19 May 2016

Is Villette "Feminist"?

In Charlotte Bronte's Villette, Lucy Snowe travels from her home to teach at a girls' school, and in so doing, finds herself. It's a rather ambiguous tale with a puzzling ending that focuses more on Lucy's inner workings than on her outer actions. Critics have focused on this psychological aspect of the text, but one issue really stands out: The question of whether Villette can be considered a feminist or anti-feminist text is complicated by multiple issues.

For me though, determining which side of the feminist line the text falls on requires a close reading of the text in light of a careful consideration of the environment in which the text was written. Evaluating the text from a contemporary understanding of gender is disingenuous and inauthentic.

According to Helen Davis, the ideological climate of nineteenth-century Britain restricted Bronte’s ability to push a direct feminist agenda; hence, the ambiguous nature of the text in regards to a feminist reading. Portraying an independent, professional woman was “restricted by both the social norms of the receiving community and by the textual practices of the genre” (Davis 201). In order to work around these restrictions, authors such as Bronte addressed the topics “in a way that retains discursive authority while still conveying the desired meaning” (Davis 201).

This delicate balancing act between revealing and concealing results in textual ambiguities “that arise from an author’s simultaneous urge to narrate possibilities outside of the boundaries of social norms while also conforming to social and narrative expectations sufficiently to create a text that can and will be successfully disseminated” (Davis 201-202). After all, you can’t influence the minds of a culture if no one is reading your novel. So “specific events, desires, and goals that are nonconforming within the receiving community are often incorporated ambiguously” (Davis 202) leaving the text open for varied critical interpretation.

One passage from the text that addresses a specific, nonconforming concept stood out to me:

“My time was now well and profitably filled up. What with teaching others and studying closely myself, I had hardly a spare moment. It was pleasant. I felt I was getting on; not lying the stagnant prey of mould and rust, but polishing my faculties and whetting them to a keen edge with constant use. Experience of a certain kind lay before me, on no narrow scale”. (Bronte)

Many upper-class women in the Victorian Age were confined to a domestic sphere that rarely needed their active attention in any profitable way; the suggestion being they were closer to the “stagnant prey of mould and rust” Bronte mentions in this passage, their mental faculties lying dormant except for the development and maintenance of profitable social connections. Here Lucy is thrilled to be both put to use and allowed experience, but her thoughts are entirely self-directed and any implication as to criticism of social constraints is made metaphorically, not directly.

In another section of the novel, Lucy is thrilled for the simple pleasure of walking alone: “to walk alone in London seemed of itself an adventure…to do this, and to do it utterly alone, gave me, perhaps an irrational, but a real pleasure” (Bronte). Here the Victorian restriction placed on women to always be “chaperoned” (i.e. surveilled) is addressed but with the caveat that Lucy’s pleasure is “perhaps irrational”.

Despite the ambiguities and caveats in the text as a whole, certain passages do reflect a directly feminist argument. For example, when speaking of Madame Beck, Lucy feels “that school offered her for her powers too limited a sphere; she ought to have swayed a nation: she should have been the leader of a turbulent legislative assembly” (Bronte). Madame Beck is restricted from participating in government by her gender, but Lucy directly states that’s where her talents would best serve.

Bronte does, ultimately, present a feminist perspective for her time. At the end of Villette, Lucy is “a single, successful businessperson, an identity that threatens her standing as a socially acceptable narrator and woman” (Davis 202). Her outcome provides a “different kind of success, one connected to ambition and independence” that is “not socially acceptable in the nineteenth century” (Davis 203). Bronte has set up a female role model, of sorts, for those women who searched for happiness outside of marriage. Unfortunately, Bronte has to temper Lucy’s independence and “in the interest of self-preservation, [Lucy] presents her success as the result of circumstance and others’ actions rather than the endpoint of her own active striving” (Davis 202). Lucy can’t “openly acknowledge her goals without alienating contemporary readers” (Davis 203).

I'm wondering if any of you see this in contemporary literature. What issues or perspectives do we water down in order to make it palatable to readers?

Works Cited
Bronte, Charlotte. Villette. Project Gutenberg. Web. 26 March 2016.
Davis, Helen. “I Seemed to Hold Two Lives”: Disclosing Circumnarration in Villette and The Picture of Dorien Gray”. Narrative 21.2 (May 2013): 198-220. Web. 29 March 2016.


  1. I think this is always the case when you are attempting to subvert social or philosophical norms. It makes me think of Maimonides (born 1135), who was sort of famous not only for what he wrote, but the way in which he wrote. He wanted to suggest that [popular] ideas about God were too anthropomorphic, and the Bible was being taken too literally instead of metaphorically. But these ideas were heretical, so he purposefully introduced ambiguity into his books, distinguishing between two levels of writing: exoteric and esoteric, i.e. concealing the esoteric position behind a veil of exoteric writing. The idea was that the controversial doctrines would be grasped by sophisticated readers but overlooked by the “multitude.” But most importantly, perhaps those in the margins would be drawn in, helping influence thinking.

    I think also of Louisa Adams, married to John Quincy, who read books like those by Mary Wollstonecraft (born 1759) on women's rights, which were way ahead of her time. Wollstonecraft was pilloried in her own time, but still, those who read her books *were* influenced by them, and Louisa was attacked when she tried to parrot Wollstonecraft's ideas. It was easy to figure out that if you wanted to maintain your position in society as well as your ability to exert even a small (but important) influence, you had to be more discreet and "temper" your argument.

    Today, I think it still applies. Look at how, for example, LGBTQ books are way marginalized. And writers of color still have problems getting published because of the assumption white readers won't be interested. So you have all these authors, both majority and minority, writing books that are full of straight white people *but* add important characters from other categories. But now the book is more "palatable" at least from a publishing standpoint. And the idea creeps in that these people are people, and just as interesting as any people. It seems the same to me as the idea that “specific events, desires, and goals that are nonconforming within the receiving community are often incorporated ambiguously.”

    1. I love you. Your comments to these posts are always so thought-provoking.

      I absolutely agree that this practice of concealing in order to reveal is still very much used. Even books like Harry Potter fall into the trap - Dumbledore is gay but the fact is glossed over or rather only hinted at in the books, and the same is true for Hermione being black (I've heard). I wonder if these two parts of their identities were revealed explicitly if it really would have made that much of a difference in book sales and enjoyment...

  2. "According to Helen Davis, the ideological climate of nineteenth-century Britain restricted Bronte’s ability to push a direct feminist agenda"

    I'd agree with you even more if it wasn't for Anne Bronte and her Tennant of Wildfell Hall. She's the forgotten sister, but the one that really pushed the boundaries of their time and education. And Charlotte did what she could to prevent its re-publication after Anne's death because of the topic's unsuitability. So I always think that Charlotte could have been more explicit in her feminism.

    1. Great point! Perhaps it's more about being brave. I really need to read more by Anne...

  3. Oh, thank you for this review! Charlotte Bronte's Villette is my favourite character! She is very brave and independent! Besides, the plot of this book is very exciting! Use writing services to read more abot writings.


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