- Villette and the Ends of Interpretation
For nearly a half-century, readings of Charlotte Brontë's Villette (1853) have concentrated on the first-person narration of its forceful yet elusive protagonist, Lucy Snowe. Whether critics assert that Lucy's fractured discourse reveals her irreparably split self or that her evasiveness enacts a powerfully subversive version of identity, they typically find Villette to be all about Lucy.1 Such readings, however, tend to elide the novel's prominent inclusion of minor characters' dialogue and writing. In the most marked of these interpolations, Miss Marchmont, an eccentric invalid whom Lucy briefly serves, narrates her own vivid history of romantic loss, momentarily supplanting Lucy's voice. While many readers have understood Miss Marchmont's interpolated story as a foreshadowing of Lucy's tragic fate, it is also one of many instances in which Villette makes room for the voices of women who are not Lucy. Indeed, though Lucy's first-person narration often wields visual description to judge other characters, it also regularly cedes narrative authority to them, refusing to speak on their behalf or to subsume their words into her own. Emblematically, when Lucy responds to Miss Marchmont's tale, she does so with an ironic statement of speechlessness: "I had no words" (42). In this exchange between Miss Marchmont and Lucy, the first-person narrator is neither a witness nor an all-knowing interpreter but a self-effacing interlocutor. At once narrated silence and unspoken reply, Lucy's wordlessness relinquishes narrative authority, inviting Miss Marchmont's strange account to stand simply for itself. Here and throughout the novel, Villette associates characters' voices with what narrative theorist Mikhail Bakhtin calls "unfinalizability"—a "free act" of narrative "self-consciousness … that does not submit to an externalizing secondhand definition" (Problems 58). Like the evasive Lucy, minor characters announce themselves while at the same time eluding definition, challenging both narrator and reader to assign them significance without confining them to a type or unitary purpose. Instead of inviting readers to look only at Lucy, then, Villette directs us to consider how Lucy listens and responds to others.
To this end, I suggest that the novel juxtaposes different ways of finding meaning within two distinct narrative modes: one authoritative, descriptive, and semi-omniscient, the other limited, interpolated, and self-qualifying. In the first of these, description serves to contain meaning and assert power, as in Lucy's damning presentation of a Continental beauty she sees at a concert: "The inert force of the deep, settled love she bore herself, was [End Page 361] wonderful … [she was] cold, rounded, blonde, and beauteous, as the white column … which rose at her side" (280). Far from neutral, this description claims authority over its subject. Like the pseudo-science of phrenology that Villette frequently references, such description pretends to be that of a knowledgeable observer who can access and communicate otherwise inaccessible truth.2 In contrast, the second narrative mode, evidenced in interpolated letters and dialogue, permits the words of other characters to stand against or alongside those of the narrator, inviting exchange and comparison.3 In a novel that makes frequent mention of meaningful letters, only seemingly inconsequential notes by minor characters are ever present on the page. When Villette bids goodbye to Ginevra Fanshawe, a spoiled coquette and Lucy's occasional companion, it does so not by summing her up but by presenting a defiant farewell letter she writes to Lucy. "Are you not mightily angry at my moonlight flitting and runaway match?" taunts Ginevra; "I assure you it is excellent fun" (547–48). Though Lucy remarks that "the reader will no doubt expect to hear that [Ginevra] came finally to bitter expiation of her youthful levities" (549), Ginevra's glib transcribed voice forcefully refuses to conform to such interpretive conventions.4 Alternating between description and interpolated speech, Villette holds single-voiced interpretation in tension with the rich ambiguity produced by many autonomous voices.5
This shifting of attention from Lucy to the novel's many voices not only provides a new way of reading the novel's minor characters but also helps us to see the relevance of their portrayal to contemporary debates...