Tensions in Villette
Villette is a narrative that seems constantly at war with itself, fraught with tensions of reason versus feeling, nature versus art and reality versus imagination, as I will attempt to illustrate. Lucy is anything but a one dimensional character and it throughout the novel, her emotional growth is charted. The important elements in the narrative seem to resist a one-sided reading. Read in context, perhaps Bronte recognizes that in the Victorian world, tensions of the aforementioned impinge upon and are all shaped by one another.
In chapter 23, Lucy Snowe penned two replies to Graham’s letter, one under “the dry stinting check of Reason” and another “according to the full, liberal impulse of Feeling”(281). Lucy first began writing the letter meant for her own relief in which she poured out her “sincere heart” and “covered with the language of a strongly adherent affection, a rooted and active gratitude”. Upon its completion, Reason scorned and caused her to rewrite the letter, this time for Graham’s perusal, which became a “terse, curt missive of a page” (282). Judging from the two responses to the same letter, one might think it was penned by two different people, thus indicating the precarious balancing act between reason and feeling, and the public and private self that Lucy tries to maintain.
On the surface, Lucy seems innately calm, devoid of passion and presents herself as being emotionally independent, even at the start of the novel. Lucy narrates that “in the autumn of the year - I was staying at Bretton; my godmother having come in person to claim me of the kinsfolk with whom was at that time fixed my permanent residence”(8) and the kinsfolk that Lucy refers to are obviously her parents. While no details are given, we can guess that Lucy’s separation from her parents must have caused her much pain, and it destabilized her sense of what is “permanent” because Lucy finds herself having to move from Mrs Bretton’s to Miss Marchmont’s then upon meeting Ginevra and hearing about a possible job opening, to Villette. Perhaps then, through the estrangement from her parents and from Mrs Bretton, Lucy realized “there remained no possibility of dependence on others; to myself alone could I look. I know not that I was of a self-reliant or active nature; but self-reliance and exertion were forced upon me by circumstances, as they are upon thousands besides”(40). Aside from becoming self-reliant in order to exert some sort of control over her life, Lucy also resolves to be emotionally self-reliant to prevent herself from becoming like Miss Marchmont whose life was frozen in place after the death of her husband.
Yet despite Lucy’s want of distancing herself, Lucy feels an amazing depth of feeling, she cannot stop herself from doing so. “I suppose animals kept in cages, and so scantily fed as to be always upon the verge of famine, await their food as I awaited a letter. Oh! - to speak truth, and drop that tone of a false calm which long to sustain, outwears nature's endurance - I underwent in those seven weeks bitter fears and pains, strange inward trials, miserable defections of hope, intolerable encroachments of despair… The letter - the well-beloved letter - would not come; and it was all of sweetness in life I had to look for”(297). Through this we can see that though Lucy moderates her outward responses, and tries desperately to suppress it, internally she is tortured by her emotions.
We can conclude then, that although Lucy constantly berates herself for it and attempts to hide it, the private Lucy is an extremely emotional and passionate one. We first glimpse this when Lucy plays the fop in the play. Lucy thinks that she will be terrible at it, yet she not only manages to find the courage to act without worrying she will be laughed at, Lucy is so passionate in the role that she changes the script. Although everyone else seems to be fooled, M....
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