Lucy Snowe (whose name means "light" and "cold") speaks early in the novel of herself in the third person. It is this kind of detachment, this utter alienation not only from her entire world but even from herself, that is a characteristic of the unconventional nature of the narrator of this novel. Lucy talks often of herself as a separate person, and as part of this she makes it clear throughout the novel that she is not sharing everything (or every important plot point) with the reader. She is sharing only the "Lucy Snowe" that she wants us to see. This was a stylistic choice by Brontë and a commentary on the alienated and marginalized life of women like Lucy in her society. In fact, it is not even clear that Lucy's name is correct--it is spoken of sometimes as if it is a pseudonym merely for the reader. The meanings of the name, too, suggest a character's qualities rather than the wholeness of the character herself. This third-person detachment makes Lucy into Brontë's least knowable heroine.
Name changes from childhood to adulthood
Both Polly and Graham, from their childhood states, go through transformations not only in temperament and condition but also in the names they are called. Little Polly Home becomes transformed, by becoming an heiress, into Paulina Home de Bassompierre. From being a tiny motherless English waif, she is elevated to become a beautiful heiress of a Continental aristocratic family.
Graham was called such by everyone in his childhood. In adulthood he becomes, as his father was, a physician. Like a person entering holy orders, he becomes known by another name, "Dr. John." These transformations in age and social position are reflected directly, not just in these characters' titles, but also in their names.
Mr. Home, Polly's father and a plain-speaking English-Scottish scientific man, becomes through inheritance the grand M. (Count) de Bassompierre. By this Brontë shows some of the major changes in the people Lucy knew as children compared to what they have become as adults, and not always with positive connotations. Lucy, however, remains the same, and is the eternal, unchanging outsider witnessing the other characters' changes.
Borderline supernatural events and portents
On the night of Miss Marchmont's death, Lucy takes a storm as a portent of that event. Lucy philosophizes that the unsettled weather, coupled with news of catastrophic events in distant places, often predicts calamity at home. This Shakespearean or classical view of weather borders on ideas of the supernatural, implying that the weather and planet-wide events either predict or affect individual human activities. Storms and weather reflect the action of the book in many instances: Lucy's collapse in the Basse-Ville is in a terrible rainstorm, the coldness of the snowstorm outside enters Lucy's heart when she first beholds the growing closeness between Polly and Dr. John, and so on.
In Chapter XII, an allusion to an old ghost story prefaces a gaze at the moon, a violent storm, and an important meeting between Dr. John and Lucy. The ghostly visitations (though in the end we know their cause) in the attic and garden are meant to show Lucy's own inner fears as well as her ability to face down, bravely, what could send others into hysteria. While Brontë never crosses into the truly preternatural or magical realm (by never asserting that anything supernatural is true), it is clear that Lucy believes that these events are pertinent to the course of human affairs. These supernatural references often serve as metaphors for something unsaid but tacitly acknowledged, like Lucy's buried life or Miss Marchmont's fury at God.
The coincidences of plot come thick and fast in Villette. The fact that Lucy was acquainted with a de Bassompierre in childhood, and that she just happens to meet another relative of that family (Ginevra) on her sea-crossing, are rather ludicrously unlikely taken together. But the world of early nineteenth-century Europe was smaller than today, with fewer people in the educated classes. Since there was no electronic communication, word of mouth and "who you know" were more important then. It is not outside the realm of possibility that Lucy would meet these two people in the manner that she did, but it is still remarkably convenient for the plot.
The coincidence, too, that she happens upon Madame Beck's establishment when she has lost her way to the inn is almost ridiculously fortuitous. Throughout the novel, coincidence drives much of the plot, such as the serendipidous and unforseen reunion of Lucy, Dr. John, and Mrs. Bretton in Villette all at the same moment, but Brontë handles the coincidence skillfully, so the reader has little difficulty believing it. The further coincidence of the Home de Bassompierres living in Villette is not so absurd as it is unlikely, but it is brought on the reader gradually to make it seem more natural. Brontë never veers into the fantastic; merely the believably improbable. Brontë even wryly inserts into the mind of Lucy, upon the reunion with Polly, the idea that "it seems a miracle when that chance befals." This device, especially with the excellent character development for which Brontë is famous, was more acceptable in novels of her day than what many readers prefer today.
References to the covered, concealed (sometimes hypocritically so), and secret or "buried" lives of women and girls in the school at Madame Beck's are ubiquitous. No female, except perhaps Ginevra, is able to live an open and entirely honest life, though there is a distinct lack of privacy in the school. Everything must be for show, and a smooth exterior must be shown no matter the turmoil that masks it. Madame Beck runs her school by means of efficient spying. Lucy lives an inauthentic and spiritless existence of a stunted schoolteacher who is unhappy in love. Lucy even has to bury her merely friendly letters from Dr. John literally in the ground in order to conceal them. The Catholic girls are constantly watched and limited, and they conduct their love affairs in secret. Even the tiny, six-year-old Polly Home is made to conceal the depth of her affection for Graham, for fear of angering him. The metaphor of the medieval nun buried alive in the walled garden of the school is meant to further explain how women of no fortune or prospects, like Lucy, are buried by their society even while they are still alive.
Anthropomorphism of concepts or emotions
In Lucy Snowe's reveries, she often makes a feeling or an abstract concept into a person. She struggles between her "evil stepmother" of Reason and the "angel" of Feeling, being schooled and instructed by the former and soothed by the later. When Despair stalks Lucy, it it said to "breathe through her." Lucy's inner, buried life is peopled with her own thoughts, and those thoughts have such importance to her that they become as much like people to her as the actual people around her. It is not just a poetic or literary device used by Brontë, but an illustration of Lucy's intense fantasy and imaginative inner life, necessary to her because so much of her outer life is repressed and limited. The personifications of these emotions are almost always female.
Objectification of Polly
Polly is held up as everything Lucy is not: pretty, petted, loved, and rich. She is, both as a child and as a girl of seventeen, often referred to by Lucy as "it." As a tiny child she was considered "elfin" and so unlike other children as to be almost a freak. As a pretty young woman, whose whole life is to be devoted to love and family (to the subjugation of her own self, something Lucy would never allow), she is again, to Lucy, an "it" or a "creature" or a "lamp chastely lucent." She is like a lamb, a fawn, or a fairy more often in Lucy's mind than she is like a girl or a woman. However pretty or kind Polly is, she is to Lucy always the Other, for Polly's nature is the polar opposite of Lucy's. While Lucy's intellectual and emotional self has its own demands for freedom and independence, Polly's sole desire is to be loved and cossetted within the gilded cage of a man (whether he be her father or Dr. John). Polly's happiness is always derived from someone else, and though Lucy also experiences this phenomenon (she hangs her hopes on Dr. John's letters, for example), she fights against it.
Lucy is an example of the proto-feminist, yearning to assert herself but unable to resolve the main feminist problems of independence and the desire for love. Polly is the throwback, the "ideal" woman of the Victorian age who believes only in the relational worth of women, not their intrisic worth. It is no wonder Lucy would see Polly, the object of so much of her unsaid jealousy and unresolved conflict, as an "it." Also, though Lucy has her own immaturities, she is perhaps the most adult of Brontë's heroines in her morality, judgment, and actions. Polly is the ultimate child-woman who is never allowed to age into womanhood. This is a further contrast that makes Polly an "it" to Lucy's "I."
In Villette, the beginning of a chapter is often the site of Lucy's sermonizing to herself about the necessities of reason, or of the plight of women in this world, or of the moral failings of herself and the people around her. Though there are many events and characters in this novel, so much of the novel is taken up with Lucy's own thoughts and feelings that this kind of soliloquoy occurs often. Lucy, the perpetual outsider, is generally very fair in her judgment of people, and she is remarkably clear-eyed about the evils and hypocrisies of the world. Her musings, sometimes extended metaphors or essays on a moral topic, are compelling. It seems likely that these are much like the thoughts of Charlotte Brontë herself, for they coincide with much of her own ideas as evidenced in her letters.
Villette Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Villette is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Yes, in Chapters 14-16, 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...