Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1054

Lucy Snowe's (the name may be viewed as symbolic of the lack of warmth in her nature) problems have been "diagnosed" in various ways by expert readers— in fact, until depth psychology became established, Villette, while meeting with popular success, underwent severe criticism for its unrelieved grimness. Two of the most vocal denigrators were Bronte's contemporaries, Harriet Martineau (an erstwhile friend of Charlotte Bronte), who said the work was "too painful" to read; and the renowned critic, Matthew Arnold, who found it "hideous," "disagreeable," and "convulsed." Today, however, with the advantage of current psychological insights, a number of literary scholars judge the book as Bronte's finest work.

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Whatever one's evaluation, there is no question about the profoundly realized image of a pessimistic, unhappy personality. One flaw that has been discovered in the text is the absence of any substantial explanation of how Lucy became so negative in her vision of the world, particularly in regard to personal relationships: "I disclaim, with the utmost scorn, every sneaking suspicion of what are called 'warmer feelings'; women do not entertain these 'warmer feelings' where, from the commencement, through the whole progress of an acquaintance, they have never been cheated of the conviction that to do so would be to commit a mortal absurdity."

The text almost bristles with such pejorative statements about human association (along with numerous others decrying destiny). It has been suggested that Lucy Snowe is a sort of Existentialist. If, as Heraclitus wrote, "man's character is his fate," then a thoughtful reader might declare that Lucy's troubles (perhaps most notably, her relations with John Graham Bretton and Emanuel Paul) emanate chiefly from her belief that the worst will happen. Since she has "no beauty," and since men (Dr. John being the most obvious example) tend to be influenced by appearance—as Graham is overcome by the looks of the shallow Ginevra Fanshawe—Lucy is all too ready to believe that she cannot attract a man romantically.

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Another thematic suggestion claims that Lucy suffers from a sort of divided nature: One could term it Reason in opposition to Emotion. When, in Chapter 21, Lucy really wishes to forgive Paul for a cutting comment, instead of doing so, she tells him "a neat frosty falsehood," which delays their reconciliation. She writes a pleasant, warm letter to John Graham Bretton and then tears it up and pens a brief, curt note. When she asks herself if she dare to express some of her affection for Dr. John, her "reasoning" is indicative of her psychological problems. She thinks that to hope for a continuation of his kindness is "insane . . . credulity." It seems that Lucy fears affection (or perhaps the rejection of it) so much that she cannot let it escape her own troubled soul. At one point she applies to the power of Reason and asks, "But if I feel, may I never express?" Reason's reply is, "Never!"

Inasmuch as the reader is never given any sort of detailed background on Lucy's family and upbringing, it is difficult to generate a great deal of sympathy for her—some readers find her something of a case study. However, she does have redeeming qualities. She has a fairly solid faith in God (upon which she may rely too heavily at times, causing her stoic acceptance often to be self-defeating); and, she is not stupid nor lazy—she teaches well and learns quickly. Lucy also displays considerable courage, near the opening of the main plot when she leaves England, which offers no immediate means of gainful or satisfying employment, for France, where she hopes to find a suitable position. She makes the journey to this foreign land, with whose language she has almost no familiarity, carrying very little money and no connections. Her success in winning a position at Mme. Beck's school is largely due to good luck (a rare instance of it in this book) but also due to her diligence, honesty, and intelligence. This last quality is, perhaps, a bit exaggerated, given the relative speed with which she masters the French language—which leads to a cautionary note: A serious reader of Villette should possess a fair reading knowledge of French, or have ready access to someone who has. Much of the dialogue is in French; and, the passages are not, as in many other English novels, incidental remarks that do not need to be understood— for instance, when M. Paul tells Lucy, "Je vois bien que vous vous moquez de moi," it is important for the reader to know that he is accusing Miss Snowe of making fun of him.

All in all, Villette is an absorbing psychological study. Even Lucy's antipathy to the Catholic Church can be studied as a part of her seemingly inbred suspicion of so many aspects of life. The almost happy ending, where Lucy and Emanuel become betrothed, only to be separated for three years because of a term of family duty (originated by the jealous Madame Beck) overseas, seems too good to be true—as is the additional positive fact that Paul has arranged for Lucy to have a school of her own. Charlotte Bronte's original intention was to retain the unhappy tone of the novel by having Paul be lost at sea on his way home. Patrick Bronte urged his daughter not to close the plot on such a bitter note. So, Charlotte finished the story by having Lucy tell of how happy she has been for these three years and how she looks forward to greeting Emanuel on his return—then, Lucy learns of the terrible storm both in France and over the Atlantic, a gale that did not ease until "the Atlantic was strewn with wrecks." After this seven-day tempest, it seems impossible that Paul has survived. Bronte leaves the question open, although many readers believe that Emanuel has perished. Lucy simply states, "Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delights of joy born afresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril. Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life." But, Lucy oes not say that hers is a "sunny imagination" (the use of the latter word also casts doubt on Paul's survival). Thus, this melancholy novel closes with an uncertain ending and the philosophically murmured "Farewell."

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