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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Villette Chapters 1-27: She’s Ba-ack!

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 07/28/09 at 08:31 AM

You knew you hadn’t seen the last of little Polly, I’m sure: how misleading would it be to make the first chapters of a novel about a character--indeed, a relationship--that has no place in its larger scheme? But it’s interesting that she emerges from the fire caused by Lucy Vashti a spark falling on some drapery. Bronte’s heroines have a knack for fire-setting by proxy, don’t they? Now the love triangle (if that’s what it is) between Lucy, Ginevra, and Dr. John becomes a quadrangle, or even a pentangle, if we infer that M. Paul’s marvellous hissing--"Sauvage! la flamme a l’ame, l’eclair aux yeux!"--results from jealousy. What do these multiplying relationships mean? How far do we interpret these characters as themselves and how much as facets of Lucy’s psyche, or perhaps reflections of roles (from “La vie d’une femme,” maybe), or variations on some thematic idea, whether about femininity, sexuality, power, or something else?

The nun is back too, of course, and the whole sequence in which Lucy composes the limbs of her dead hopes and buries her letters is fascinating. At so many points she seems to enact literally what we would otherwise (on a gothic reading, for instance) assume to be metaphorical--or the line between the real and the symbolic blurs. Well might Lucy demand of the “tall, sable-robed, snowy-veiled woman,” “‘Who are you? and why do you come to me?’”

These chapters really highlight the problem of Lucy’s identity, as its instability and contradictions become the subject of explicit discussion among her acquaintances: “‘Who are you, Miss Snow?’” Ginevra inquires in frustration--“‘But are you anybody?’” Ginevra’s question is ostensibly about class and social status: “I am a rising character,” Lucy replies (though we see that to Paulina and her father, she has, instead, fallen). Lucy seems to enjoy Ginevra’s confusion, but she is not always so sanguine about others’ attempts to categorize her--particularly Graham’s description of her as “a being inoffensive as a shadow,” which weighs her down with “the coldness and the pressure of lead” (compare her comment “I was no bright lady’s shadow” and her insistence that she accepts “dimness and depression” provided they are “voluntary"). To M. Paul, she is “‘Petite chatte, doucerette, coquette!’” while to Mme Beck she is “learned and blue,” and also someone in no need of surveillance (a judgment which saddens, rather than relieves, Lucy--raising again the question of what the function is of observation in this novel). Do we believe Lucy when she tells us that “If any one knew me it was little Paulina Mary”?

(Review the schedule for our Villette reading here.)


Rohan’s commentary brings out the way that the novel explores the relationship between social identity and sexuality for middle-class women: to become self-reliant, Lucy has to deny herself a romantic or erotic life, but she is constantly confronted by reminders of her desire for such a life.  Ginevra, on the other hand, plays the coquette to try to secure a well-to-do husband; that is what she has been brought up to do.  Lucy is fascinated by her, while Ginevra, as Rohan points out, is puzzled by Lucy.
When Lucy buries the letters, was anyone else reminded women concealing their dead illegitimate infants in other Romantic and Victorian works?  (I vaguely remember reading about how nuns were described as doing this in anti-Catholic Gothic tales).  And she buries them under a fruit tree; desire, for Freud, like original sin in Christian doctrine, is the source of our discontent!

By on 07/28/09 at 11:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m confused about—well, a number of things, actually, but I’m especially confused about whether Lucy’s “Reason” is really reasonable, for her time, or not.  I took her “Reason” to be a sort of abusive superego, perhaps an internal remnant of an abusive adult during her childhood, that told her that she was never good enough and that she should hide any sign of her feelings.  This, especially, in the scenes where Graham is writing her letters and she’s rhapsodizing about how open and communicative they are, and writing similar letters back about how she feels, then censoring and rewriting them and sending back curt replies.  Graham doesn’t fall in love with her because he’s shallow, but also, perhaps, because she never allows herself to communicate with him.  He’s supposed to be very bad at reading nonverbal cues, but solicitous enough once he’s told what’s going on.

But is her “Reason” really reasonable, in that the social distance between her and Graham really would keep them from marrying?  I didn’t think so.  But perhaps someone here who knows the time better knows better.

Lucy seems equally clueless, as the book goes on, that M. Paul is attracted to her and is jealous of her and Graham.  And that’s another indication that she has an unreasonably negative impression of her own attractiveness, even as she wants to be attractive.

By on 07/28/09 at 11:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think Lucy’s Reason is on one level “reasonable” - i.e., an accurate and realistic reflection of prevailing social attitudes.  A teacher at a foreign school, however respectable her grandparents’ social position might have been, would not be the most desirable marital partner for a well-to-do physician.  On the other hand, Lucy’s idea of herself as self-made and autonomous is more radically democratic, hence Reason can appear tyrannous rather than reasonable, exactly a socially restrictive superego.  It’s significant in this context that Paul Emmanuel’s speech expresses the emerging sentiments of liberalism and democracy that as Lucy comments later found fruition (in the spirit of 1848).

By on 07/28/09 at 11:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m really interested in the political dimension Russell suggests. I’m familiar with the contemporary reviews accusing Jane Eyre of “Jacobinism” and associating that novel’s strong statements about women’s need for freedom with other kinds of rebellion against social and political hierarchies. I don’t know if Villette was seen in a similar way; I’ll have to browse the contextual materials in my Broadview edition.

I also find the association with burying illegitimate children really apt, especially given Lucy’s language in this passage. This dead “child” seems to be born of the hopefulness she had so recently learned to live with, which has been destroyed (innocently?) by Paulina’s emergence as Graham’s new favourite.

By Rohan Maitzen on 07/28/09 at 05:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The shadow-comments are memorable, but I’m not sure whether they really describe Lucy’s feelings or not.  All right, she won’t take a position as Paulina’s companion, even at triple her current salary, because she won’t be her shadow—and she won’t be the go-between between Graham and Paulina with similar comments about him putting her into a shadow-role that is not natural to her—but how much of that is simply jealousy?  Would she refuse to be the companion of a well-off woman who she wasn’t in romantic competition with?

Another bit I wasn’t sure how to interpret: Ginevra is so physically touchy with Lucy that Lucy actually wears a pin in the cloth by her side in order to prick Ginevra’s hand and discourage her.  That’s… a bit odd, a literalization of how prickly and resistant to contact Lucy is.

By on 07/28/09 at 09:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How far do we interpret these characters as themselves and how much as facets of Lucy’s psyche, or perhaps reflections of roles (from “La vie d’une femme,” maybe), or variations on some thematic idea, whether about femininity, sexuality, power, or something else?

I’ve been thinking along these lines, but the problem I bump into is that few of the characters have the reduced simplicity we usually associate with characters-as-emblems. Because their motives remain obscure (or are at least not explicit) and because they appear to embody numerous contradictions, it’s difficult to see them as representative in quite the way this question suggests.

Take M. Paul, for example. Yes, he’s clearly enamored of Lucy, and Lucy does seem to have a certain sort of fondness for him. But his attraction is in tension with a repulsion that seems to go beyond mere jealousy. He’s disturbed that she does not fulfill conventional feminine roles. But he is also a nationalist and/or democrat of some sort--but one, apparently, who isn’t quite willing to extend any radical fervor to women.

So, perhaps he could be taken to emblematize the inconsistencies of a male-dominated radical politics that speaks truth to power but doesn’t want to hear from women. His interest in Lucy and her quiet forms of resistance could be read as a sign of hope that radicalism might recognize its own inconsistencies and come to see gendered injustice as important.

But I don’t find that reading fully persuasive. The text puts too much effort into developing his contradictions and complexities. Part of the pleasure of reading about him (and many, if not all, of the other characters) is that narrative teasing that several noted in last week’s discussion--a teasing that holds back so much that he can’t be made to fit into a thematic box.

By on 07/29/09 at 12:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

How about a simple taking stock? What do we have to look forward to at this point in the story? Clearly we will see the developing relationship between the admirable but unsteady Graham and the admirable but inexperienced Paulina. A linear extrapolation would end in marriage; sounds boring. Will Graham go back to Lucy, and more? This would provide a normal, even trite readerly gratification: hope gained, hope thwarted, hope regained, even fulfilled. But wasn’t there some hint in one of those rare earlier passages where Lucy reveals she is looking back in her old age that this is not to be? The stage is also clearly set for the further development of M. Paul and Lucy in Volume III, but Paul seems to have less flexibility for personal change in perception (or character) than Graham. Can he ever be anything other than the less-attractive foil? Nor do I expect much new from Ginevra. Then there is the assertion that Paulina knows Lucy better than anyone. Finally, there is the mystery of the nun, holding out the expectation that this story will have some element beyond such quotidian elements, that the rest won’t be simply moving people around. So far I’ve found this novel very easy reading and always interesting, and, although I’m not normally fond of supernatural intrusion into realism, this Gothic hint holds promise that Bronte’s resources will sustain me to the end.  I suspect she can pull it off without turning it into a mere ghost story.

By on 07/29/09 at 07:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I seem to remember a scene in which Lucy fairly explicitly tells us that the letters are the high point of the relationship between her and Graham.  (Is he admirable?  I guess so, but together with Ginevra, his teasing often verges or crosses into cruelty).

I agree with Lew that I have trouble seeing these characters as variations on a thematic idea, or even as facets of Lucy’s psyche.  They have too many jagged edges to be themes, and they do too many things that Lucy explains really badly to be facets of her psyche.  Well, people don’t understand their own psyche, but they seem to do normal-human things that she doesn’t understand, not fractions-of-herself things.

I do think that the book is stalling out a bit at this point.  The double coincidence is a bit tough, for one thing.  Lucy meets Graham by coincidence three times (as guide when she first arrives, as doctor summoned to the school, as her rescuer when she collapses), and then she meets Paulina again not because Paulina has looked up Graham, or something like that, but because of coincidence again.  So this is where the author wanted to take us, not a “natural” outgrowth of the characters, if any such thing can be imagined.  (Obviously, “natural” is in quotes because it is merely an effect of writing.) And where is that?  A large number of romantic relationships, all of which we either know to be doomed (those with Lucy), or are between rather shallow people.

By on 07/29/09 at 10:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Lucy and Graham could have married. Lucy is reasonable in realizing that, once Graham reunites with Polly, it’s not going to happen. She takes psychologically perceptive steps, including a concrete symbolic action, to repress her destructive unrequited feelings.

Anyway, that’s how 1853 Lucy wants us to see 1840 Lucy.

For those interested in the politics, note that Lucy switches to M. Paul’s Hebrew name during his lecture in Ch. 27. It might be interesting to trace her use of his names - Paul, Emanuel, etc. Maybe she just uses Emanuel more when referring to M. Paul in a professional capacity. But I’m skipping ahead a bit - see Ch. 29.

By Amateur Reader on 07/29/09 at 10:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, the second the woman got trampled at the play, I knew it was going to be Polly. My 10th grade English teacher, quoting somebody, said that the two great themes of literature are illusion/reality and search for identity. “Villette” plays with identity constantly; that’s why people’s identities are held back (although in this instance it’s because Lucy doesn’t recognize the sort-of-grown-up Polly). I think this is why the novel is called “Villette” and not “Lucy Snowe”; Lucy is in a prolonged process of self-discovery in this year in Villette; she really doesn’t have a strong identity until she chooses to go. Now she is evaluating the identities everyone else has assigned her (the most perplexing of all is Ginerva, who seems to see her as a man). From what we learn of her life from her narrative, M. Paul may be the correct one—he sees a fire, drive and ambition in her. She seems to be burying the letters because she doesn’t want M. Paul to read them. And, of course, back comes the nun, who appears in relation to the letters. I think the nun is warning Lucy away from

I loved the play scene. Lucy goes completely gaga over “Vashti”; as Dr. Maitzen notes, Lucy is so enraptured by the performance that it starts a fire. There has to be something sexual going on here, as there is between Lucy and Ginerva; but that’s part of Lucy’s search for identity (remember she gets the cigar box and keeps it). I think this might bode ill for Polly and Graham, because Polly is injured in the wake of the fire; the fire almost seems to conjure her. (I’m about 10 pages from the end of book 2, so I’m a bit behind here.)

By on 07/29/09 at 12:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Lucy is reasonable in realizing that, once Graham reunites with Polly, it’s not going to happen. “

Yes, by then it’s probably too late.  But it might not have been if Lucy could have brought herself to be more open with him earlier.  If he’d already gone through the transition to noticing her as a romantic being, he might not have have been attracted to Polly.  After all, what is he attracted to?  Beauty, and some memories of her as a child when she doted on him.  Kind of thin beer, if he and Lucy had already been sharing emotionally.

By on 07/29/09 at 01:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I think that’s right.

Lucy is going to depict the Graham\Polly pairing as quite thick beer, later, but she may not be correct, or honest, about that. She could be excusing her own failures.

By Amateur Reader on 07/29/09 at 03:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Amateur Reader brings up the point of M. Paul’s evolving name. At the very end of this selection, M. Paul seems to be changing in several notable ways - not only does he smile when Lucy can’t ever remember him expressing genuine pleasure in the past, his entire status as a person changes dramatically. His visage “changed...as from a mask to a face,” his complexion seems “clearer and fresher,” and most significantly, “that swart, sallow, southern darkness which spoke his Spanish blood, became displaced by a lighter hue.” M. Paul becomes more racially acceptable, but he also becomes more like Lucy, more snow-like.

By kvanaren on 07/29/09 at 11:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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