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Published: 24-10-2019

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“I, Lucy Snowe:” Identity as Performance in Villette

Following a foray into third-person omniscience in her second novel, Shirley, Charlotte Brontë’s Villette returns to the initial-person narration for which Jane Eyre remains well-known. As opposed to that novel’s right away vivid and feisty eponymous narrator, nevertheless, Villette’s Lucy Snowe begins and ends the novel a shadowy, largely unknowable figure. As narrator, Lucy seizes absolute manage of her narrative, and however her characterization is rife with contradiction. Lucy, who rejects and condemns efficiency even as she recognizes an affinity for it in herself, fails to recognize the inherently performative nature of her personal identity. In her really try to steer clear of functionality, Lucy actively constructs and controls her character, enacting for the reader a cautiously rehearsed part of Lucy Snowe. Meanwhile, just as Lucy fails to recognize her personal inevitable tendency to carry out, she likewise fails to recognize that even the most calculated functionality is subject to interpretation by the audience. In her continual try to preserve complete manage more than both her own characterization and her representation of others, Lucy bristles when other characters physical exercise this identical correct, repeatedly rejecting other interpretations of her character even when they seem to align with her own. Clinging to her elevated part as narrator, Lucy forgets that she is each a participant and an observer in the story she relates, equally amongst the watched and the watching. Her identity is constructed as much by her personal functionality as it is by others’ interpretation of it.

Although motifs of efficiency recur throughout the novel, the final disrobing of the costumed “nun” can be understood as Villette’s consummate rejection of the possibility of objective characterization. The anticlimactic and bizarre, if vaguely humorous, revelation of the ghostly nun believed to embody Lucy’s deepest psychological torment as nothing at all more than a mere tertiary character in drag exposes both Lucy’s and the reader’s inability to appropriately interpret Lucy’s character. Meanwhile, Lucy’s failure to unmask the overall performance of yet another in conjunction with her own unwittingly performative tendencies casts doubt on the representations of other characters with which she, as the narrator, is entrusted. Lucy’s unwitting function as a single equally amongst the observant and the observed calls her reliability into doubt, but her function as an unreliable narrator is symptomatic of a greater inability to actually know other individuals. In rendering Lucy unknowable, Brontë positions the reader as one particular in a series of failed interpreters—Lucy fails to know other individuals just as the reader fails to know Lucy—suggesting a broader commentary on the impossibility of accurate interpretation and representation of the self and the other.

Nicely just before Lucy discovers her thirst for acting in her first functionality at Madame Beck’s fête, she has already assumed her 1st function: that of Lucy Snowe. In spite of becoming a initial-individual narrator, Lucy refers to herself by her very first and final name typically, almost as if in the third individual. These detached references to her personal name often accompany Lucy’s claims to certain qualities she appears to consider—or desires to present as—inherent, therefore becoming a verbal marker of her self-characterization. In Lucy’s initial mention of her name, she states it as if declaring an oath: “I, Lucy Snowe, plead guiltless of that curse, an overheated and discursive imagination” (10). Repetitions of this seemingly unnecessary antecedent seem alongside related claims to faultless cool-headedness: “I, Lucy Snowe, was calm” (19). It is unlikely that either Lucy or Brontë believe any clarification of the very first-particular person antecedent is actually necessary here. Rather, Lucy appears for reach to this rhetorical device in an attempt to establish and contain her excellent characterization within a verbal signifier. Indeed, the name “Lucy Snowe” is a single of handful of concrete identifying information the novel offers about its narrator. Nonetheless, by way of this obsessive eponymous characterization, the narrator in the end distances herself from the Lucy Snowe she describes, practically rendering that Lucy Snowe a character distinct from the narrator. In reality, Lucy’s name, with its virtually heavy-handed meaning—Lucy meaning “light,” Snowe suggesting cold—seems to literally suggest the harsh, cool qualities to which Lucy lays claim. Although Brontë’s use of such a name is hardly a coincidence, I posit that Lucy’s personal use of the name is likewise not coincidental. Of an unreliable narrator who not only fails to provide, but actively conceals virtually all details about her past and family, there is tiny purpose to assume that “Lucy Snowe” is not an alias. Lucy clings to this assumed name as an embodiment of her personal self-characterization, allowing that embodiment to turn out to be a character itself.

Regardless of her repeated attempts to solder her name, assumed or otherwise, to her first-individual narration, Lucy herself often suggests a split in between her name and identity. In a single instance, after relating an episode of “complicated, disquieting thoughts,” Lucy concludes, “However, that turmoil subsided: subsequent day I was again Lucy Snowe” (110). Right here, Lucy suggests that her personal status as Lucy Snowe is conditional, dependent on her performance of the qualities she has deemed acceptable for that character. Interestingly, other characters also appear to view Lucy’s name as inherently indicative of their expectations of her identity, though those expectations differ from Lucy’s. Upon finding out that Lucy is now a teacher, Polly remarks in surprise, “‘Well, I never ever knew what you have been, nor ever believed of asking: for me, you have been always Lucy Snowe’” (267). Like Lucy, Polly clings to the name Lucy Snowe as a signifier, though her (mis)interpretation of the signified has a lot more to do with Lucy’s class and station than her character. In the end, Polly, as well, suggests a conditional quality to Lucy’s identity, one particular that Lucy proceeds to query. In response to Lucy’s somewhat sarcastic inquiry, “‘And what am I now?’” Polly replies “‘Yourself, of course’” (267). This response, although seemingly redundant, really does tiny to close the gap in between “Lucy Snowe” and the narrator’s identity. If anything, Polly’s refusal to restate the name only reinforces the distinction in between “Lucy Snowe” and “yourself.” Lucy actively performs the function of Lucy Snowe, both for the reader and other characters. However, as Polly’s use of the name reveals, Lucy’s overall performance remains open to interpretation, despite her greatest attempts to keep handle over her character.

Lucy’s active splitting of her personal character resurfaces in her attitude toward functionality itself. During her initially unwilling participation in the vaudeville at Madame Beck’s fête, Lucy discovers “a keen relish for dramatic expression.” Although Lucy even goes as far as to acknowledge this “newfound faculty” as “part of [her] nature,” she rejects it quickly, stating that such a passion “would not do for a mere looker-on at life” (131). Here, Lucy once more alludes to a distinction amongst her nature and her character. Even though acting has “revealed itself” as element of her nature, Lucy rejects it, as it does not suit her cautiously constructed characterization as cool, calm, and never prone to an “overheated imagination.” As a result, Lucy’s rejection of performance becomes a sort of overall performance in itself. Lucy buries her performative impulse out of an obligation to continue her own efficiency of the character she has produced for herself, who must remain “a mere looker on at life.”

Of course, Lucy can be no such thing. She is no a lot more capable of getting a mere onlooker than any of the characters on which she herself appears. There is no such “quiet nook, whence unobserved I could observe” (131). Since she has manage of the narrative, Lucy forgets that she, as well, is among the observed. When reminded, Lucy bristles, rejecting others’ interpretations of her character even when they align with her personal. Although Lucy dedicates herself to the construction and preservation of her character as cold and unassuming, she is not always pleased when other individuals characterize her as such. Throughout the novel, Lucy usually figures herself as a shadow. Dressed in a “gown of shadow,” Lucy recalls “feeling [her]self to be a mere shadowy spot on a field of light” (122). Yet, when presented a position as Polly’s paid companion, Lucy retorts with the disdainful declaration, “I was no vibrant lady’s shadow” (279). Lucy could well carry out the function of “quiet Lucy—a creature inoffensive as a shadow,” but when so characterized by any external observer, Lucy lashes out against her lack of absolute handle (315). It is not enough for Lucy to have complete handle over her presentation, she must also be the sole interpreter—the impossibility of which she cannot accept. Lucy is neither sole performer nor sole audience member. She is as vulnerable to interpretation as the “fellow actors” whose performances she observes and seeks to represent in her narrative (130).

Ultimately, Lucy can no more accurately separate efficiency from identity in other folks than they can in her, or than she can in herself. By positioning the reader as a single in this series of failed interpreters, Villette requires its stance on the impossibility of objective characterization as cemented in the novel’s absurd anti-climax. Whilst the novel repeatedly resists both climax and closure at numerous points throughout its final chapters, the bizarre unmasking of the ghostly “nun” figures as the cornerstone of the novel’s rejection of objective characterization. The supposedly spectral nun, the novel’s gothic apparition of option, appears to haunt Lucy all through her narrative. Usually appearing in moments of psychological distress, both Lucy and the reader are invited to view the nun as “a case of spectral illusion” symbolic of some repressed aspect of Lucy’s past or character (235). The ultimate unmasking of the nun as a mere tertiary character—the Count de Hamal, the underdeveloped and largely inconsequential beau of Ginevra Fanshawe—reveal that both the nun’s spectral qualities and their relevance to Lucy were purely imagined. Both Lucy and the reader misinterpret the nun as somehow related to Lucy, when in truth the “nun’s” presence is entirely coincidental, and is merely a disguise assumed in order for the lovers to carry out their affair in secret. This revelation signals Lucy’s failure to unmask the efficiency of yet another, as well as a self-centered propensity to misinterpret coincidental figures and events as deeply intertwined with her personal character, regardless of claims of immunity to any “overheated imaginings.” This humorous anti-climax calls Lucy’s powers of interpretation and representation into query. A lot more broadly, nonetheless, Lucy’s inability to unmask another’s functionality whilst continuously engaged in a seemingly unwitting performance of her personal identity renders this a novel in which no one—neither the narrator nor the reader—is capable of objective interpretation or characterization.

Lucy starts and ends her narrative in shadow. This imagery, nevertheless, suggests a doubleness to Lucy’s nature Where there is shadow, there must also be light. Lucy manages to paint herself as a shadow whilst supplying very small illustration of what is casting it. Lucy’s characterization is rife with such contradictions that split her character, and the doubleness implied by her shadow imagery is reflected in her extremely name. While Lucy chooses to reside in shadow, her name means “light.” Maybe the real Lucy Snowe exists somewhere among the light cast by that alias, and the shadow she seeks to embody. However, if there is such issue as a “real Lucy Snowe,” Brontë gives no indication of it. Even though Lucy, on stage at Madame Beck’s fête, steadily becomes aware of her fellow performers, she neglects to recognize that this functionality continues effectively after the curtain closes. In Lucy, Brontë presents a lens via which the novel’s other characters all grow to be increasingly obscured. If Lucy starts the novel as a shadow, she ends it a shadow amongst shadows.
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