Villette Summary and Analysis of Chapters XIV-XVI

Chapter XIV is eventful: a secret love is revealed, and M. Paul Emanuel's character is explored.

Each summer, the pensionnat has a fête in honor of Madame Beck. The parents and families of the students are invited, as well as some single young men from good families. The day is filled with excitement. The highlight of the event, however, is the play put on by the students and directed by the literature professor, M. Paul Emanuel. This is the teacher, a cousin of Madame Beck, who "read" Lucy's face on the night she first came to Madame Beck's.

Ginevra Fanshawe is set to play the part of the beautiful coquette in the little comedy, but one of the girls who was to play the young rake has fallen ill and is unable to participate. M. Paul is in a panic, and the only option for him is to press Lucy into service.

In order to make sure that Lucy, who has up to this point only observed the play preparations, learn her part in the space of a few hours, M. Paul marches Lucy up to the attic and locks her in. She is left in the heat, with the beetles and rats, all day. She learns her part and acts tolerably well in the performance. She and Ginevra warm to their subject, and they subvert the spirit of the lines to such an extent that the rake is seen in a more sympathetic light than he was written.

After the performance there is a ball, and Dr. John approaches Ginevra and Lucy and tells them they are standing in a draft. During the conversation it becomes clear that Dr. John is Isidore, the mysterious suitor who is passionately in love with Ginevra and who has been giving her presents of jewelry. Also present at the ball is another admirer of Ginevra, Colonel Count De Hamal, a small-featured, dark, middle-sized man who is the physical and social opposite of Dr. John. Ginevra, to Lucy's chagrin, claims to prefer the Colonel-Count.

In Chapter XV, "The Long Vacation," we learn that the two months between the party and the end of term is the time when most of the schoolwork of the year is done in preparation for the final examinations. M. Paul conducts the examinations in all subjects except English, which Lucy must conduct. Lucy perceives that M. Paul, while a great intellect, is vain and jealous of his academic power.

After the examinations are over, Lucy is left almost alone at the school for eight weeks as the sole around-the-clock charge of a handicapped, deformed girl. With no other teachers, students, or masters for company, Lucy is essentially left alone for a long period of time. Lucy becomes severely depressed and even contemplates the attractiveness of death. She takes long, solitary, dangerous walks far out into the country, returning to the school late at night. After an aunt of the deformed child comes to take the girl away, Lucy, even more alone than before, falls ill and has night terrors and ominous, hallucinatory dreams.

One evening Lucy is gripped by a desire to walk, so she wanders out into town and ends up in a church during Catholic Mass. Lucy tells the priest that, though she is a Protestant, she wishes to tell some "consecrated ear" that she has "a pressure of affliction" on her mind. He says he must reflect and then tells her that she should visit him the next morning. Lucy does not go, for she is convinced that if she did so she would be seduced by "all that was tender, and comforting, and gentle in the honest popish superstition." On the way back to Madame Beck's, in a fearful storm, Lucy loses her way and faints on the steps of a large building.

"Auld Lang Syne" is the name of Chapter XVI, implying that things from the remembered past (and those from the island that contains the Scottish dialect in which that song is sung) will return. Lucy, waking up from her faint, finds herself, incredibly, in a room which contains articles from Mrs. Bretton's house on St. Ann's Street, which Lucy has not visited in almost ten years. Mrs. Bretton, also incredibly, appears to ask after Lucy's health, and for a while Lucy doubts her sanity.

Lucy now understands that this is indeed her godmother and that Dr. John (Graham Bretton) is her son. Lucy admits to the reader, however, that she had guessed his identity on his first or second visit to Madame Beck's. Since Dr. John had taken so little notice of Lucy at the time, however, and when she had inspected him and recognized him he had dismissed her so peremptorily, Lucy had chosen, whether out of embarrassment or perversity, not to enlighten him regarding their previous acquaintance. Dr. John's lack of interest in her, and his inability to recognize her, too, were significant, and these inattentions hurt Lucy deeply.

Mrs. Bretton recognizes Lucy after a closer examination and chides her son for not recognizing her sooner. Dr. John does now recognize her and, while kindly welcoming her and abjuring his own stupidity at his error, does not directly apologize to Lucy for taking so little notice of her. Lucy, of course, excuses him.

Lucy goes to bed that night and weeps. She is pleased that she once again has people in this world–specifically English people of her own class and religion–whom she may call friends, but the fact that Dr. John had to be prompted by his mother in order to recognize Lucy is indicative not only of her regrettable change in status in the world, but also of her continuing lack of importance in Dr. John's eyes.


In this part of the novel, the reader discovers three important things about Lucy Snowe. The most important, perhaps, is that Lucy is not a narrator who can be trusted to give full or accurate information. Her perspective is skewed not only by her own limitations and point of view, but also by her willful, almost perverse desire not to reveal her identity, motives, desires, or virtues—even when such a revelation would have been to her benefit. That Lucy would keep the knowledge of Dr. John's identity as Graham, her godmother's son, not only from him (presumably because her pride was hurt that he did not recognize her) but also from the reader for six chapters, lets the reader know that, for reasons of her own, Lucy is not a reliable narrator. The reader can no longer trust Lucy to tell the whole story, and everything she writes thereafter must be treated with greater skepticism. This is the first indication of this major stylistic aspect of this novel. It changes the tone of the novel from one of a generally trusted narrator with the possibility of a receptive, largely passive reader, to one where the reader is a more active, critical participant in the decipherment of Lucy's biased, sometimes erroneous, and even at times deliberately deceptive story.

For readers accustomed to other nineteenth-century fiction, this kind of deception and point-of-view writing may come as a shock. It was definitely a departure from traditional writing style for Brontë, and her experimentation in a relatively new and untried form was part of her commentary on the unknowable nature of Lucy (and, by extension, all people outside ourselves, at least to a significant degree) and the subterfuge and dissimulation required of women living Lucy's kind of life.

The second important thing that is revealed is the identity of Dr. John. His identity was, perhaps, expected, but the revelation of it points out another instance of Lucy's complete alienation from society and the world around her. Through her lack of friends, money, family, and the conventional requirements of feminine attractiveness, the world (and Lucy's own attitude) has convinced her that she is to expect nothing good from life—not even the regard and recognition of her own past acquaintances. Lucy retains, not surprisingly, her self-loathing—which cannot but have been reinforced by the insensitivity of Ginevra Fanshawe, who says, after the play, "I would not be you for a kingdom," and even though Lucy feels exactly the same way about the silly and immoral Ginevra, the statement does nothing for Lucy's self-esteem—and her moral and intellectual defiance. While Lucy knows her own inner worth and recognizes the great faults in the people around her whom fortune has smiled upon (even the adored Dr. John), she expects no one in her life to acknowledge them, nor does she hope for any reward in this life.

Knowing this about Lucy, it is not surprising to discover her capacity for depression. When left alone with the severely handicapped child during the long vacation, Lucy cannot prevent herself, cut off from any kind of companionship, from falling into a nearly suicidal hallucinatory state, attended by an either self-inflicted (through neglect) or psychosomatic illness. Lucy, however, with astounding presence of mind, is able to recognize her weakness and avoid what would be, to her, a fatal error: a conversion to Catholicism.

Third, and this point was more important for Brontë's contemporary readers than it is for readers today, the exact nature of Lucy's social status is explained. Brontë spells it out ("her degree was mine," in Chapter XVI). Though Mrs. Bretton dotes on and patronizes Lucy, their "degree" is equal. That is, the social and economic status of Mrs. Bretton (who was formerly quite rich and the owner of a large mansion and enough property for a very comfortable income) is the same as that which Lucy was born into. Lucy's family (that great, barely-hinted-at, unknowable family of Lucy's past) must have been descended from some sort of gentry, or at least they were country landowners at some point. Lucy is not from any kind of working class; she was a full-fledged member of the educated, leisured, somewhat cultured upper-middle-class, English country gentry of the nineteenth century. For Brontë's contemporaries this state of affairs would make Lucy's fall into the status of a working teacher to be all that much more pathetic and even tragic. While the peril Lucy began her adult life in, both physical and economic, is certainly exciting and engaging to today's readers, the fall from one class to another has not the same sting it had in Brontë's age. The transition from one class to another–especially when downward, for a woman dependent on others’ income–was a subject not only of economic tragedy but of social and possibly moral degradation for those who suffered the descent. That Lucy, raised to be a lady at least of Mrs. Bretton's level, is now an English teacher in a Labassecourian girls' school is supposed to make her more sympathetic and tragic to the reader. The fact that modern ideas of social class mobility have changed would not necessarily influence the reader in the way a twenty-first century novel with a similar story would.

Chapter XIV's fête and play show more of Lucy's capacity for self-knowledge and her extraordinary ability to correctly read and critique the characters of those around her. Lucy, who judges Ginevra to be a vain and selfish sort of person, nevertheless sees that, though Ginevra is relatively poor, Ginevra will have much more of the good things of life offered to her (including the coveted love of Dr. John) simply because of her physical beauty and family connections than Lucy ever will. The disparity between two young women's prospects, though they were born into the same class and station in life, is thrown into high relief. The subtext, of course, is also the disparity between Lucy, who is dependent upon luck, her wits, and the kindness of strangers for her very existence, and Dr. John, who is able to choose his profession, be trained for it, and actively earn a good living by it.

Lucy's first real interaction with M. Paul shows both his capacity for cruelty and his ability to be kind. Lucy is not overawed by him, but she allows the literature professor to shanghai her, make her learn a part in a play (playing a man, no less, and a man pursuing Ginevra Fanshawe at that, further continuing the negative comparison of Lucy with Dr. John) in which she has no interest in taking part. In order for her to learn this part in the space of a few hours, when M. Paul locks Lucy in an extremely hot, dirty, and pest-infested attic, she is trapped and starved all day, so the kind ministrations M. Paul performs for her when he finally frees her only shows his desire to dominate her completely and bend her to his will. Lucy admirably keeps her dignity and performs the part well (though she refuses to dress completely as a man, which would have added verisimilitude to the part but, in her mind, degraded her dignity) and, while not directly defying M. Paul, she lets him know that she is not a silly, vain, or empty-headed female as most of the other students at Madame Beck's seem to be. She takes control of the part she is expected to play, interpreting it how she wants.