19 May 2016
Is Villette "Feminist"?
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?
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.