Abstract

This essay reads Charlotte Brontë’s use of first-person narration in Villette as a contribution to a Victorian reassessment of personal identity as material, heterogeneous, and adaptive. Challenging common readings of Brontë’s first-person fictions as displays of self-definition and authority, I unpack the relationship between the narrated and narrating person in both Jane Eyre and Villette to reveal dual operations of narrative—world-making strategies and adaptive tactics—that express competing notions of personhood. By comparing Villette (1853) to Jane Eyre (1847), we can chart a shift from a strategic to a tactical emphasis in narration indicative, I argue, of a broader movement in nineteenth-century thought from Cartesian dualism toward associationist and materialist theories of consciousness as adaptive and processual. Villette’s narrative tactics demonstrate the potential in novel form to enact processes of being in the world that challenge both traditional concepts of a unified, self-contained consciousness and new Victorian scientific conceptions of a material mind only knowable from science’s “objective” perspective. Positioning Brontë’s novel form alongside psychological debates about the nature and study of mind, I show how the novel offers alternative methodologies and conclusions about the nature of personhood to those proffered by an emerging Victorian psychology. When Brontë’s first-person narrative produces (rather than assumes the prior presence of) a “person” narrating, it asks us to read that production of identity and consciousness as an experiment with what it means to experience oneself as, in the words of Jane Eyre, a “heterogeneous thing.”

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-974X
Print ISSN
1063-3685
Pages
pp. 203-226
Launched on MUSE
2017-04-25
Open Access
No
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