Standing Alone: Isolation and Narration in Villette and Jane Eyre

March 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Villette and Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë creates protagonists who are markedly strange and isolated people. Throughout both books, their awkwardness in society and difficulty communicating is a continuous concern. These women are also our narrators. An isolated, lonely position in the world makes the dual role of protagonist and narrator especially convincing. This character is able to stand on the outskirts of conversations and social gatherings, simultaneously observing and experiencing. A quality of mystery in the imagery and language throughout both novels gives Brontë creative freedom in her fantastical plots. The odd psyches of the narrators create a unique, half-lit environment where the strange events in these stories seem utterly believable. Not only do their strange dispositions perfectly fit their role as observers, but they are able to taste freedom through language. Brontë skillfully filters her tales through these voices to draw the reader into her dark world, shining misty light into the void where the woman who stands alone strives to define herself.There is no question that Lucy Snowe and Jane Eyre are solitary beings. This quality exists in varying forms, but with the same alienating results. As a new student at Lockwood, Jane remarks “As yet I had spoken to no one, nor did anybody seem to take notion of me; I stood lonely enough; but to that feeling of isolation I was accustomed; it did no oppress me much” (Jane Eyre, 59). And Lucy is well accustomed enough to solitude to describe some of its characteristics. She has experienced enough loneliness to conclude “those who live in retirement, whose lives have fallen amid the seclusion of schools or of other walled-in and guarded dwellings, are liable to be suddenly and for a long while dropped out of the memory of their friends, the denizens of a freer world” (Villette, 348). Both of these women lead such lives in “retirement,” in places that are already fairly isolated and foreign. Jane moves from an unfriendly home, through the hardships of a charity school, to the gated Thornfield. Lucy goes from the isolation of minding Miss Marchmont at her deathbed, to a foreign land where she initially can’t even communicate, and then into the confining walls and constant surveillance of Madame Beck’s school.The nature of their isolation is not purely circumstantial. These woman have also fought through alienation forced upon them within such settings. Jane spends her early childhood as an outcast, actively excluded by Mrs. Reed. She is certainly affected by these years spent “always suffering, always brow-beaten, always accused, for ever condemned” (Jane Eyre, 22). Lucy finds herself a lone Protestant in a Catholic institution, where the students who she initially befriends eventually exclude her. “In an unguarded moment,” her different ideals become known and “something – an unseen, an indefinite, a nameless something – [steals] between [her]self and these [her] best pupils…conversation henceforth [becomes] impracticable” (Villette, 147). This form of alienation is subtle compared to the scene of her initial introduction to this world. Lucy faces her new community of students for the first time standing singularly, risen on up for examination on a teacher’s platform. She is not only physically separated, but tortured by “[her] command of French being so limited” in this moment of “sixty against one” (Villette, 143). Similarly, Jane is forced to stand alone on a stool in front of the entire school, her new world, in her first weeks at Lowood. Just as Lucy’s broken French cannot command respect, Jane’s new status as a proclaimed liar convinces her that she will be completely alienated with doubt that will be cast upon whatever she may say.The crucial similarity between these scenes is the triumphs of both women. They display a capacity to excel when isolated, made to face the masses alone. When Jane is “mounted aloft…now exposed to general view on a pedestal of infamy,” (Jane Eyre, 78) her position transforms quickly from terror to strength. The tone of her description reveals her absolute glee in discovering this in herself: “…a girl came up and passed me: in passing, she lifted her eyes. What a strange light inspired them! What an extraordinary sensation that ray sent through me!…I mastered the rising hysteria, lifted up my head, and took a firm stand on the stool” (Jane Eyre, 78). Jane’s position here actually empowers her by setting her apart once she realizes that she is not misunderstood. And in the classroom, once Lucy decides that “it seem[s]…that one might possibly get command over this wild herd,” (Villette, 143) she adeptly and confidently takes control of her classroom, and soon becomes a popular teacher despite her assumed inadequacy. Although Lucy’s battle is not a childhood trauma as Jane’s is, it occurs in the infancy of her new life and serves a similar narrative function. The importance of these outcomes so early in the stories cannot be ignored. A reader will proceed into the narratives with a clear understanding of the simultaneous pain and strength these women have gained by facing an entire community utterly alone.The outsider nature of the two women is not only apparent when they are physically alienated, but also seems to show in many similar aspects of their reputedly strange characters. One likeness is an affinity for night, when they can be truly alone as everything around them sleeps. Lucy discovers that she is drawn to an area that “after dusk [is] carefully shunned” [Villette, 174] by everyone else in the school. She admits that “from the first [she] was tempted to make an exception to [the] rule of avoidance: the seclusion, the very gloom of the walk attracted [her]. For a long time the fear of seeming singular scared [her] away; but by degrees, as people became accustomed to [her] and [her] habits, and to such shades of peculiarity as were engrained in [her nature]…[she] became a frequenter of this strait and narrow path” (Villette, 175). These walks are not the only examples of Lucy’s comfort in nocturnal wanderings. Her decision to embark on her travels happens during a “lonely walk through still fields” when “[she] should have quailed in the absence of moonlight, for it [is] by the leading of stars only that [she] traced the dim path,” but instead gains inspiration from “some new power [the Aurora Borealis] seem[s] to bring” (Villette, 104). These are two examples among many that place Lucy alone and awake in the solitude of night.Jane also searches for answers after dark. She decides to leave Lowood while “[sitting] up in bed…[she proceeds] to think again with all [her] might” (Jane Eyre, 100). Later, she hears a phantom voice of Rochester calling to her only after “All the house was still…The one candle was dying out; the room was full of moonlight” (Jane Eyre, 466). This eerie visitation is perhaps the major reason in her decision to find Rochester, the step that will permit her ultimate happiness. Her nights are often filled with strange dreams, and she confronts strange events and noises in the night (Jane Eyre, 167-171, 232) that bring her very close to discovering Rochester’s secret. The nocturnal element in both characters lends an especially mysterious tone to the novels. The strange events in the attic at Thornfield occur by moonlight, in candlelit passages. And the presence of the phantom Nun in Villette, which has a serious effect on Lucy’s state of mind, relies on the half-light of her nocturnal wanderings. A reader cannot forget the many scenes that occur at night. They are important to the plot, and they serve as a crucial reminder of the solitude both required and endured by the narrators.It is not simply the hushed isolation of sleeplessness that associates Lucy and Jane with the night. Darkness and mystery seem to call to them, in very similar ways. Both find themselves drawn to the chaos of nature when it rages, specifically under a veil of night. At Lowood, Jane notices that her reaction to nature’s fury is quite different than the other girls. She looks outside at growing snowstorm when she realizes that she “derive[s]…a strange excitement, and reckless and feverish, I wished the wind to howl more wildly, the gloom to deepen to darkness, and the confusion to rise to clamour” (Jane Eyre, 65). In a parallel moment, Lucy discovers the same oddity in herself: “One night a thunderstorm broke…It was wet, it was wild, it was pitch-dark. Within the dormitory they gathered round the night-lamp…I could not go in: Too resistless was the delight of staying with the wild hour, black and full of thunder, pealing out such an ode as language never delivered to man – too terribly glorious, the spectacle of clouds, split and pierced by white and blinding bolts” (Villette, 176). The connection to an environment traditionally considered eerie and frightening makes a clear point. These women are not simply unjustly excluded or excessively lonely. Even they can recognize that they are abnormally happy in strange circumstances. They are, by nature, extraordinary people. They stand apart as inherently strange, strong women. And in most societies, certainly the ones described in these books, these are qualities that immediately label them outsiders.Jane and Lucy are not simply avoiding company because they prefer being lonely. This label of “outsider” is not intended to suggest that these are unfriendly or antisocial women. When left almost entirely alone during vacation at Madame Beck’s, Lucy complains: “days and nights [grow] intolerable; a cruel sense of desolation pain[s] my mind; a feeling that would make its way, rush out, or kill me…I [want] companionship, I [want] friendship, I [want] counsel” (Villette, 258). And Jane’s distaste for loneliness is obvious when she tells St. John “solitude is as bad for you as it is for me” (Jane Eyre, 414). These women are not necessarily choosing to be alienated, but they are outsiders who often find themselves among people who don’t understand them. Mrs. Reed explains the discomfort caused by “[Jane’s] incomprehensible disposition, and her sudden starts of temper, and her continual watching of one’s movements” (Jane Eyre, 260). Ginevra tells Lucy she is “so peculiar and so mysterious” and demands to know “But are you anybody?…Do – do tell me who you are?,” (Villette, 394) displaying her inability to understand such a strange companion. And Lucy’s response only reminds the reader that she does not actively try to alienate others, or even necessarily comprehend why it happens. She tells Ginevra that this “mystery and peculiarity [are] entirely the conception of your own brain” (Villette, 394). It is true that much of the alienation experienced by Jane and Lucy is caused by the inadequate understanding of their peers. But they are also mysterious women, controlled by unique inner impulses.The nature of these impulses contributes to the outsider sensibility. In their deepest dreams and ideals, Lucy and Jane often feel a pull to rise consistently higher. This is not merely average ambition, or optimism, but an interior desire that often visits in fantastical notions and intricate visions. Lucy feels this strange drive to ascend without entirely understanding it. When she is walking home one night, and a huge storm breaks “[she bends] her head to meet it: but it beat[s] her back. [Her] heart [does] not fail at all in this conflict; [she] only wishe[s] that [she] had wings and could ascend the gale, spread and repose [her] pinions on its strength, career in its course, sweep where it swept” (Villette, 236). When Jane looks out of her window at Lowood, “[her] eye passe[s] all other objects to rest on those most remote, the blue peaks: it was those [she longs] to surmount; all within their boundary of rock and heath seemed prison-ground” (Jane Eyre, 99). Her desire for change is felt as a need to reach the top of a mountain, to actually rise upward. And Lucy “long[s], achingly…for something to fetch [her] out of [her] present existence, and lead [her] upwards and onwards,” but also feels that “This longing, and all of a similar kind, it [is] necessary to knock on the head” (Villette, 176). This self-repression of her vision only proves that Lucy’s reason battles with her dreams, so she is not in control of them. This kind of longing, with its magical wings, is both poetic and heartbreaking. It shows the reader and the two women their superior aspirations, while equating those goals with impossible feats.The dream of rising above their worlds is certainly partially inspired by the lowliness of alienation. But it also comes from the feeling that they are trapped in communities that cannot understand them. Both women find themselves misunderstood when confronted with people who seem somehow essentially different, even sometimes obviously inferior to them. It seems that they both have a special kind of insight that often sets them apart from more mundane individuals. As a little girl at Lowood, Jane is already able to recognize that she has a higher vision than other people. When she sees Helen Burns continually harassed for petty reasons, she concludes “such is the imperfect nature of man! Such spots are there on the disc of the clearest planet; and eyes like Miss Scatcherd’s can only see those minute defects, and are blind to the full brightness of the orb” (Jane Eyre, 77). Jane clearly has a sense of values beyond society’s more pedestrian distinctions, petty boundaries that control characters like Mr. Brocklehurst, Mrs. Reed, and later Blanche Ingram. Rochester later confirms this superior understanding in response to something Jane has said: “I mentally shake hands with you for your answer…one does not often see such a manner: no, on the contrary, affectation, or coldness, or stupid, coarse-minded misapprehension of one’s meaning are the usual rewards of candor. Not one in three thousand raw school-girl-governesses would have answered me as you have just done…you are a cast different than the majority…” (Jane Eyre, 154). Even the generally humble Lucy shows that she is aware of her superiority in society. There are brief, telling moments such as “I [like] Polly. It is not a declaration I have often made concerning my acquaintance, in the course of this book; the reader will bear with it for once” (Villette, 461). She is willing to discriminate, just as she has been discriminated against. Although they are often lonely and alienated, Jane and Lucy do not become lowly, or compromise their natures for social comfort.The isolation of these kinds of personalities is perhaps a combination of superiority and discrimination. Whatever the reason may be, such instances are often voluntary. There are often social instances in which both characters openly admit they would rather be alone, or purposely set themselves apart among company. Lucy’s “I lived in a house full of robust life; I might have had companions, and I chose solitude” proves that she is aware of her decisions. (Villette, 194). Even more vivid is her statement during the scene when she is drugged and wandering through the town. Her dreamlike state allows her to admit, without self-doubt: “I rather [like] to find myself the silent, unknown, consequently unaccosted neighbour of the short petticoat and the sabot; the only distant gazer at the silk robe, the velvet mantle, and the plumed chapeau. Amidst so much life and joy, too, it suited me to be alone – quite alone” (Villette, 552). Jane also tends remove herself in the company of general society. When the guests at Thornfield socialize in the parlor, Jane makes sure to “sit in the shade – if any shade there be in this brilliantly lit apartment; the window-curtain half hides [her]” (Jane Eyre, 197). This is a habit already associated with Jane from the opening pages of the book, when she is immediately portrayed excluding herself. She hides from the Reed family in a window seat (Jane Eyre, 15). Like Lucy, she has an innate preference for the solitude afforded by the outer edges of social interaction.Brontë creates an astute observer in these solitary, but superior creatures. Their seemingly instinctive separation affords space for constant description of their surroundings, while their awkward alienation drives studied observation. Even when Lucy is among her close friends, such as the Brettons, she tends to sit and watch them converse instead of participating in their discourse. One example is a carriage ride to a concert. Lucy spends a paragraph describing what she sees and praising the beauty of the sky and stars while “Dr John and his mother [are] contending animatedly with each other the whole way” (Villette, 284). Here, Lucy describes “the atmosphere of friendship diffused about me,” (Villette, 284) a term that paints her as a solitary island even in the midst of satisfactory companionship. Jane’s hiding place behind a curtain in the presence of Rochester’s guests is one previously given example of her preferred isolation, but it is more than socially awkward behavior. It is a lookout point, the ultimate space for a narrator to be relegated to. It is utterly believable that she is in the room, but has the unique freedom to remark upon, and simultaneously react to everything that passes before her. Jane expects to be ignored, and is aware of the inferiority of this group, to expect nothing less than practical invisibility. In fact, she appreciates that “[she] might gaze without being observed” (Jane Eyre, 198). In this moment, the focus of the scene moves from Jane’s inferior position to the new possibilities it creates. It is easy to forget that she is entirely ignored and alienated when her obvious glee in unadulterated observation becomes apparent.The satisfaction and privacy afforded by the ability to observe suggest that perhaps Jane and Lucy have developed a discreet form of freedom. There is probably nothing else that equally pleases both women and also remains utterly within their control. The thrill of observation is an obvious quality in both novels. There are many moments when the narrators are among company and willingly alienate themselves for the specific purpose of close examination. At one point, Lucy becomes so taken with observation, she acts as though she is alone, despite the company of M.Paul. When Colonel de Hamal enters a room, Lucy “observe[s] him for about ten minutes,” describing entirely what she sees, only to realize that “…So much was [she] interested in his bearing, so absorbed in divining his character by his looks and movements, [she] temporarily forgot M. Paul” (Villette, 281). The fact that observation is a natural priority for Lucy and also her occupation throughout the novel creates a compelling narrative. The hardships of both stories are wonderfully contrasted by any moments of pleasure or happiness. And since every moment in the narrative is an observation through the eyes of Lucy or Jane, it therefore has the power to bring such relief. When Jane is watching from her hiding place, she admits that “[her] lids [are] drawn involuntarily to [Rochester’s] face: [She can] not keep their lids under control:…I looked, and had an acute pleasure in looking, — a precious, yet poignant pleasure; pure gold, with a steely point of agony” (Jane Eyre, 198). Her ability to stand apart along with her obvious pleasure in gazing unnoticed, become a vehicle for freedom, turning her solitude into wings.It is not only the pleasure of describing that makes narration a liberating act. Lucy and Jane value the truth very highly, and often unwittingly alienate themselves by letting it reign above their self-restraint. Jane discovers this early, when she finally explodes and speaks her true feelings out loud, to Mrs. Reed. She describes the way this action makes her feel: “Ere I had finished my reply, my soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty” (Jane Eyre, 47). This childhood epiphany will manifest itself in Jane’s frank, open manner of speaking, which is one of her most singular characteristics. She is aware of this, and able to explain that “[she] could never rest in communication with strong, discreet, and refined minds, whether male or female, till [she] had passed the outworks of conventional reserve, and crossed the threshold of confidence, and won a place by their heart’s very hearthstone” (Jane Eyre, 418). In this statement, Jane has drawn a conscious parallel between speaking freely and fulfilling her inherent need to rise above mundane society. This is the very effect that she has as a narrator. Some of the most compelling aspects of her story are the realistic power of her honesty about self-doubt, and her open discussion of her feelings of physical inferiority.The combination of the narrators’ unique personalities and their liberation through truth places great importance on a companion’s effort to truly understand them. In a formal world where honesty is often hidden behind social constructs, Lucy and Jane are often forced to repress their true selves. Most people don’t see beyond these facades. However, both Rochester and M. Paul display an uncanny ability to see through any mask the women attempt to place. The situation with the school play perfectly displays this level of insight. When Lucy realizes that “a keen resolution for dramatic expression [has] revealed itself as part of [her] nature,” she immediately chooses to repress this desire, as it does not fit with her social position as “a looker-on at life” (Villette, 211). After the event is seemingly past and forgotten, M. Paul proves that he has been striving to understand this strange woman, and met with a degree of success: He tells her “I know you! I know you! Other people in this house see you pass, and think that a colourless shadow has gone by. As for my, I scrutinized your face alone, and it sufficed.” Lucy then demands “You are satisfied you understand me?” And M. Paul’s response proves the true glimpse he has had into her persona: “Were you not gratified when you succeeded in that vaudeville?” (Villette, 227). This kind of understanding has several subtle implications, beyond the simple recognition of her true self, that must flatter Lucy’s heart. She is rendered somewhat invisible by her solitary nature, as M. Paul remarks. Very few people seem to find her worth examination, and this desire alone suggests a superior insight on his part. He also seems well aware that she does not want to admit her happiness in the acting, which is betrayed in his “Were you not?” that couches the question. Although Lucy is not even necessarily appreciative of M. Paul’s probing, its implications pave the way for a plausible love relationship. The simple fact that she can speak freely, masking no part of herself in his presence, is certainly a factor in her growing affection.The power of Rochester’s understanding of Jane is of a different nature than M. Paul’s intense curiosity and deduction. In their very first encounter (when Rochester falls off his horse), Jane recognizes this capacity for insight in him without having any idea who he is. She explains: “I had a theoretical reverence and homage for beauty, elegance, gallantry, fascination; but had I met those qualities incarnate in masculine shape, I should have known instinctively that they neither had nor could have sympathy with anything in me…If even this stranger had smiled and been good-humoured to me when I addressed him…I should have gone on my way and not felt any vocation to renew inquiries. But the frown, the roughness of the traveler set me at ease” (Jane Eyre, 130). Jane is not simply being self-conscious in assuming she must avoid handsome gentlemen. Her further explanation of the necessity of sympathy shows that even in the casual encounters, she requires grounds for understanding. It seems paradoxical that a frown should make her comfortable, but it only highlights the unique connection between these two strange natures. This is only further displayed in the scene of formal introduction, soon after, in the parlor at Thornfield. Right away, the honest wit of their discourse signals a deep connection. At one moment, they cryptically discuss “the men in green,” already communicating fluently in their own strange tones. Their special understanding is made clear by the reaction of Mrs. Fairfax, who “[drops] her knitting, and with raised eyebrows, seem[s] wondering what sort of talk this [is]” (Jane Eyre, 139). The proof that they are on a different plane of understanding exists in the inability of surrounding ears to make sense of their strange, biting discourse. Rochester can join Jane on her pedestal of alienation, truly risen up without the taint of lonely solitude.The longing for mutual understanding is easily translated into a need for love and companionship. For two women openly identified as odd, solitary wanderers in life, it is a crucial element to their emotional survival. The existence of this kind of sympathy allows for the kind of relationships they have created by the end. It is M. Paul’s deep understanding of Lucy’s desires and personality that allow him to set up her school. Not only is the place itself a stunning reflection of her tastes, but the realization of her ultimate dream finally truly lifts her up. Paul knows her well enough to give her freedom, above all. Jane is again freed through language, becoming an observer for two people. Rochester requires a set of eyes and finds Jane beyond willing to narrate the world for him. This is her final instance of freedom through description, as she is empowered by his reliance on her. Equally important is her own ability to consistently gaze at him without being seen, without the alienation of hiding in a curtain or being excluded. Despite the pain suffered in their journeys, the novels leave Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe independent enough to remain their singular selves without the familiar pain of unhappy solitude or cruel alienation.

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