first employment as companion to an old woman who has mourned a dead lover for thirty years. From this melancholy position, Lucy takes a job as teacher to the youngest children in a Belgian girls’ school. Strongly biased against Catholics, she finds herself alone in a Catholic country with an imperfect grasp of the language and contempt for the moral corruption that she perceives in her pupils and fellow teachers. Isolated in such a way, it is small wonder that she has an emotional and physical breakdown.

Her illness serves to reunite her with her godmother and former friends, who now live in Villette, and Lucy is tempted to enjoy the life of ease that they offer. Instead, she returns to the company of Madame Beck, the director of the school, who spies on Lucy, and Paul, a sarcastic, small man who seems to discern Lucy’s true nature. He recognizes her passivity for what it is, a condescending voyeurism, and he stimulates Lucy to bring her true talents to the surface. Under his sometimes savage tutelage, Lucy demonstrates significant intellectual and dramatic capabilities, and she seems less afraid of expressing her feelings. Yet Brontë was not content to write another novel with the conventional happy ending; Paul and Lucy never do marry, and Lucy, writing the book near the end of a long life, is careful not to revise her initial self-portrait as someone whom fate has deprived of happiness. What Brontë allows the reader to see, however, is that Lucy’s psychological inability to act on her own behalf and her repressed anger at what she calls fate have partially created her circumstances. At the same time, Lucy has survived with a measure of dignity as the director of her own school. With both financial and emotional independence, Lucy suggests that there are possibilities for women other than marriage or degrading subservience to an employer.

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