Villette Summary and Analysis of Chapters XVII-XIX

Chapter XVII's title, "La Terrasse" (The Terrace), is the name of Dr. John's and Mrs. Bretton's small country chateau. The circumstances of Lucy's rescue are told in this chapter. After her collapse on the steps of a large building in the Basse-Ville (low town), Père Silas, Lucy's confessor, finds her. The kind old priest sees Dr. John riding past on his way home. Père Silas flags him down, and he and Dr. John get Lucy into a coach and take her off to La Terrasse. Lucy is grateful to be rescued, especially by Dr. John.

During this time Lucy struggles with her own envy of other, more fortunate people, and her anger at God for putting so much difficulty in her life. She has a monologue at the beginning of the chapter in which she tries to adopt a stoic philosophy that would enable her to accept any suffering that God sends her way. She also talks of how people on earth are equals yet unable to judge each other—that should be left to God. This is particularly interesting from Lucy, because she is such a sharp and often accurate judge of others' characters. Lucy makes a prayer for relief of her suffering, even referring to Azrael, the angel of death.

Lucy and Dr. John become friendlier with each other, and the talk naturally turns to Ginevra. Lucy sees that Dr. John's affection for Ginevra is undiminished. Lucy thinks that, if Mrs. Bretton were to know how Ginevra was using Dr. John's affections (by taking jewelry from him, though she prefers another man), Mrs. Bretton would condemn that young lady. Dr. John also puts forward the idea that Lucy's illness is psychosomatic, caused by her depression.

Dr. John's prescription is that Lucy should travel for six months in order to calm her over-excited nerves. That Lucy has not the wherewithal to leave her job and travel for half a year is never brought up. Though he is solicitous and kind, Dr. John's diagnoses are more patronizing than helpful. Never once has he inquired into the true nature of her distress or indicated that her illness is anything other brought on by her own depression.

Lucy and John are at odds in Chapter XVIII, "We Quarrel." During a talk about Dr. John's rival, Count De Hamal, Lucy becomes exasperated with Dr. John's inability to see Ginevra's own trivial and fickle character and that she definitely prefers Count De Hamal to himself. This causes Lucy, in a fit of pique, to tell him that "there is no delusion like your own"—and that Ginevra Fanshawe does not respect him, nor does Lucy Snowe. This causes a rift between them for some time, which causes them to have a courteous silence. Finally, after tea, while Dr. John reads a book quietly and sadly, Lucy asks for forgiveness for her hasty words. He admits that if she doesn't respect him, it is because he doesn't deserve respect. Lucy retracts her statement and vows respect for him. She says that he thinks far too much of Ginevra, but she will let him believe what he likes. They discuss Dr. John's practice of giving Ginevra costly ornaments, which Lucy criticizes roundly. While Dr. John professes to believe that Ginevra accepts them out of a disinterested, entirely naïve, and childish good nature, Lucy, of course, knows better. At the end of their conversation Lucy fancies there may have been an ironic gleam in Dr. John's eye, implying that he is not so completely fooled by Ginevra as his words indicate.

"The Cleopatra" in Chapter XIX refers to a painting. During her additional two-week stay, arranged with Madame Beck by Mrs. Bretton, Lucy often frequents the art galleries and museums in town, studying painting and discovering her likes and dislikes.

One day she wanders the gallery alone. In the gallery she is approached by M. Paul Emanuel. M. Paul disapproves of the picture Lucy is looking at, a large nude depicting Cleopatra. He steers her away from the painting, admonishing her that young unmarried ladies shouldn't look at such things. He sets her down in front of a series of paintings depicting the "Ages of Woman," showing traditional phases of a Catholic woman's life (young womanhood, the young bride, the young mother, and the widow)—which is painted in an appallingly bad fashion. Lucy looks at them for a time and then endeavors to gaze around the gallery while standing in her designated corner. M. Paul, staring at the painting of Cleopatra, keeps an eye on Lucy to make sure she stays in her place.

M. Paul and Lucy speak again, and he chides her not only for becoming ill, but for not enjoying or relishing the care of Marie Broc, the handicapped child. Lucy gently counters, asking him if he would be able to cheerfully care for Marie. He avoids the question by saying that worthy women (and by this he excludes Lucy) are able to nurse people far better than the self-indulgent male. Lucy does not get angry with him, and she is less than impressed with his verbal antics.

Across the room Lucy spies M. De Hamal, the suitor of Ginevra. She watches him for some minutes, and during that time she is separated from M. Paul. She is repulsed by the sleek dandy character of the Count, and she then sees, to her mind, a much better man entering the gallery—Dr. John. She makes a frankly ethnocentric comparison between the tall and fair (English) Dr. John on the one hand, and the smaller, darker men M. Paul and the Count De Hamal (Labassecourians) on the other.


Lucy's convalescence at the Brettons' is, finally, a soft landing for this much-buffeted character. To be among people of her own class (so important in Brontë's time) and among people who acknowledge Lucy as being of that same class is the first real bright spot for Lucy in this novel. Even Lucy's incredible luck at finding a job at Madame Beck's just in the nick of time to save her from destitution (and, it was implied, very probably a lonely death) was only a stop-gap measure; it was no promise of happiness. In fact, it was at Madame Beck's that Lucy experienced her most intensely depressive episode so far. While the work she does teaching English may inspire Lucy, and she may be good at it, no young woman of Lucy's class in Brontë's age would have been happy or proud at earning her own living, no matter how intellectually stimulating or respectable the work might be. Lucy was not raised to earn her own living, and any time she can live in a household and not be employed, instead surrounded by those of her own "degree," will necessarily be more agreeable to her than any job. Contemporary readers should continue to have this alternative value system in mind.

The ludicrous coincidences which got Lucy to a reunion with her godmother, who is the only quasi-relative she has on this earth, are to be put aside in favor of the dramatic effect on the reader, as well as the interesting combination of passiveness and luck that seem to have been required of Victorian heroines. That Lucy would end up in just the right European city as Dr. John, working at a school that he happened to frequent (even putting aside the extreme coincidence of him being at the stagecoach bureau to help her with her luggage problem on her first night in Villette)—and furthermore that she would be found by Dr. John, with the help of Père Silas, at just the right moment after her collapse—and that Mrs. Bretton would have arrived recently from England to live with her son, raise the pattern of coincidences from the dramatic to the truly extraordinary. As stated before, however, this sort of literary convention was more accepted by Victorian readers than modern ones.

The fact that Lucy holds Dr. John's identity from the reader for six chapters aids Brontë in the floating of these rather preposterous instances of good fortune. While the reader may suspect that Dr. John is Graham Bretton, and there are more than enough clues to give away his identity almost immediately after his introduction, the lack of stated acknowledgement of the coincidence makes the whole situation more plausible. The fact that Lucy ends up in close proximity with one of the only people left in the world of her close acquaintance, therefore, is eased on the reader over several chapters before it is fully explained. Brontë uses many such clever constructions throughout her novel to help the reader suspend disbelief. It is a Brontëan characteristic that the unlikely and even fantastic is made acceptable through skillful plotting and judicious timing of information given to the reader.

The scene in the gallery with M. Paul is meant to illustrate the differences in not only the perception of art between the "Continental" sensibility and the English, but the basic divergence in philosophy on the education and liberty of women, in Brontë's mind, between the two cultures. M. Paul (not unlike his cousin Madame Beck) believes that one of the ways to properly inculcate modest virtues in women is to shield them from depictions of raw sexuality (such as the Cleopatra painting) and confine women, as M. Paul does to Lucy, to the contemplation only of saccharine pictures of hypocritical "female virtues." Lucy's way, and by extension the "English" way, perhaps, is to allow women the same access to art as men, so that they can be instructed in the ways of moral virtue and artistic taste by means of negative examples as well as positive ones. This is all part of Brontë's English chauvinism and belief in the inherent moral superiority of the Protestant education to the Catholic practice of female limitation. The message of the freedom of education, especially for women, is very clear here. That Brontë divides it along national and religious lines, making it a cultural issue as well as an educational one, is part of the satire of this novel.

The picture of the Veuve (a widow) showing a "black woman" does not mean a woman of color but a European woman dressed in black mourning clothing. The silliness of this insincere group of paintings is contrasted with the raw, if in bad taste, feminine sexuality of the Cleopatra. That sexuality shown this obviously had to be of a non-European woman (Dr. John calls her a "mulatto," and M. Paul, though he contemplates the painting for a long time, sanctimoniously says that he does not want a woman like that for a sister, wife, or daughter) illustrates the sexual repression of the time in both cultures. M. Paul seems to think that, by virtue of being a man, he is allowed to order Lucy, a grown woman and employed as a teacher at the same school at which M. Paul works (and thus should be considered his equal in everything but age), as he pleases. On the two occasions that they have been together, he has confined her physically both times, once in the attic and then confining her to a corner of the museum to look at the religious paintings. Lucy seems to submit to these peremptory limitations on her physical mobility with relatively good grace, but never submitting mentally to his remonstrances. She sees him for what he is, and while she can acknowledge his good points (for example, the fact that he keeps his own impatience in check for pity of little Marie Broc), she has no illusions about his faults. And her adoration of Dr. John is not only for his physical attractiveness in her eyes (for he has been almost as imperious with Lucy as M. Paul has been) but for his Englishness. M. Paul, even putting aside his personal faults of despotism and insensitivity, is entirely too European in his religion, appearance, sensibilities, and especially his attitude toward women for Lucy to admire. Lucy is more able to forgive the faults of Dr. John (such as his misguided love for the unworthy Ginevra and his complete neglect of Lucy's feelings before he knew who she was) because she is more indulgent of what she considers "English" faults than of foreign ones.