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 conventions of the female narrative of domestic or romantic love even while the story critiques those conventions.
The 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 roles....
(The entire section is 1069 words.)