Summer Research Post #5

Hi everyone! Since I last posted, I read several different pieces, mostly articles and one book, that deal in different ways with my topic on Charlotte Brontë’s novels Jane Eyre and Villette and understanding how they explore Victorian female psychology. Not all of the readings address these two novels specifically, but the ideas and theories explored in the various readings definitely relate to the type of analysis I will be doing, and the ideas can be applied in a different manner to Brontë’s works themselves. In this post, I’ll be discussing some of the articles I read. The book I finished, Eugenia C. DeLamotte’s Perils of the Night: A Feminist Study of Nineteenth-Century Gothic, is long and full of information, and I’ll be dedicating my next post to it almost entirely. 


The first article I’d like to discuss is Gretchen Braun’s “A Great Break in the Common Course of Confession: Narrating Loss in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette.” Braun’s article addresses the fact that in Villette, the main protagonist Lucy Snowe has suffered a traumatic loss, the death of her entire family, and as a result becomes unable to articulate that losss. Indeed, throughout the entire narrative Lucy Snowe is actually unable to directly name or identify that loss, referring to it only indirectly or vaguely so that the reader can grasp only partially what has happened to her. According to Braun, this inability to articulate her loss has led to Lucy’s repression of the original loss, driving her inwards and away from other individuals. Lucy is undoubtedly a quiet introvert who prefers to keep to herself rather than mingle with those around her. For Braun, this is a coping mechanism, a kind of defense Lucy subconsciously imposes on herself so that she won’t form close connections, and thereby protects herself from having to explain and articulate her loss to anyone. Her repression enforces her introversion, driving her further and further inwards. 


In addition, Braun argues that Lucy’s psychological position is magnified and made even worse by her social position: a poor, friendless woman in Victorian society. Braun attributes Lucy’s inability to articulate her loss in part to her social standing; the loss that inflicted this social position upon her, according to Braun, becomes an ostracizing factor for her. Braun states, “Villette is, at its elusive center, a narrative of psychic and social placelessness and dislocation” (189). Villette does indeed have a notably cyclical narrative structure, with Lucy’s loss and inability to articulate that loss repeating itself in different scenarios throughout the novel. At each turn, Lucy seemingly recreates her original loss in her mind, but she is unable to speak it, unable to acknowledge it directly, and is thus unable to move beyond it. Braun argues that Lucy’s returns to her original traumatic experience are “unwilled,” but I would argue rather that they are, in a subconscious manner, intentionally willed or recreated by the protagonist who is herself unaware of what she’s doing. In my opinion, which I will articulate more fully in my written thesis, Lucy Snowe intentionally recreates situations of loss or grief so that she might try to understand, acknowledge, and move past her original loss. However, Braun argues here that her returns to that loss are unwanted, but even so Lucy is still unable to address it and move on. 


Most importantly, I believe, about Braun’s argument is that she situates Lucy’s psychological state of loss in grief within the context of Victorian society and its treatment of “redundant” (193) women. Braun writes, “I suggest that Lucy’s youthful experience of catastrophic trauma, which produces a narrative characterized by repetitions and evasions, allows Brontë to foreground the subtle daily suffering of the single woman without fortune” (193). In addition to exploring the psychological trauma inflicted upon an individual who experiences such catastrophic loss, Brontë explores the psychological state of a woman in Victorian society who is categorized as useless, placeless, and superfluous. 


In a similar vein of dealing with Victorian female psychology, yet addressing more specifically the topic of madness, Valerie Beattie argues in her article “The Mystery at Thornfield: Representations of Madness in Jane Eyre” that “the interaction between feminist literary criticism and the text of madness in Jane Eyre continues to yield uneasy conclusions, and madness remains one of feminism’s central contradictions” (493). She cites Gilbert & Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic (which I read and discussed in a previous post) as enforcing “repressive logic” in terms of Bertha Mason’s role in the novel, saying that she is treated solely as a figurative representation of Jane’s psychology rather than as a character, as a person. In treating her this way, according to Beattie, Bertha is reduced to the Evil Other Woman who represents an obstacle to be overcome, a threat to patriarchal society. 


As a madwoman imprisoned in the attic of Thornfield, Bertha Mason represents the confinement of the married woman, driven to insanity by her oppressive circumstances. Beattie writes, “It would appear that madness and confinement generally presented Brontë with a powerful analogy for patriarchy’s reception of female rebellion; at once active and passive, dangerous and containable, meaningful and meaningless” (495-96). Bertha Mason is more than just a metaphor for the situation of women, and more than a psychological, darker double for Jane as an individual (although she certainly operates in these capacities). Bertha is a subversive character that forces the reader to acknowledge female madness as a legitimate psychological condition brought about by the very real, very oppressive social circumstances of the time. She challenges accepted notions of femininity, reveals the inner most thoughts and desires of Jane’s mind, and also represents marriage as it existed for women at the time. 


Beattie, in addition to asserting Bertha’s right to interpretation as a literal character, also explores her generally accepted role as Jane’s darker psychological double, a theory put forth in Gilbert & Gubar’s book as well. Beattie states, “Her figurative position sustains her literal one: her primary symbolic color is black, connoting the unconscious, the unknown, the repressed; and her attacks coincide with the lunar cycles” (502). Bertha is most active, most visually present, at night, a time when the conscious function of repression and regulation is at its most inactive. Bertha therefore represents Jane’s unconscious, repressed desires or fears — Bertha comes to shred Jane’s wedding veil, signifying Jane’s own dread and anxiety about her upcoming betrothal. 


To conclude, Beattie sums up what it means to be considered a mad or insane woman in Victorian England: “But what it does highlight is the irreconcilable dualities of femininity within Victorian culture: to be deviant, whether as Jane or Bertha, is to partake of ‘insanity’ and run the risk of being locked up in the Red Room or in the attic at Thornfield” (503). Bertha is not deviant because she is mad; she is mad because she is deviant. Jane, through the literal acknowledgement of Bertha’s person and through the metaphorical interpretation of her as a representation of her unconscious, understands she must overcome what Bertha represents — deviance. That is, she must overcome that deviance if she wants to be accepted into polite Victorian society. Brontë, while simultaneously critiquing these expectations of femininity, ultimately adheres to them, demonstrating that it is better to challenge the norms to an extent, rather than be cast out completely.

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