Villette is an incredibly character driven novel

Villette is an incredibly character driven novel, centered on comedic coincidences that deal with bumping into the same people in completely different places. This focus on the characters, and their many quirks, is a true testament to Bronte’s writing abilities. She possess the ability to make one absolutely loathe certain parts of a character, while sympathizing with others. Each character has been pushed to their limit, each representing a different aspect of society and the place of women in a world that is dominated by males. With Lucy as the narrator, the reader sees how each person she encounters changes her ever so slightly, testing her resiliency, though she knows who she is and refuses to settle as whatever others expect of her, we just have to figure out what she expects from us.
Lucy Snowe is an extremely unapologetic character; one that is unperturbed in the fact that the life that she is living is one that falls outside of the patriarchal structure that she has been brought up to find a role within. Even amidst criticism, Lucy is able to demonstrate that it is possible to work to support oneself without relying on a man in order to do so. The majority of her success comes from her own strength and persistence to succeed. She looks at the world that has presented to her and creates a space for herself within it.
Lucy has a knack for withholding information and completely forgetting that most of the readers do not speak French, writing half the novel in French, because who actually needs to know what is going on for half of the storyline. She is brutally honest a good majority of the time, even going as far as calling out Ginevra’s vanity. Her last name reflects her personality, the coldest person anyone will ever meet. Even so, Lucy is an enigma. She hardly reveals anything about herself, and often talks to the reader in little apostrophes. The reader hardly receives any information about Lucy from herself, and must learn from clues given by other characters and their interactions with the narrator. This entitles a very different experience for every reader, because each will pick up on clues that others may not have.
Others see her in completely conflicting lights. She even has an entire internal monologue over an identity crisis. She seems to be completely uncertain of who she is and yet entirely unwilling to give in and be what people believe her to be. The way the other characters in the novel vary greatly: Dr. John believes she’s just a quiet, little shadow; Ginevra sees her as cruel and mean; M. Paul Emanuel sees her as some sly, coy flirt. Nobody, including the reader, has any real idea who Lucy really is, and it throws her a bit. She’s not even sure who she really is, and maybe that’s exactly what she wants.
Lucy is also a racist and imperialist. It’s difficult not to be disgusted at the way she sees Cleopatra and Vashti. Maybe it was Bronte’s way of de-eroticizing these “exotic” women that people seem to see in light of a fetish in the Victorian era, or maybe it’s just a subconscious racism. It extends to the French and the Catholics, as well. Lucy always seems returns to how perfect being English is compared to the roughness and rudeness of the “French’ girls, and how primitive Catholicism is.
On an entirely (maybe) unrelated note, it’s surprisingly easy to read Lucy Snowe in a different context, she is decidedly queer. The biggest clues are in the repression of her psychic turmoil, her relation of and relationship to the heterosexual marriage plot, and the infamously ambiguous nature of the novel’s denouement. There is also the question of Lucy’s drive to decenter her heterosexual union and its implied construction of family as the locus of both personal and narrative fulfillment. But why even bring up queer as a theoretical lens to view Villette through? Follow the gaze of Lucy herself, first falling on John Graham Bretton. “Graham was at that time a handsome … youth of sixteen … with … waved light auburn hair … supple symmetry,” and a “smile frequent, and destitute neither of fascination nor of subtlety (Bronte 12).” Lucy is portraying a startling reversal of “the gaze” that men are often seen giving women. Later, Lucy pursues Dr. John to simply gaze upon him:
Somehow I could not avoid returning once more in the direction of the corridor to get another glimpse of Dr. John … His well-proportioned figure was not to be mistaken, for I doubt whether there was another in that assemblage his equal … his face and fine brow were most handsome and manly … An inexpressible sense of wonder occupied me as I looked at this man, and reflected that he could not be slighted. (151)
She is clearly and deliberately objectifying this man that she still cannot even bring herself to speak to. But even after this clearly hetero instance, Ginevra, a pupil of Lucy’s, falls under her gaze, which she notes:
How pretty she was! How charming she looked, when she came down on a sunny Sunday morning, well-dressed and well humoured, robed in pale lilac silk, and with her fair long curls reposing on her white shoulders … By glimpses and hints it was shown me and by the general buoyancy of her look and manner it was ere long proved, that ardent admiration – perhaps genuine love – was at her command. (84)
There are plenty more of this exact language throughout the volumes, displaying even more language of homoeroticism, creating an unyielding tension in Lucy. There is no doubt that this is a stretch by any imagination, but there are instances such as when Lucy refuses to dress like a man below the waist (ending up dressed like both a male and a female), and honestly the entire theatre scene, would make any reader question the sexuality of these two.
Lucy’s situations within the last few chapters of the novel is significantly complicated by her questionable sexuality. It is extremely difficult to picture Lucy ever settling down and “playing house” with Paul; the novel has not been set up to expect or even accept this solution. The latent homoeroticism between Lucy and Ginevra, as well as Lucy’s “gaze” upon the paintings of Cleopatra, the demonic figure of Vashti, and even the sensuality of the Roman Catholic Church are wild cards that function as tropes of bisexuality, or at least something other than complete heterosexuality. The ways in which these tropes are used to subvert the traditional (and expected) marriage plot provides fascinating examples for postmodern discourse.
Deborah Lutz, a writer for OUT Magazine, which focuses on literature that has an underlying theme of queerness, writes about how Bronte was so focused on female erotic liaisons. There have also been rumors of Bronte being queer herself. With many letters having been found portraying themselves as love letters to a close friend of Bronte’s, including lines such as “I am afraid of caring too much for you.” And “If I had but been a man, thou wouldst have been the very ticket for me as a wife.” So there is a possibility of her writing herself into the character in her novel, giving her this identity in an attempt to not only accept, but justify to herself that this part of herself exists (Lutz). There are also instances of queerness in Bronte’s other novels, generally when a female character goes against the stereotypical roles of a woman, and looks upon the “beautiful and young” woman around them with a hint of jealousy and longing.
It’s easy to say that Lucy is not an easy character to read. The reader never really finds a good balance between complete and utter loathing of her character, and completely and unapologetically sympathetic for what Lucy has been, and is going through. Lucy just is for certain not a pleasant person when it comes to thinking about “otherness,” but it adds an extra layer of irony since she is the “other” here in Villette. She is the one who stands out even when she tries to melt into the crowd. She is the one who makes the reader question her sexuality. Maybe she’s projecting her own anxieties of outsider-ness onto everything and everyone else so as to hide her own insecurities because of it.
Or maybe she’s just subconsciously racist and just really doesn’t like fat people.