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!
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