(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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.

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.

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,...

(The entire section is 1054 words.)