“Condemned to Be Free”: Lucy Snowe and Existential Angst in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette

Marija Reiff

Abstract


Much criticism of Villette has focused on Lucy Snowe’s interiority and her anguished response to life’s choices. What has been generally overlooked, however, is that Lucy Snowe’s anxiety and despair greatly resemble the philosophies being espoused by Denmark’s Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55), a contemporary of Charlotte Brontë (1816-55). Kierkegaard’s theory of existentialism rose in the nineteenth century as a modern response to scientific advancements and Hegelian idealism, and both Kierkegaard and Brontë created works that were part of the larger cultural zeitgeist. This paper argues that, in Villette, Lucy Snowe responds with existential angst when decisions are demanded, and that this anxiety and despair arise not only from the perils of her choices, but also from their possibilities. While multiple scenes in Villette explore the dangers and opportunities of Lucy’s choices, this paper will focus on three in particular: her participation in the vaudeville, her decision to wear the pink dress to the concert, and her confession to the Catholic priest. In all of these, the dual nature of Lucy’s choices—that they are simultaneously full of perils and yet full of possibilities—is examined, and their connection to existential angst is revealed. Moreover, each of these choices exposes a different aspect of existential philosophy. Not only is Lucy’s despair shown to be a form of existential angst, but Kierkegaardian themes of ethics, reason and passion, subjectivity, loneliness, and true religious faith are also discovered. These findings aid in comprehension of Lucy Snowe’s character by upending traditional notions about the nihilism of the ending, instead showing that there is meaning in her suffering and that the lesson of Villette is to practise Christian endurance. Relating Brontë’s novel to theories of existentialism, and Kierkegaard’s ideas in particular, is productive because it puts Villette in a line of literary works that includes such diverse texts as Crime and Punishment, Nausea, and Waiting for Godot, placing Brontë’s novel in the canon of existentialist literature while widening the scope and possibilities of that canon.


Keywords


Brontë, Kierkegaard, Villette, existential angst

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