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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.

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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.

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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.

Places Discussed

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Villette

Villette. Capital city of the fictional country of Labassecour. With a name that literally means “little city,” Villette is not large; students walk out to the surrounding countryside before breakfast from the city center. The city is divided into two main parts: the Basse-Ville, the lower city, and the Haute-Ville, the upper city. The lower city contains the older, run-down areas. Here Dr. John goes on his philanthropic medical visits, and here is situated the rue des Mages, on which the house of Madame Walravens and other dependents of Monsieur Paul stands.

The upper city is the fashionable area in which the royal palaces, galleries, museums, and society meeting places are located. In one of the art galleries, the exhibition of a painting occasions an argument between Lucy and Monsieur Paul. At one of the theaters, she attends a concert also attended by the king and queen. Later, she spends the night enjoying a festival of lights and fireworks. It would be true to say that Lucy belongs to neither of these worlds, low or high.

Bretton

Bretton. Old cathedral town in England. Lucy’s godmother’s family have lived here on St. Ann’s Street for generations; in fact, her family name is also Bretton. Her son, John Graham, lives there with her. On one of Lucy’s visits she meets Polly Home, a little girl.

Lucy’s home

Lucy’s home. Situated fifty miles north of London, the place is never named or described. After her parents’ death, she lives in the same place as companion to Miss Marchmont, an invalid. “Two hot rooms” become Lucy’s world for a while until Miss Marchmont’s death. Almost destitute, Lucy feels guided to go to London. There, Lucy stays near St. Paul’s Cathedral and is captivated by the energy of London, the commercial and financial center of Great Britain. It emboldens her to sail for Europe.

Pensionnat de Demoiselles

Pensionnat de Demoiselles (pan-see-OHN-ah deh deh-MWAH-zay). Girls’ school run by Madame Beck on the rue Fossette, five minutes walk from Villette’s city center. On Lucy’s nighttime arrival in Villette, she providentially stumbles straight to it and is offered a place there, first as governess to Madame Beck’s children, then as one of four regular teachers. The school consists of a former convent plus some extensions, large enough for twenty boarders, the teachers, six servants, and Madame Beck’s family. There are also one hundred day students. Madame Beck knows everything that goes on at the school, a picture similar to the girls’ school portrayed in Brontë’s first novel, The Professor (1857). The discipline is not too strict, and there is plenty of food and exercise in the large garden, in contrast to the Lowood School of her second novel, Jane Eyre (1847). There is a neighboring boys’ school, as in The Professor, where Monsieur Paul also teaches.

La Terrasse

La Terrasse (lah teh-RAHS). Villette House leased by Lucy’s godmother, to which Lucy is taken in a state of nervous collapse by the school’s physician, Dr. John, who turns out to be Graham Bretton. It is a small country house just outside the city limits, a mile or so from the Porte de Crécy. The interior is done in English fashion with many paintings and furnishings from the house in Bretton. Lucy stays there until fully recovered and then visits for a while.

Hôtel Crécy

Hôtel Crécy (oh-TEL KRAY-see). Grand hotel on the rue Crécy where Count de Bassompierre has his apartments on the second floor. De Bassompierre turns out to be Polly’s father, now elevated through marriage to the country’s aristocracy. He has also inherited Ginevra as his niece, thus completing the English network of friends that Lucy finally rejects in favor of Monsieur Paul.

Faubourg Clotilde

Faubourg Clotilde (FOH-bur kloh-TEELD). Monsieur Paul rents a space to enable Lucy to start her own little school. At the end of the novel she is also able to rent the house next door as a “pensionnat” or boarding facility for the school.

Context

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Brontë is frequently celebrated as one of the earliest feminist novelists; her works express discontent, sometimes even anger, with the patriarchal society that limited the possibilities for both economic advancement and personal fulfillment for women. Many critics have viewed Lucy Snowe in Villette as a feminist heroine refusing to succumb to the expectations of society, rejecting the traditional route for achieving social acceptance through marriage. Her decision at the end of the novel to reject Paul Emmanuel and remain single is touted as a courageous act of defiance against custom.

Reception to Villette by Brontë’s contemporaries was decidedly mixed; even some women reviewers criticized her for creating a heroine who did not conform to the expectations of the reading public, which was accustomed to having romances end with a happy marriage. The author’s choice of a plain heroine who remains guarded in her relationships—even with readers—was disturbing for some. Nineteenth century critics who praised the novel, and many writing in the first decades of the following century, qualified their enthusiasm by focusing first on the fact that the novel was written by a woman rather than on Brontë’s accomplishments in creating complex characters or pursuing an important social and political theme.

Scholars writing later in the twentieth century, especially feminist critics, have judged the novel Brontë’s finest work. They applaud her for creating a complex, independent central character who is willing to challenge preconceptions about the role of women and to examine her own social and psychological circumstances honestly and directly. Feminists have embraced all Brontë’s works, seeing beneath the conventional surface of her romances a strong, critical voice attacking the social conventions that circumscribed opportunities for women. Although they have not ignored the autobiographical genesis of much of her work, they have noted her special genius as an observer and chronicler of the plight of women in a society that was decidedly male dominated.

Literary Techniques

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The main critical complaint that has been leveled against Vilette is an unusually heavy dependence on coincidence, which some scholars believe damages the integrity of the plot. It seems impossible to many readers that Lucy, when she arrives in France, should encounter John Bretton whom she had known as a child; that she should meet up again with Ginevra Fanshawe; that she should again run into Polly Home, now Paulina Mary de Bassompierre—thus, all the major characters whom Lucy knew when she was fourteen are reassembled in Villette. This device gives the plot a somewhat circular effect, but it strains credulity.

As in Jane Eyre (1847; see separate entry), with which Villette is often compared, the author employs the first-person narration of a young woman (at first a girl) whose activities and thoughts and emotions are detailed at great length by herself. Thus, Villette is a very subjective novel, quite unlike Shirley (1849; see separate entry). In this psychological study, the technique works well, since the reader must see inside Lucy Snowe's mind to appreciate her motives and experiences.

The foreign setting and characters are fashioned from Bronte's personal experience. Mme. Beck's school is a close copy of the Pensionnat Heger, where Charlotte worked in her youth. M. Emanuel Paul is based on Constantin Heger and Mme. Beck on Madame Heger. In her customary fashion, Bronte forms several other characters on real people: John Graham Bretton and his mother derive from George Smith (of Charlotte's publishing house, Smith, Elder) and his mother— Smith recognized the "portrait" and was rather pleased with it. Also, Ginevra Fanshawe had a basis in a girl whom Charlotte knew in Brussels.

Even the most momentous event of the plot may well have been created from a real-life experience. The brother of Charlotte's friend Mary Taylor had proposed to Charlotte and then gone to India for five years, after which Bronte was unsure of his return. These happenings are most likely the reason for the proposal, departure, and uncertainty of the return of Emanuel Paul (who Charlotte believed to be lost at sea). So Charlotte Bronte mined her own experience for characters and events with which to build a long and moving story.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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It would prove useful to review Charlotte Bronte's Belgian experience (and some of the letters she wrote to M. Heger) and compare that with the persons and events in Villette. Some thought should also be given to the coincidental aspects of the plot—do they damage it beyond repair, or do they help to create a sense of completion and reality? A study of what is known about the people who served as the foundations for the central characters in Villette could prove helpful. Also, attention could be devoted to the principles of existential philosophy, to see, as with Sartre's claim that man chooses himself, if the declaration that Lucy is something of an existentialist character has merit.

1. Do the French passages distract from a satisfactory reading of the text, or do they give it an air of realism that aids in the artistic effect?

2. Can Lucy Snowe really be categorized as neurotic? For example, does her "vision" of the nun, which turns out to be de Hamal in disguise, appear to be the result of a disturbed personality?

3. Are the coincidences and extreme events (e. g., Lucy's going alone to a foreign country, with little money and no prospects) simply too "forced" to accept as realistic?

4. Does the absence of any sort of full background for Lucy's early years create a void in understanding her later actions and thoughts and feelings? Should Bronte have made the novel even longer by detailing Lucy's parentage and childhood experiences?

5. Which male character seems the more finely drawn, John Bretton or Emanuel Paul? Which is the more substantial, rounded character?

6. Is it true that Lucy essentially causes her own troubles? Does her gloomy outlook bring on the difficulties that she suffers? Is this pessimistic tenor too heavily emphasized by the author? Does the book have an excessively depressing effect on the reader, as several nineteenth- century figures believed?

7. Does Ginevra Fanshawe form a contrast with Lucy? Is Dr. John's infatuation for her adequately motivated? Does it seem unsuitable?

8. It has been asserted that Bronte's style in this book is direct and straightforward. Making allowances for the era when it was written, does this claim seem valid, given the long sentences, wordy clauses, and poetic figures of speech? Would the novel benefit by a simpler, more down-to-earth mode of expression?

Social Concerns

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This, the darkest, gloomiest of Charlotte Bronte's novels, takes up again the subject of the subjugation of women by society. While there is no real objective statement of the problem, the subjective perceptions of the heroine (many current readers might prefer to refer to her as a non- or anti-heroine), Lucy Snowe, sharply underline the fact that women are considered to be an inferior order to men and should act accordingly. Lucy has little money, no family to which to turn, and no personal attractiveness (some readers believe that she also possesses absolutely no charm); she must attempt to "get along" as best she can under those circumstances and with the awareness that she can expect no help from any social institutions.

In Villette, the subjection of women is presented in a more intense fashion than in Bronte's earlier works: The book is set primarily in a Catholic country, and most of the major characters (except Lucy) are Catholic. The doctrines of the Church about the place of women in society exacerbate Lucy's already humble condition. Even the man she comes to love in the end, Emanuel Paul, "believed in his soul that lovely, placid, and passive feminine mediocrity was the only pillow on which manly thought and sense could find rest for its aching temples; and as to work, male minds alone could work to any practical result." This view fairly well sums up what Lucy and the somewhat self-effacing Polly (later Paulina) Home are up against. In Villette, Lucy, unlike Jane Eyre, is almost universally unsuccessful.

That many critics believe her failures are largely (or even entirely) her own fault does not alter the fact that, if she had been a man, she would have been given more respect and opportunity. This assignment of blame by many readers relates to another concern that is strikingly modern. Almost all modern critics believe Lucy to be mentally and emotionally disturbed. The ways in which the characters react to her fits of depression, fears of hallucinations, and general erratic behavior reveal a profound ignorance of such phenomena—even Dr. John, an otherwise successful physician, believes her problems to be essentially physical (although he does admit that "nerves" are involved). Since Lucy accepts her disorder as an integral part of her "philosophy," insofar as she has one, the reader may accept the lack of understanding by society. Lucy has learned to accept her "problem;" so others do, too.

Literary Precedents

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As with Jane Eyre, the phenomenon of a woman telling of the vicissitudes and feelings of her past has a long history, with Moll Flanders (by Daniel Defoe, 1722) being the most popular early example. However, the plot scheme of a relatively helpless woman pitting herself against a hard world became a repeated formula of writers in England and in France (for instance, Zola's Nana, 1880). Two later examples of female novelists who dealt with the problems of women in society are Fanny Burney in Evelina (1778) and, more notably, Jane Austen, whose Mansfield Park (1814) contains the only Austen heroine who is actually poor: Fanny Price must work and must deal with uncomfortable circumstances, yet she is a rounded and resolute (so far as her circumstances permit) character. Echoes of her may be found in Bronte's female characters.

For further discussion, refer to this section in the entry on Jane Eyre.

Bibliography

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Allott, Miriam, ed. The Brontës: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974. Fascinating collection of sixteen reviews and comments from 1853, the year of Villette’s publication. William Makepeace Thackeray is admiring, if condescending, for example, whereas Matthew Arnold finds the novel “disagreeable.”

Allott, Miriam, ed. Charlotte Brontë: “Jane Eyre” and “Villette”: A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1973. Various writings about Villette, including several opinions from the year the novel was published, as well as later Victorian assessments and critical views from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Allott’s introduction includes biographical information and a brief review of Brontë’s critical reception. Includes a dated but helpful annotated bibliography.

Evans, Barbara, and Gareth Lloyd Evans. The Scribner Companion to the Brontës. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982. An excellent handbook outlining the plots and offering brief but insightful analysis of each of the novels written by the three Brontë sisters. Includes sections on the family life, juvenilia, and criticism by nineteenth century contemporaries.

Ewbank, Inga-Stina. Their Proper Sphere: A Study of the Brontë Sisters as Early-Victorian Female Novelists. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968. An important feminist study of the Brontë sisters, correcting years of patriarchal criticism that had relegated most of their work to secondary status. The chapter on Charlotte attempts to separate her artistic skills from biographical interpretations that dominated previous critical studies.

Keefe, Robert. Charlotte Brontë’s World of Death. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979. Offers a reading of the novels based on the premise that all Charlotte Brontë’s works are influenced by the death of her mother and siblings. Includes a lengthy chapter on Villette, which is judged the finest of her works.

Knapp, Bettina L. The Brontës: Branwell, Anne, Emily, Charlotte. New York: Continuum, 1991. A general study of the Brontë family and its contributions to English literature. Contains a chapter on the lives of the siblings, as well as short analyses of their major works. Considers Villette a feminine Bildungsroman.

Knies, Earl A. The Art of Charlotte Brontë. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1969. A comprehensive examination of Brontë’s major works which focuses on the novelist’s artistry. Includes a lengthy chapter on Villette concentrating on the development of Lucy Snowe.

Linder, Cynthia A. Romantic Imagery in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë. London: Methuen, 1978. Examines Brontë’s reliance on Romantic ideology for the construction of her novels. A chapter on Villette analyzes the complex structure of the novel to show how the author effectively dramatizes the effects of Lucy’s abortive love affairs.

Martin, Robert Bernard. Charlotte Brontë’s Novels: The Accents of Persuasion. New York: W. W. Norton, 1966. In this very readable study of Brontë’s four novels, Martin proposes Villette as the most mature and representing a synthesis of ideas and techniques explored in the earlier works. Detailed examination of the language, plot, character development, and structure.

Moglen, Helene. Charlotte Brontë: The Self Conceived. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976. A full-length biography interweaving discussion of Brontë’s life with an examination of her works. Pays special attention to the influence of Romantic ideology on her works. Discusses Villette as an autobiographically inspired work.

Nestor, Pauline. Charlotte Brontë. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1987. Examines Brontë’s life and fiction from a feminist perspective and devotes one chapter to each of the novels. Nestor sees Villette as the story of a woman’s development from weakness to strength, from dependence to self-sufficiency. Includes many quotations from other critics, and a bibliography.

Nestor, Pauline. “Villette.” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Offers nine essays and extracts written after 1970. Several of the analyses present sophisticated yet accessible feminist interpretations. Also includes an editor’s introduction and a list of sources for further reading.

Pinion, F. B. A Brontë Companion. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. A general reference book about the Brontë sisters and their works. Includes a biographical sketch of Charlotte and critical commentary on her novels. Contains character sketches of principal personages in the works and Charlotte’s own comments on her fiction.

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