The Superficiality of The Patriarchy – Character Analysis of Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Villette is a highly character driven and character focussed novel, since it is so centred on a comedic number of Brontëan Coincidences™ that deal with bumping into the same people in different places, even if that place is a fictional town in a fictional Kingdom. Unsurprisingly, the characters are very important, and it’s a true testament to Brontë’s abilities as a writer to make one (me) absolutely loathe some of the character and sympathise with others. She’s pushed these characters to their limits, each representing certain aspects of genteel society and the place of women in a male-dominated world. All these people that Lucy encounters changes her slightly, though for the most part she is resilient, because she knows who she is and won’t settle to be whatever other expect her to be.

Lucy Snowe

Our lovely narrator with a penchant for withholding information and writing half the novel in French, because what’s better than not telling us what’s happening? Writing it in a different language. She’s a savage little lady who is not afraid to be brutally honest (most of the time), going as far as calling out Ginevra’s vanity and throwing a kid in a book closet and locking her in it. Why? Because she really just represents what we’ve all wanted to do with annoying kids, tbh. Not to mention her last name, Snowe, is pretty obviously just cold, reflecting her personality as the most cold person you’d ever meet. I doubt she has any romantic emotions at all, everything she does is so void of romance and sexuality that it’s easy to read her as asexual, but that’s some queer theory that I won’t be touching on here.

Lucy Snowe is an enigma. She hardly tells us anything about herself, and likes to just talk to the Reader directly in little apostrophes (that’s when a character breaks away from addressing people within the story and starts talking to an imagined thing, like the reader or an object). It’s like we’re a couple of mates having a nice chat over some wine and Lucy’s like “Alright hear me out this is a long one, but you wouldn’t BELIEVE what happened at my first ever teaching job” and proceeds to tell the crazily coincidental story of Villette.

She is seen by others in completely conflicting lights, and she actually has a whole internal monologue over a crisis of identity, uncertain of who she really is and yet unwilling to give in and be what people believe her to be. Dr John believes she’s quiet and just a little shadow, Ginevra sees her as cruel and mean, M. Paul Emanuel sees her as some sly, coy coquette… Basically, nobody has any idea who Lucy is and it throws her a bit. She’s not even sure who she really is, but maybe that’s exactly what she wants.

Also, Lucy’s racist. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a great narrator, but there is so much subconscious imperialist lingo it’s hard not to cringe at the way she sees Cleopatra and Vashti. Maybe it’s Brontë’s way of de-exoticising these ‘exotic’ women that people fetishised in the Victorian era, or maybe it’s very ‘mad woman in the attic’ subconscious racism. And it’s not just them, it’s also the French and the Catholics too! Lucy always goes back to how perfect Englishness is compared to the rough and rude sensibilities of these ‘French’ girls, and how Catholicism is primitive and stuff. Really, Lucy is 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. Maybe she’s projecting her own anxieties of outsiderness onto everything else outside herself, maybe she’s just subconsciously racist and just really doesn’t like fat people.

So here’s to Lucy, our greatly unreliable narrator that injects her opinion into everything whilst simultaneously pretending she has no opinion. Poor lass was tossed about by the winds of Fate, but at least she ends up with a content life.

Dr John/Graham Bretton

He’s like the George Knightley of Villette, from his lovely ‘knightly’ (heh) character (especially compared to the other men, cough) to his slightly paedophilic attraction to a significantly younger girl (“he is sixteen and you are only six” – That’s a 10 year age gap and a romance that started when she was pretty much an INFANT, eugh, it’s worse that Mr Knightley – not to mention Polly never really grows up does she?!) Ahem. So Graham’s the mischievous little kid right, and he grows up into this stunning handsome man, who at points, still retains that hint of mischievousness that we all know and love. He’s also just a nice guy, coming to Lucy’s rescue when she’s lost and confused at the beginning, not because he wants anything but because he recognised a person in need of help. He loves his mother SO MUCH, it’s ridiculous, but hey, good on him.

So Dr John is literally a knight in shining armour… except that he ends up just becoming another piece in Charlotte Brontë’s chess game of coincidence. He ends up in a sickly sweet marriage with no chemistry whatsoever… it’s tragic in my eyes. Alas, not all good people get their happy ending. That is to say, nobody in this story really gets a happy ending, they’re all just subject to the whims of Fate and Society.

Ginevra Fanshawe

Ginevra is a classic Regina George type character. She’s the Queen Bee (where B can stand for many things…) who toys with people’s hearts and is so obsessed with herself it’s painful. Now, it’s actually sad because Ginevra is well aware that she is not the brightest apple in the orange garden, so she flaunts what she has and pretends what she doesn’t have doesn’t matter. She uses her girlish charms to her advantage and does have a cruel streak in how she loves to toy with people’s hearts, especially her poor ‘Isidore’, aka the lovesick puppy Dr John. Although she’s a total bitch, you can’t deny that she’s actually an interesting character compared to some of the others (cough, Polly). She has personality, and she is definitely not a good person. She’s meant to prove the follies of female superficiality and materiality. She’s high society at its worst, and she loves it.

Polly Home/Paulina Mary Home de Bassompierre

She’s a little porcelain doll made of sugar, spice, and everything nice, except there’s no spice, it’s only sugar, lots of sugar. She’s so sickly sweet. She’s described consistently as a ‘doll’, and that is really the best way to describe her, since she literally is just a little perfect doll to be manipulated and moved by the men around her. She is the picturesque daughter and wife. She’s perfect, petite, and Polly. Everything she does is with grace and spiritual sensibility – she’s basically Ginevra’s character foil. She’s everything Ginevra is not and more, and everyone likes her, except Ginevra, because she’s basically a Mary Sue. Why would Charlotte Brontë make such a character? Oh, yes, to comment on the patriarchal view of women and the inlaid misogyny that women are subject to, as Polly represents a woman always subjugating to the man who happens to possess her, whether it is her father or Dr John. She is but a toy to be perfect and played with, she is eye candy and she is a good wife. She is what men want in a women: a featureless little doll with no personality outside of what you want her to be.

Madame Beck

A spooky little woman who likes to keep everything in her creepy watch. She has eyes everywhere, let me tell you. She’s always watching, Wazowski, always watching… She’s as quiet as a mouse and will go through all your belongings, just to check to make sure nothing’s awry. She’s a bit of a stalker, but hey, at least she’s nice on the inside, offering Lucy a job and a place to stay and a livelihood, letting her earn her independence.

M. Paul Emanuel

The worst man in existence. A male chauvinistic, sexist, horrible, cruel, entitled little man. He’s a Nice Guy™ and only really wins Lucy’s heart by conditioning her through cruelty, because when you’re so excessively horrible to someone, the times you’re not horrible suddenly make you look like a god. It’s all psychological, isn’t it? He controls by psychological manipulation because he’s an asshole. What does he do? He continuously insults and berates Lucy, humiliates her, shouts at her, is racist to the English, is sexist to the women, shuns her, goes through her things without her permission, and expects her to like him and be his friend. He’s horrible.

And then you learn he has a tragic backstory, where he was supposed to be engaged to some lady, but his father had no money, and then the lady died, but he was so dedicated that he took care of his ex’s ageing mother forever, because why not. So he’s nice to one lady but the bitterness of death and lack of fulfilment has driven him to be an asshole. Why have a woman through nice means when you can bully her into submission? He’s all about watching people, being a tyrant, being a misogynist… He’s misogyny in action, basically.

It’s highly highly highly suggested that he dies at the end. In fact, in the original draft Paul explicitly dies in a shipwreck, but Charlotte Brontë’s dad said it was too sad, so she just made it implicit instead.

Mrs Bretton

A lovely old woman who is Lucy’s godmother. She’s just the nicest. Let’s be real, I don’t think anyone’s as lovely and kind as Mrs Bretton, not to mention her relationship with her son, Graham, is so jovial and loving it’s amazing. No wonder Graham is such a mama’s boy, despite his joking jabs at her, because she’s just too kind.

Mr Home/M. de Bassompierre

He’s a nice old man who is excessively needy of his daughter, Polly. He’s the reason why she’s basically never grown up. She’s stuck in stasis because he needs her to remain his little baby girl forever. You know how parents hate watching their kids grow up? He hates it so much that he at first refuses to let Graham even think of marrying her. He wants to keep her a pure maiden daughter forever. She’s a commodity too him. It’s sad that the little doll is subject to the whims of the men who want to keep her young and perfect forever. Wait till they realise ageing exists…

Père Silas

The Catholic Priest who takes Lucy’s confession when she’s in a sickness driven daze, and then proceeds to save her life, because its a Priest’s duty to protect everyone, right? Nice guy. And then he tries to convert Lucy, but hey, look, he’s a Catholic Priest it’s part of his job description. He’s also the one that tells the sob story of M. Paul Emanuel.

Count de Hamal

Always considered ‘feminine’ by Lucy (With dainty hands and feet), he’s Ginevra’s boytoy, basically. He treads the line between masculinity and femininity, a theme that Charlotte Brontë brings up a lot. He is, in fact, the ghostly nun that Lucy sees super coincidentally and appropriately in times of psychological crisis.

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