Understanding women has become a fascinating pursuit in modern culture, and it’s not just men who are trying to figure them out. In various forms of entertainment—from literature to film to television to Internet “memes”—women are sharing experiences and ideas, creating a genre that seems to be centered on one very specific question: “What is it like to be a woman?”
Women. We’re told that our independence is the most valuable asset we possess by the same culture that releases a new rom-com every few months, ensuring that no matter how self-sufficient we begin to feel, that feeling of being alone forever and missing out on a whirlwind romance will nag at us from the moment we leave the theatre until we watch last night’s endeavor sneak out the front door while he thinks we’re still asleep.
We’re force-fed some scientific jargon that leads us to believe that there’s at least one week out of every month where our feelings—and in turn, our emotional reactions—don’t count for anything and aren’t real.
We’re believed to have some secret code, some collective conscience stowed away somewhere that anyone with a vagina can tap into at anytime and draw upon the example of her contemporaries and predecessors to seek advice on the best ways to keep the male population confused.
Gender has become so sanctioned in our society that it is impossible to separate a person’s femininity or masculinity from their personal experiences. Joey Comeau, writer of the web-comic “A Softer World,” writes, “I love it when people say ‘I don’t see gender. I just see people.’ It’s like saying, ‘My heart is in the right place, but fuck I’m stupid.’” Codes of masculinity and femininity have existed for eons, and though attitudes toward each of these categories may have shifted over time, they’re still here, and still dictating the way we organize our values and form our identities.
Somewhere along the line though, it became difficult to distinguish sex from gender, and that’s caused a number of problems. According to a social norm, women need to adhere to traditional values of femininity, and men are supposed to strive to display masculinity—and both are expected to remain in their respective gender roles at all times. This principle has been contested time and time again, but as a culture, we’re still very concerned with how we conduct ourselves within our gender identity. In her article “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” Judith Butler addresses this problem when she states that “performing one’s gender wrong initiates a set of punishments both obvious and indirect, and performing it well provides the reassurance that there is an essentialism of gender identity after all.” This binary model of gender makes it really hard to be who you want to be, do what you want to do, or say what you want to say when you can’t envision yourself fully aligned with either category.
I think that Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, would have to agree with me.
Those who’ve read Jane Eyre know that Charlotte Bronte has a particular fascination with gender roles and her writing teases out the complexities of power struggles between men and women. Where Bronte’s first novel begins to show how difficult it is for women to express themselves honestly, Villette drives the point home. Based in part on Charlotte Bronte’s experience in Brussels, this novel follows the experiences of a young woman who flees an unhappy past in England and finds work as a teacher at an all-girls’ school in France. While there, she is confronted with the trials and tribulations of being a Victorian woman with intense emotion and overwhelming desire.
Villette is a complicated novel that can be approached from several critical viewpoints, and I won’t be so presumptuous as to assert that my interpretation is best, but I will claim that it is nearly impossible to view any of the themes present in Villette removed from a gendered context. The female conscience is present throughout, as voyeuristic and haunting as the main character herself.
What’s most intriguing about Lucy’s narrative voice—perhaps because it resonates so well with women today—is how she tries to articulate what she refers to as “the conflict for existence.”[i] I first read these words as an admission of suicidal tendencies, but through my own experiences, and reading about the struggles other women have faced, I realize what Lucy must have meant by that.
She finds herself stuck. In several instances, she notes societal beliefs that seem, to her, fundamentally wrong, but she also sees herself acting in accordance with such beliefs and perpetuating them. She’s happiest when she’s alone, but complains of feeling isolated and lonely. She seems to know what she wants but either has no idea how to obtain it or feels guilty about wanting it because, according to normative social practices, she shouldn’t. Whenever she begins to express any sort of discontentment with her life, she catches herself, and negates her previous claims, insisting that she’s actually fine.
She sees the world in extremes, but never sees herself fitting into either extreme. Bronte’s clever use of allegory in a scene where Lucy visits an art museum exhibits how societal intervention and male norms dictate the options women have available to them. After being “caught” viewing a sexually charged painting, her male superior directs her to a series of works depicting Victorian “Angels of the House”—the kind of art he deems much more appropriate for her eyes.
By the end of the novel, two marriages have occurred, and as she reflects on each relationship, Lucy seems disgusted by what she views each marriage is really contracting. She reads correspondence between the members of one couple and draws the conclusion that the young woman’s letters “had not been written to show her talents; still less, I think, to express her love. On the contrary, it appeared that she had proposed herself the task of hiding that feeling, and bridling her lover’s ardour.”[ii] Though uncomfortable with the notion that being a married woman might mean giving up her own passions, Lucy seems equally disturbed by the second marriage contract in which a young woman has exploited her feminine charms to gain status. To her, marriage seems like a voidance of genuine affection, and this leads her to question whether or not she should desire the love and companionship that society’s vision of an ideal marriage would entail, knowing that such a thing might not exist.
I first read Villette in an upper-level undergraduate literature course. It is, emotionally and mentally, a demanding text. Tiny bits of life fled my body with every page I turned. The longer I read and the deeper I delved into the conscience of Lucy Snowe, the more disgusted I became when any of my classmates dare suggest that the main character might simply be suffering from a severe psychological disorder. Lucy wasn’t insane.
I was quick to defend her sanity because, in so many ways, I felt like I was Lucy Snowe. I marked up the margins of my copy of Villette with at least a hundred notes that said, “I agree,” “I totally get this,” or, “been there, done that.” I underlined passages of her thoughts that I’ caught myself thinking before. Lucy might be a nineteenth century woman, but she’s still so relevant to today.
Her experience speaks to twenty-first century women just as it would have in the Victorian age. She’s comparable to Lena Dunham’s characters in the HBO hit GIRLS, confused about their places in the world, knowing what they want but feeling apprehensive about actually getting it; she could identify with Rhianna, facing the criticisms of half the world for being attracted to the wrong sorts of men; she’s even present in the growing culture of “bad feminists” who’ve recently begun confessing to the tensions they experience trying to live up to feminist ideals when the ideals conflict with the morals of the kind of woman they’d like to be.
I, and so many other women today—my friends, my mother, my aunt, and girls I’ve never even met—feel stuck. Our entire lives, we’ve been at a fork in the road, always second-guessing ourselves while trying to decide between two equally unappealing options. Independence and Loneliness, or Companionship and Sacrifice? Family, or Career? Aggression, or Submission? Emotional basket-case, or cold-hearted sociopath? Complete pushover, or confrontational asshole?
All the while we’re sitting there, trying to find the lesser of two evils, society is in the rear-view mirror, tapping our bumper and honking its horn, pressuring us into a decision we never wanted to make.
It’s a decision we’re not even equipped to make. How are we supposed to be good women, display ideal feminine qualities, and perform our gender correctly if we didn’t even get to decide what a woman should be? I wasn’t on the committee that decided that a woman should look, act, feel, think, and speak a certain way; why should I have to abide by the guidelines they’ve chosen for me?
Lucy is constantly struggling to discover who she is. Reading Villette, I struggled to figure her out too. And just when I thought I had her figured out, she’d surprise me; she’d tell me how wrong I was. It took me a long time to realize that the point wasn’t to categorize her or comprehend her, but instead to recognize that she wasn’t a problem to be solved, or a secret to be kept, or a theory to be understood.
Lucy Snowe is a woman who helped me see that the only thing all women really have in common is that none of us can fit into the mold that’s been assigned to us, nor do we really want to.