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Literature / Villette

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A novel by Charlotte Brontë, Villette follows Lucy Snowe, an orphan from England who searches for greener pastures in the fictional town of Villette. She takes care of the headmistress's children at a school for girls until she is thrust into the role of an English teacher. Lucy struggles to find companionship and a place where she belongs, often having depressive episodes and supernatural encounters. She also deals with the strange new culture she lives in, overcoming the Language Barrier and feelings of being an outsider, and sorts out her affections for two very different men.

The novel is notable for portraying Lucy's depression very accurately, as well as for its mysterious and clever usage of the Unreliable Narrator.

This was Charlotte Brontë's final and most autobiographical novel, partly inspired by her own experiences in Brussels and her unrequited passion for Constantin Heger. Villette was written after all of Charlotte's siblings had died, and her outlook on life is decidedly bleaker than it was in Jane Eyre.


Contains examples of

  • Broken Bird: Lucy certainly qualifies; though we never find out what her family tragedy was, by the time she narrates her story she is noticeably pessimistic and attempts to maintain a stoic image around others, saying very little. She even plays mentor to Paulina Home (a.k.a Polly) and (unsuccessfully) to Ginevra Fanshawe.
    • Six-year-old Polly might also qualify. Having just lost her mother, she displays some Troubling Unchildlike Behavior and is considerably more restrained and morose than one might expect of a girl her age. When Lucy re-encounters her as a young adult, Polly has largely grown out of it.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: Lucy tells her readers that M. Paul's ship back to Villette was caught in a storm, and then basically tells the reader to pretend that their love had a happy ending. She never actually says that he died. Word of God had it that Paul did indeed die. Charlotte Bronte reputedly considered it a kinder fate than life with Lucy Snowe.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Lucy's undisclosed family tragedy. We only know she is left all alone in the world. Older and kind Mrs. Bretton is her only reliable friend, but her situation is hard as well and Lucy must depend on herself only.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Lucy. Most notable in her friendship with Ginevra Fanshawe, but also to Dr John when teasing him about the object of his admiration.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: After finally gaining true love, Lucy very probably loses M. Paul in a storm.
  • Dude Looks Like a Lady / Pretty Boy: de Hamal falls somewhere between these tropes. In Lucy's words, "he was pretty and smooth, and as trim as a doll" (she'd used similar terms to describe Polly earlier) and "[his] hands were scarce larger than Miss Fanshawe's own" to the point the two could share gloves. Lucy even compares him to Apollo!
  • In fact, de Hamal's appearance comes in handy later when he disguises himself as the ghostly nun to visit Ginevra.
  • Holier Than Thou: Lucy tries hard to avert this, but still her attitude towards Catholicism has shades of it.
  • Hot-Blooded: The word Lucy uses most often to describe M. Paul? Passionate. He even treats school plays like matters of life and death.
    • When M. Paul reads Shakespeare at one point, Lucy remarks that his eyes blaze.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: Graham is noted as being rather tall, whereas Polly's petite frame is often remarked upon- her own father compares her to a fairy and thinks of her at 18 as still a little girl. Naturally, they end up together.
  • I Just Want to Have Friends: Lucy Snowe puts up with a lot of crap from Dr. John because she is almost completely without any companions.
  • Innocently Insensitive: In a conversation with Dr. John (whom at that point Lucy has a crush on), Lucy remarks she thought he might've disliked her as a child; he answers he couldn't dislike someone "as inoffensive as a shadow". Lucy has spent over 200 pages singing the man's praises and is substantially more talkative around him than most other people, so naturally, she is heartbroken to learn that he thinks so little of her. Dr. John doesn't seem to notice.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: When Dr. John showed romantic interest in Ginevra, Lucy objected because Ginevra was leading him on because he gave her gifts. When Dr. John showed romantic interest in Polly Home, Lucy approves because Polly is a decent lady.
  • Language Barrier: Lucy is having a hard time in Villette at first, not speaking French and nobody around who would understand English.
  • Licked by the Dog: M. Paul is the school dog's favorite.
  • The Lost Lenore: The nun Justine-Marie to Paul, in the backstory Pere Silas tells Lucy of him.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Lucy is romantically interested in Dr. John and M. Paul and they kind of reciprocate the interest but it is not sure how serious they are. Dr. John is really good friends with Lucy, but he's also way out of her league. M. Paul is more unapproachable, but less out of her league, though Madame Beck has feelings for him. Dr. John considers being with Lucy, is infatuated with Ginevra (who likes him back but they are both not serious about the relationship) and falls in love with and later marries Polly. Ginevra elopes with another guy.
  • Lovable Alpha Bitch: Ginevra Fanshawe, a superficial pretty Gold Digger apparently popular among her peers who values Lucy's friendship, even when Lucy pushes her away.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: At three points in the novel, Lucy sees the ghost of a nun around Villette; whether the explanation is purely supernatural or not is unclear for most of the novel. A letter from Ginevra Fanshawe finally clarifies that the nun was... her boyfriend.
  • Meaningful Name: "Lucy Snowe" stands for all the contrasts she's filled with: a light name for someone with Dark and Troubled Past, a cold name for someone who's of a very passionate nature.
  • Mushroom Samba: In the third volume, Madame Beck gives Lucy an unspecified drug that, instead of putting her to sleep, intensifies her emotions and sensations.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Vashti is the legendary French actress Rachel.
  • Odd Friendship: Lucy and Ginevra are polar opposites in terms of looks and character, but perhaps owing to them being two Englishwomen in a foreign setting (and the latter's clinginess to Lucy) they end up spending an awful lot of time together at Villette, and Lucy speaks more frankly to Ginevra than to nearly anybody else in the novel.
  • Overly-Long Name: Downplayed by virtue of his two middle names being short, but M. Paul's full name is Paul Carl David Emmanuel.
  • Proud Beauty: Ginevra will rub her good looks in Lucy's face whenever possible, and is noted to check herself out in the mirror at least once.
  • Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: Ginevra is courted by two men and she chooses the rich one; she finds him much prettier anyway.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Dr John was based on Charlotte Brontë's publisher George Smith. Because Charlotte was in love with Smith and realised he didn't care for her, she decided not to make him the hero. It didn't go well with him. Also, those you love die and you are left alone. There can be no true love and happiness for people like Lucy. Guess where that attitude came from.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Lucy is hard on herself all the time. It would be Heroic Self-Deprecation if it wasn't for the fact that Lucy isn't involved in much heroicking.
  • Roman à Clef: Based on Charlotte Brontë's life in Brussels, her feelings for Constantin Heger and George Smith, and her morose attitudes to life.
  • Shrinking Violet: Played with. Perhaps owing to her family tragedy, Lucy is certainly quiet, withdrawn, and passive, and lacking confidence; and for the most part does her best to avoid attention. Graham himself calls her as inoffensive as a shadow. However, she's nowhere near as gentle as this trope implies; whenever Lucy does talk to people, she often veers into Brutal Honesty.
  • Speech-Impeded Love Interest: Downplayed, but Polly is this to Graham; Lucy mentions her having "lisp" at points, though it becomes less obvious as Polly ages.
  • The Stoic: How Lucy describes Madame Beck, at least at first. Even when her own children are ill, Madame Beck's reaction is at worst subdued dismay.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Lucy encounters such a pair while traveling and is stunned to realize that the pretty young woman is quite happy and content, as the man is not only ugly in looks, but in personality.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Lucy knows that Dr. John is Graham Bretton (and so does the audience), but she conveniently forgets to tell the reader until later in the book. There's generally a lot of unreliable narration regarding Dr. John. Lucy praises him a lot, yet his actions paint a very different picture...
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Lucy and Ginevra are a truly strange case of this, as they are hardly friends, but certainly vitriolic. They spend quite a lot of time together, thanks to both being Englishwomen in a foreign country and Ginevra being surprisingly clingy.