Classic Remarks: The Ending of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette

Classic Remarks 1

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!  This week’s prompt is:

Do you think the end of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is a feminist triumph or an emotional tragedy?  (Or something else entirely?)

Spoilers for Bronte’s Villettë, especially the ending!

Charlotte Brontë leaves the ending of this work ambiguous, implying that Lucy Snowe’s betrothed has died in a shipwreck, but ultimately leaving it up to the imagination of the reader, lest happier minds prefer a happier end!  Some have seen this as a feminist ending because it leaves Lucy single and running her own school.  She has become a career woman who does not need a man behind her to succeed.  For her time, this is especially remarkable.

The assumption behind this interpretation is, of course, that it’s somehow more feminist to be single than to be married, even though the protagonist wanted to be married and was only prevented from being married by a tragedy.  But no one gets more feminist cred by being single.  Feminism supports the choices of woman whether they wish to wed or not.  So if the ending is feminist, it must not be because the man dies, but because Lucy is running an independent school.

We should consider that though today we admire Lucy for working, being a working woman in her time was not a necessarily an enviable goal.  Working women were looked down upon and they often had to struggle to make a decent living.  However, Lucy does stand apart because she works herself up from teaching to running her own school.  She no longer has to answer to anyone else when she works and she’s presumably going to be financially independent.  We could consider this a decent ending.  It certainly seems to affirm women who struggle to make a living.

However, I can’t separate Lucy’s fortunate career opportunities from her personal tragedy.  Theoretically the reader can imagine M. Emmanuel’s return, but the wording implies that anyone who does so is engaging in a happy but false daydream.  The book ends with a terse note of the fate of several other characters, as if there’s nothing to be said about Lucy’s subsequent life because the topic is simply too painful.  When readers spend an entire (very lengthy) work cheering on a romance, this ending is a punch in the gut for everyone.

So, for me the ending is bittersweet.  Lucy gets the best she can expect for a woman of her social class and in her position, as far as her career goes.  But she deserves so much more–a happy ending with M. Emmanuel!

Leave your links in the comments below!

Krysta 64

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7 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: The Ending of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette

  1. Sarah says:

    Oooooh I’m reading Villette as part of my studies soon, so I’ve bookmarked this page to read later (once I’ve read the book). Can’t wait!

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      • Sarah says:

        I read Jane Eyre this year, again for my studies. I certainly enjoyed it, but not as much as I thought I would. It’s very hyped up! So I’m curious about Villette. My lecturer feels the same: she thinks Jane Eyre is okay, but she adores Villette. I have the book ordered and can’t wait for it to get here!

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        • Krysta says:

          My general sense is that people who have read both (especially academics) tend to admire Villette more. But I think that when instructors make syllabi, it’s often the case that shorter books take precedence over longer ones so not as many people read Villette unless they’re taking something like a Bronte course.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Jeff Stadden says:

    I feel that Charlotte Bronte missed an opportunity with the ending she chose. I do understand and respect her belief that the death of M. Paul was the right plot decision based on Lucy Snowe’s rising and falling hopes throughout her life. A fully happy ending such as she wrote for Jane Eyre would have been false in this very real world she was depicting. But another option than the abrupt ending was surely possible.

    Since Lucy was now some thirty to forty years removed from her true love’s death, she could have explained to us “dear readers” that we weren’t to pity her! For as the initial pain subsided, she was warmed by a glowing fire in her heart that was the unquenchable devotion of M. Paul. She could have discussed new friendships she made with former pupils of her beloved
    who had also held him in affection. And she might have poured out how blessed by God she felt by M. Paul’s love and constancy, and since the same Almighty One worshipped by Catholic and Protestant alike took him, she could not argue with His sovereign decision.

    The last couple of lines could have gone something like this (pardon my audacity at attempting anything close to the genius of Charlotte Bronte): “And so to all you ladies, I wish you nothing better than that you find your own M. Paul; and to the men — dare I be so bold? — your own Lucy Snowe!”

    THE END (as I see it.)

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    • Krysta says:

      That is lovely! I think you’re right and Charlotte could have given more closure if she had admitted the loss of M. Paul. The ambiguous ending isn’t really all that ambiguous–most people know he’s gone and giving a vague closing so you can try to tell yourself he’s still alive is not truly comforting. Knowing that Lucy is doing okay in the future, however, IS comforting!

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  3. Jeff Stadden says:

    Thank you for your kind words, Krysta! Your last line sums it up well: “Knowing that Lucy is doing okay in the future, however, IS comforting!” I believe that that type of ending would have accomplished many things: — satisfied Charlotte Bronte’s desire that M. Paul die, come very close to her father’s wish for a completely happy ending, and satisfied readers’ concern for Lucy’s ultimate well-being.

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