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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Villette Chapters I-42: Farewell.

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 08/11/09 at 07:08 AM

I found this final installment of Villette wholly engrossing, in a shameless readerly kind of way. Despite having read the novel before, I was deeply moved by the emotional intensity of Lucy’s experiences, from the surreal, dream-like excursion to the fete, at which all the beneficent possibilities of spectatorship that have been explored during other parts of the novel dissipate in the pain of exclusion and misinterpretation, to the almost equally dream-like revelation of the little house in the Faubourg Clotilde, with its little couch, its little chiffoniere, its little stove and “diminutive” dishes, its “miniature classe.” What is real and what is wished for? Has Lucy at last come home, to flourish, to bask in the knowledge that she loves and is loved? Does this “very neat abode” represent freedom, or is it another, more insidious, prison, perhaps framing Lucy perfectly for “la vie d’une femme”? My “sunny imagination” hopes, helplessly, but this is a novel in which Imagination rules only when Reason is drugged--and even then, for Lucy at least, following her lead brings not triumph but despair, so where are we left? As the nun is exposed as a ploy, neither phantom nor symbol but a worldly device, so too, perhaps, are Lucy’s other fantasies reduced to, or revealed as, empty artifice, story-telling. The nun “bequeaths her wardrobe” to Lucy; if she will be “seen in the Rue Fossette no more,” will she reappear, embodied, in the Faubourg Clotilde? The most powerful moment is surely Lucy’s exclamation in Chapter 41, “‘My heart will break!’” (Did George Eliot perhaps have this scene in mind at the end of Middlemarch, when Dorothea too cannot bear the prospect of losing love and hope, and claims Will, across all boundaries of social and sexual restraint, with the same words?) At that point her secret is known--the secret of her passion--but the revelation makes her vulnerable: M. Paul withholds his own secret for many more pages, almost to the point of sadism. Does he take too much pleasure in her suffering? Is his return from abroad truly a “consummation devoutly to be wished”? As it seems clear Bronte intended, I am left with questions, ambiguities, uncertainties, rather than resolution, for Lucy’s story, at least. It’s interesting that Ginevra and Paulina, in contrast, are given full and very conventional plots for their futures as married women.

Now we see the full significance of the storms and shipwrecks that have been so important to the imagery and metaphors of the novel. Again, though, we seem to be suspended between literal and symbolic interpretations, in ways that must make us question even further how far the whole narrative is infused with later knowledge and thus ‘unreliable’ as a record of Lucy’s experiences as they happened.

PS: I think I am going to let go of the idea of continuing this reading group with a week or two on criticism. It seems logistically complicated, and there doesn’t seem to be enough interest here about it to go to a lot of trouble to set it up, at least judging from the lack of response to my inquiry last week. If we had gone ahead with that, though, here’s a link to most of the text of one of the articles I thought we might try, Mary Jacobus’s “The Buried Letter." I also recommend the chapter on Villette in the book Imagining Characters: Six Conversations About Women Writers, by A. S. Byatt and Inges Sodre.


I read part of the Mary Jacobus piece, and I’d like to suggest a different direction: the “demiurgic” reading that I favor.  What keeps Lucy from finally marrying Paul?  An act of God.  Who acts as Lucy Frost’s God?  Well, Bronte, clearly.  A narrative that relies to this extent on coincidence, but that rejects the within-the-text explanation of supernaturalism, an overtly psychological explanation of fantasy or dreaming, or a within-the-world-of-the-text symbolism—the nun is revealed to be merely a device for lovers to meet, and below the meta-level of the text has no symbolic meaning at all—demands that the author be considered as a sort of character in the work, the visible hand pulling the strings.

What ending has been created for these characters?  They each receive an inverted version of what might be considered to be their just deserts.  Ginevra, who Lucy even tells us that we expect to be told is unhappy, is happy and in fact is the least affected by Earthly trials of anyone.  Paulina is happy, but Lucy makes sure to tell us that she loses her first child, in contrast to Ginevra who merely, melodramatically rather enjoys being scared by her child’s illnesses.  And Lucy, of course, is deprived of any overt sexuality and any family at all.

The writing assignment that Lucy completes is a savage attack on Human Justice.  Lucy talks about accepting divine justice, but Bronte has set it up so that the acts of God are just as unjust as the acts of humanity.

And I think that on deeper level this is linked with the images of child abuse that I read in the book.  Once again—since I’ve recommended it here before—I’d like to recommend David Blumenthal’s “Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest”.

By on 08/11/09 at 10:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the ending is bittersweet and heartbreaking, as I thoroughly enjoyed M. Paul (I think he simply didn’t have uncensored access to Lucy, hence the delay). Also, the rooms Lucy finds are small, but compared to being shut up with an invalid or having a nosy boss hovering around and actually wishing you ill, it’s pretty good. Also, she has control over it, becomes her own boss (in effect, an educational entrepreneur) and, perhaps in the future, a relationship will develop between Lucy and the bookseller. Also, Lucy is an introvert, and she perhaps does crave these small rooms simply so she can be alone. But I can see your point too about the prison. Still, the scenes between Lucy and M. Paul are funny and endearing. Also, I think Lucy marking the marriages and happiness of Ginerva and Paulina is rather generous of her; they seem to represent the kind of lives that Lucy simply cannot have; she is met again with horrible tragedy, and again she really can’t write about it.

Did I miss a part where we find out what happened with the essay Lucy wrote? That was a horrible examination that M. Paul puts her through, but in a sense he always is challenging her to do more, provoking her to do new things, through direct orders, generosity or outright belligerence, as with his fete day diatribe against the “anglaise.”

Compare and contrast Lucy’s first journey through the city, where she’s alone a dark, dangerous place, and her last in the novel, where she ends up amid many lights and a large crowd. Both times she’s an outside, and both times she somehow ends up encountering Paul. Interestingly, in the festival scene, the one person who recognizes her is the bookseller; I think that’s a hint of Lucy’s eventual fate, which she does not share with us.

Anyway, this was a very challenging reading. Thanks for your insights. In June, I had taken a class in young-adult literature, and I was eager to read about grownups again.

By on 08/11/09 at 10:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In relation to Rohan’s comments about uncertainty in the novel, and about shipwrecks, I would recommend a brief article by David Sandner, “The Little Puzzle: The Two Shipwrecks in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette” _English Language Notes_ 26.3 (1999): 67-75.  Sandner notes that the first shipwreck is a metaphor that substitutes for any direct description of Lucy’s family situation: “Lucy Snowe’s home life is curiously described and undescribed, known and unknown” (70).  Sandner suggests that the ending of the novel creates a mystery - he rejects the idea that the reader should assume unequivocally that Paul Emanuel has died (the more common reading of the novel, based on both textual and extra-textual evidence).

In my view, it is hard to conclude otherwise than that M. Paul (unlike Lucy in the metaphorical shipwreck early in the novel, or in her near-death plunge into the abyss) is dead.  For one thing, there is a clear parallel with Miss Marchmont’s story of Frank in Volume I.  For another, there is the literary allusion to _Paul et Virginie_, a Romantic tale of death by drowning.  Not to mention the references to the Banshee in relation to the death of Miss Marchmont and at the end of the novel.  What, in retrospect, do we make of Miss Marchmont’s tale of romantic tragedy? 

As a final comment, I recommend John Sutherland’s chapters on _Villette_ in his highly entertaining book of short essays, _The Literary Detective: 100 Puzzles in Classic Fiction_.  He has a very amusing discussion about Lucy as a mixer of cement, and one on the puzzle of the ending of _Villette_.  One point that Sutherland makes resonates with my political readings of the novel.  Though M. Paul is at times a champion of liberalism, he is frequently compared to Napoleon through the novel.  Sutherland asks why it is necessary for him to go to Guadaloupe.  He notes that slavery was abolished in the British West Indies in 1833, causing a collapse in the sugar industry, whereas in French colonies slavery continued for another 15 years: “The stern and dictatorial Professor Emanuel - the bully of Madame Beck’s classroom - has been recruited to rally the increasingly dissident slave labourers of Madame Walravens’s estate...”

By on 08/11/09 at 03:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, I picked up on the Guadaloupe thing.  Presumably the people interested in readings of Jane Austen based around Empire have already had a field day with this one.

I don’t see what alternative ending could substitute for Paul’s death.  Well, presumably he could have never intended to marry her, or changed his mind later, and faked his death in order to extricate himself from the situation.  But that seems a little harsh even for this book.

Our reading opened with two pieces of criticism, the Arnold quote about “the writer’s mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion, and rage, and therefore that is all she can in fact put into her book”, and a statement by Rohan that “some found it morbid, disturbing, unfeminine, and coarse.” It’s easy to write that off as primitive anti-feminism.  And with the inclusion of “unfeminine”, yes it is.  But is there anything to the rest of it?

Well, as my first comment above implies, I think that there is.  Bronte didn’t just give a perhaps unsympathetic narrator, she arranged events into a smackdown ending.  Lucy doesn’t lose Paul because of her personality or her choices.  She isn’t restrained by society from marrying him, either for religious reasons or proto-anti-feminist ones.  She doesn’t decide that she doesn’t want him on these terms.  She doesn’t develop as a character into a wholeness around her withdrawal from that part of life, or that socially enforced role.  She’s simply stopped.

So I see this as a weakness in the book.  What does it really tell us that Paul died (probably) at sea?  That accidents happen?  Well, surely, but that is nothing like what the rest of the book is about—the rest of the book has nothing accidental; people meet each other again and again.  That inexplicably bad things are sometimes the will of God?  But Bronte is God within this book.  By taking on that role, she lets the book receive some of the criticism that in the real world isn’t directed to God because hey, what can you do.

I thought that Adam Bede was a better book, all in all.  The early parts of Adam Bede had those sections where Eliot, as a first author, was doing weird things with narrations, having her insubstantial narrator climb through windows or have a conversation with her character to support her point.  The second part had Hetty’s journey to London, which was far more “realistic”, and far more affecting, than Lucy’s puzzling and seemingly fated trip.  Nothing bad can actually happen to Lucy *from outside*—she can collapse from internal pain, or suffer from the accidents of others, but really she’s immune to being attacked by those strange people chasing when she arrives, or to being unceremoniously dismissed by M. Beck.  The corresponding increase in internal motivation just, finally, doesn’t really determine how the book ends.

By on 08/11/09 at 03:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why does Paul die at sea?  To answer my own earlier question about Miss Marchmont, it seems to me that Bronte is suggesting that it is in the nature of things that passion is often thwarted, that desire and death are intimately connected.  This is not true for Ginevra or Paulina; perhaps the greater the passion, the greater the threat.  The novel is full of biblical imagery of apocalypse, and imagery of judgment from the prophetic books.  Fortunately for Lucy, Paul endowed her with the capital for her business before he left!!  So that, like Madame Beck and Madame Walravens, in the sardonic last paragraph, Lucy prospers.  Her final “Farewell” is her last teasing of the reader - she says goodbye before telling us everything we want to know, everything that the typical circulating library novelist is likely to have told us.

By on 08/11/09 at 07:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I find the connection Russell makes between desire and death convincing here. I must go look up the Sutherland essay.

I thought that Adam Bede was a better book, all in all.

I find this comparison a very difficult one to make because the books are so different. Does Villette in fact do worse at achieving its own kind of artistic integrity? Does it offer us less to think about, or engage us less emotionally or aesthetically? (Of course, some parts of this are bound to be subjective: there’s maybe more than a little Lucy Snowe in me [in line with one of Adam’s earlier comments] so my own engagement is bound to be impure.) Is the language less artful? (I think it is actually more so, if by “artful” we agree to mean something beyond prosaic, something evocative and even poetic.)

In Adam Bede we see GE as a kind of novelistic beginner, trying things with varying degrees of elegance and success. Here instead we have a much more experienced novelist playing with the limits of what her imagination and her form allow. Again, perhaps the results are not altogether successful, but I do think there is a powerful and disturbing unity to Villette, a sense of convergence, if you like, between the various kinds of rebellion, disappointment, desire, and fulfillment that might be experienced. I found the conflation of religious, sexual, and political desire especially interesting. I suggested once before that one thing that is at stake is power, and I thought a number of the sequences in this last installment bore that out, e.g. Lucy and M. Paul battling over the religious tracts, and the priest and Madame Walravens competing with Lucy for M. Paul’s devotion.

Her final “Farewell” is her last teasing of the reader - she says goodbye before telling us everything we want to know, everything that the typical circulating library novelist is likely to have told us.


By Rohan Maitzen on 08/11/09 at 08:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve regretfully avoided participation in this event until I had time to re-freshen my reading, but now that we’re all in retrospect…

My preferred “textual” evidence for disambiguation is that there’s no other reason for Lucy to have expressed the conclusion ambiguously. (Similarly, it makes sense to me that Bloom gave the med student his condom in “Oxen of the Sun” because otherwise an opportunity for embarrassing comedy wouldn’t have been set up in “Penelope”.) And (speaking as an inveterate formalist) one reason this is one of my favorite novels—even above Middlemarch—is that its startling ending so neatly justifies the entire vast book. It’s not a conclusion that a harried author has rushed into a story which somehow pre-existed it; it’s a conclusion characteristically rushed by a characterized narrator who (as we can understand after hundreds of pages of her reluctant company) wouldn’t have condescended to tell us the story for any other reason other than her compulsion to rehearse it.

It’s true that means I probably wouldn’t love the novel nearly as much if we had “the director’s cut,” if the extra-textual reasons for ambiguation hadn’t interfered. But any book is a record of the contingencies of its composition, and the record is what we’re left.

By Ray Davis on 08/11/09 at 09:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rohan, thank you for the pointer to the Jacobus chapter preview—I’ll have to fetch it and Imagining Characters from the library. One of the available excerpts helps explain why this is my favorite of Charlotte Bronte’s works:

... far from detracting from the fiction, the release of fantasy both energises Villette and satisfies that part of the reader which also desires constantly to reject reality for the sake of an obedient, controllable, narcissitically pleasurable image of self and its relation to world… [and then] By admitting to the incompatibility of the world of thought and the world of reality, Lucy at last becomes a truly reliable narrator—single and double at the same time.

And in that admission she “satisfies that part of the reader which also desires” punishment for our shared narcissistic fantasizing. All of Charlotte Bronte’s novels, like all of the Bronte-workshop’s works, like all of the formalist-realist novelists I love most, speak from the tears between fantasy and observation, storytelling and testimony, tale-spinning and confessional, and I suspect we formalist-realist readers respond in kind from similar motives. Villette, more painfully and closely than any one work by Flaubert or Joyce, looks into the rip itself.

By Ray Davis on 08/11/09 at 10:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just want to thank Rich for his comments throughout, I have never liked Villette but you gave me soething to think about, Rich.

Actually, I think CB is vastly overrated, to be honest, Anne is a better writer imo and Emily the poet; you are quite right about Adam Bede, Rich, it’s much better. On the simplest level there isn’t one character in this book that I can actually like or care about and there are many in AB.

As to the ending, I think CB is just being smug and superior not providing an ending (didn’t she make some smart remark somewhere about it not being ‘equivocal’ to her?) and Paul had a narrow escape, even if he drowned - better than ‘death by despair’ as in marriage to the mixed-up and lugubrious Lucy! She still seems to think of him as a kind of ‘husband’, though - ‘marriage by metaphor’, now there’s a thought ...

By on 08/12/09 at 06:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Bronte is suggesting that it is in the nature of things that passion is often thwarted, that desire and death are intimately connected. “

Not to carp, but ... is there really much fiction that suggests that passion is not often thwarted?  That it is a central part of life, rather than a prelude to death?

Or to continue with Ray’s quote, is there much fiction that suggests that the world of thought and the world of reality are compatible?  That doesn’t feel the need to satisfy the reader’s guilty feeling that if they like fictive, pleasing, low-culture endings, there must be something wrong?

I just don’t understand the attraction of this, I guess.  It seems very ordinary.

By on 08/12/09 at 07:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I cannot read the ending of Villette in any other light than biographical.

Villette is yet another fantasia on Charlotte Bronte’s stay at the Brussels school. M. Paul Emanuel is Constantin Heger, the married teacher with whom she fell in love; the odious Mme. Beck is Mme. Heger. Of course :)

Bronte has re-imagined this scarifying episode in her life (explored in every one of her novels) as a love story in which she wins out over the despised wife ... and yet, when it comes to the point, she can’t let herself enjoy her imaginary triumph. She preserves propriety and self-respect by *perhaps* killing M. Emanuel.

Or is that the author let herself fall in love with someone who was forbidden and thus safe? That Lucy’s ambivalence about human relationships is just the author’s own dilemma writ large?

It is perhaps relevant that Charlotte Bronte hesitated for some time (I forget how long) before marrying her father’s curate and died during pregnancy ... of excessive morning sickness, said her biographer Gaskell. Was she rejecting marriage and motherhood?

Her whole life was a struggle between passionate emotion and Evangelical primness and reserve: emotion tamped, smouldering, a volcano ready to explode. That’s what Mr. Rochester sees in Jane Eyre, what M. Paul sees in Lucy. They see beneath the surface—which, for author and heroine, is both the summum bonum and the horror of exposure. 

I don’t think that this endless ruminating over a dramatic episode, this return in book after book, is characteristic of all novelists. Many writers are less obsessed, more versatile. But I do rather like to read books by authors who fall into the obsessive mode. It’s interesting to see how their themes morph and re-appear.

I understand that bringing biography into the reading of literature is deeply unfashionable these days. My insincere apologies :)

By on 08/13/09 at 03:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Couldn’t agree with you more on the biographical input, Zora - yes, it is ‘unfashionable’ but I still think it’s tremendously helpful. I think the reason I don’t like her novels is that I don’t like what I see of her in them - very self-obsessed, arrogant and basically self-indulgent and moaning on and on!

By on 08/13/09 at 10:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this biographical reading—but it reinforces what I think is wrong with the ending.  Having the possible husband die accidentally removes the onus of the decision from the character.

Here’s the best idea I was able to come up with for Paul not dying—I haven’t seen anyone else here (obviously I haven’t read the criticism elsewhere) come up with an idea for how he could possibly not be dead.

Let’s imagine that Lucy really did suffer from child abuse, as per my reading.  All right, Paul is about to return, and then there’s a huge storm—repeating the imagery that she’s used to describe her abuse, in my reading—and she’s unable or unwilling to say what has happened.  Well, perhaps they’ve actually gotten married!  And after getting married, they go to bed, and Lucy has a disassociative episode brought on by not consciously remembered childhood trauma.  So at the real end of the book, she’s ... still married but as a defense mechanism hallucinating that Paul has died?  separated from him?  Any number of possibilities, I suppose.

Thanks for the appreciation, Sue.

By on 08/13/09 at 11:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, CB is a self-obsessed neurotic. What I like about Villette is that it’s the tautest of her novels. None of the tentativeness of The Professor, the conventional melodrama of Jane Eyre, the loosely coupled bagginess of Shirley. This book is focused, interior, tight. It lets me stretch out and enjoy CB’s prose, which is a delight. Reading CB is like eating ice cream. An ice cream binge, spoonful after spoonful, lovely sentence after sentence.

If I were an English professor (which I’m not) perhaps I’d be able to explain why her words so delight me. I’m left with the philistine’s “I know it when I read it.”

By on 08/14/09 at 03:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Agreed, Zora. I hadn’t read this book since taking a Bronte seminar in college (a good many years ago), and back then I found it very dull. Now, I found it hard to put down, and it still haunts me after finishing it more than a week ago, very unusual. Thanks for having this read-along--it’s been wonderful.

By Amy on 08/14/09 at 10:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re welcome, Rich. I think the child-abuse theory is fascinating - if there’s a book in it, want to collaborate?

I think that the idea of marriage/fear etc. is useful as, like Zora, I’m sure CB was terrified of marriage (actually I think Jane Austen was, too, but that’s another story ...) It is possible to think of Lucy and Paul as married, I think, because they are betrothed, she has his ‘pledge’. In fact when I’ve written about this book I’ve always written as though they are. Lucy is happy with the assumed status betrothal conveyed without the reality which, as Rich says, she would find disturbing, as Charlotte did.
I think CB should have left this heroine nameless, unidentified, like ‘the second Mrs De Winter’ in Rebecca - this would make her the perfect emblem of proto-feminist repression, given validity only by the approximation of marriage. Lucy Snowe doesn’t suit her at all - she’s not cute and she’s not cold!

By on 08/14/09 at 10:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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