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Madness and Melancholy: Abnormal Psychology in the Works of Charlotte Brontë (Villette) Part V

Updated on June 16, 2014

A Very Personal Novel

Villette, the last novel written by Charlotte Brontë, has been described as “Brontë’s best achievement for a psychological novelist, her most carefully thought-out presentation of sublime emotions . . . among human beings” (Kearns 156) and is perhaps the most personal in relation to the author’s life as well, for “the successive blows fate delivers Lucy in the course of the novel seem to record all too directly the blows by which Charlotte was bereft of those dearest to her. Her letters express a sense of her destiny in sentences that, like Lucy’s, drive inexorably to conclusions of frustration and disappointment bravely endured” (Gribble 45-46). Lucy narrates the novel, and it become apparent from the very beginning that she is not a reliable narrator. She does not impart much information to the reader about her past; the reader only knows that in the beginning of the narrative, she is a fourteen-year-old girl, that her parents are dead and that she has had a very traumatic childhood which she cannot seem to express her feelings about (Enomoto 255).

Lucy as an Observer

Jennifer Gribble says that Lucy’s wavering emotions, her “alternation between retreating from life and reaching out for it, her steady progress in search of not social status or independence, but of emotional commitment . . . expresses Charlotte Brontë’s conception of Lucy’s desperate need to be loved and to belong” (54). In light of this view of Lucy’s psychology, Lucy could be attempting to find herself, like William, Jane, and Caroline, in both her own eyes and the eyes of society. Lucy is different because of her general unwillingness to be a participant in life. For the most part, she is an observer, but as she goes on her journey to London and Villette, she meets people and finds herself in situations which demand more of her than she is used to, and she is forced to become a participant in life. In the process, through the myriad of emotions that she experiences, she begins to find a side to herself that has been lost, hidden deep inside of her until now. It is undoubtedly a painful process, but in the end, Lucy has the chance of not only finding herself, but also of freeing that self from its psychological prison, for her loneliness “leaves the self a free, blank, ‘pre-social’ atom: free to be injured and exploited, but free also to progress . . . [and to] choose and forge relationships” (53-54).

Lucy not only alienates herself from society, but she also attempts to distance herself from her emotions in general. She has, over the years, managed to separate herself from her feelings, and she describes herself as going through life in “catalepsy and a dead trance” (Villette 120). Despite the bleakness of the state that she lives in, Lucy seems to be comfortable in this emotional stasis. This is probably due to the fact that it has been a large part of her life for such a long time. Like Crimsworth, when something unexpected happens, instigating a sudden burst of emotions, she finds herself in an even more uncomfortable state of mind than when she is in this “trance,” because she is used to being separated from her emotions. When she is forced to face them again, it is thoroughly unpleasant because she has to deal with all of the emotions that she has buried inside of her – and it hurts:

At this time, I well remember whatever could excite – certain accidents of the weather, for instance, were almost dreaded by me, because they woke the being I was always lulling, and stirred up a craving cry I could not satisfy. One night a thunderstorm broke; a sort of hurricane shook us in our beds . . . As for me, the tempest took hold of me with tyranny: I was roughly roused and obliged to live. (Villette 120-121)

Lucy’s point of view is very fatalistic; her living death from the depression becomes a more comforting place than being forced to live. Her attempts to “repress her feelings and . . . [live] with reason alone” (Enomoto 260) only contribute to the misery that she goes through, because when she is awakened from her emotional slumber, she finds herself in a more terrible place than she has already been in.

A Fragile State of Mind

Lucy’s reluctance to tell the reader anything more about her past is certainly inconvenient, but it suggests that she is so mentally damaged by the loss of her parents and the cruel blows that fate has dealt to her that her only way to cope is by repressing it, even to the extent of refusing to talk about it in her narration. She is “unable to confront the pain of that ‘shipwreck’, in which ‘all hope that we should be saved was taken away,’” so she “retreats even from articulate narration” (Gribble 55). Although she refrains from bringing up the specific instances in her past that have caused her so much grief, Lucy still imparts to the reader the sorrow and depression that she felt then and that still weighs down on her in using the metaphor of a shipwreck to convey the traumatic experiences in her life and her reaction to them. Despite the fact that the reader never learns about Lucy’s past, it is evident throughout the text that Lucy is no stranger to depression.

Lucy’s mental state is a fragile one. This is made evident in the subsequent chapters “Turning a New Leaf” and “London,” when Lucy has arrived in London and is in her hotel:

. . . as I sat down by the bed and rested my head and arms on the pillow, a terrible oppression overcame me. All at once my position rose on me like a ghost. Anomalous, desolate, almost blank of hope, it stood. What was I doing here alone in great London? What should I do on the morrow? What prospects had I in life? What friends had I on earth? Whence did I come? Whither should I go? What should I do? I wet the pillow, my arms, and my hair, with rushing tears. A dark interval of most bitter thought followed this burst. . . (Villette 52)

Lucy falls asleep after being assaulted by this depression, but when she wakes up the next morning, her fears and despair have been entirely replaced by hope and excitement:

While I looked, my inner self moved; my spirit shook its always-fettered wings half loose; I had a sudden feeling as if I, who had never yet truly lived, were at last about to taste life: in that morning my soul grew as fast as Jonah’s gourd. ‘I did well to come,’ I said, proceeding to dress with speed and care. ‘I like the spirit of this great London which I feel around me.’ (Villette 53)

Despite this welcome interlude of hopefulness and positivity, by the end of the chapter, Lucy is once more convinced that “the cloud of doubt would be thick to-morrow as ever; the necessity for exertion more urgent, the peril (of destitution) nearer, the conflict (for existence) more severe” (Villette 64). At the beginning of the next chapter, the morning after, Lucy’s “courage [is] revived and spirits refreshed” once more. Lucy’s versatile emotions, inability to express her feelings, periodic bouts of melancholia, and her repression of her painful past mark her as both an unstable young woman and a narrator that cannot be relied upon.

From a film adaptation of Villette.
From a film adaptation of Villette. | Source

Depression as Mental Illness

Lucy is very unique for her time in that she recognizes that she has a problem, and she does not simply accept the word of others when they tell her that her depression is in her control. She is very aware of her psychological and neurological hindrances; she “constantly mentions nerves” and she “makes a clear connection between nerves and health” (Hodge 900-901). When she is left alone at the school, she says, “I really believe my nerves are getting overstretched: my mind has suffered somewhat too much; a malady is growing upon it – what shall I do? How shall I keep well?” (Villette 176) Like Caroline, her depression gives way into actual physical illness after “a day and night of peculiarly agonizing depression” (176). She becomes so desperate during this agonizing time that she, a Protestant, makes her way to a Catholic church and goes to Confession to speak to a priest because she needs to talk to someone. It is after this, at the end of the first volume, that Lucy is overcome by her mental and physical illness and passes out, exhausted and sick in both mind and body.

Happiness is not a potato.


When she wakes up later in the Bretton household and Dr John examines her, he tells her that because she is suffering from nerves, he is disabled “from helping you by pill or potion. Medicine can give nobody good spirits. My art halts at the threshold of Hypochondria: she just looks in and sees a chamber of torture, but can neither say nor do much. Cheerful society would be of use; you should be as little alone as possible; you should take plenty of exercise” (Villette 205). When Dr John tells her that she has to cultivate happiness, Lucy informs him that happiness is not a potato, and it cannot simply be cultivated.

Despite the belief at the time that depression and hypochondria were not medical conditions, Lucy still understands that it is not simply sadness that plagues her, but a true nervous disorder. In this way, she is a woman out of her time, but she is unable to find the kind of help or medication that she needs because of the psychology of the time. Through Lucy’s life, pain, depression, and self-diagnosis of a nervous disorder, Charlotte Brontë displays her understanding of the complexities of the human mind and proves that she could see the mind in a more complex way than many novelists and “psychologists” of her time.


Brontë, Charlotte. Villette. 1853. Ed. Helen M. Cooper. London: Penguin Books, 2004.

Enomoto, Yoshiko. “Breaking out of Despair: Higuchi Ichiyô and Charlotte Brontë.” Comparative Literature Studies. 24.3 (1987): 251-263. Web. 21 April 2013.

Gribble, Jennifer. The Lady of Shalott in the Victorian Novel. London: The MacMillan Press Ltd., 1983.

Hodge, John. “‘Villette’’s Compulsory Education.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. 45.4 (2005): 899-916. Web. 22 April 2013.

Kearns, Michael S. Metaphors of Mind in Fiction and Psychology. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1987.

I want to thank everyone who has followed this series about the use of abnormal psychology in the works of Charlotte Bronte.

Do you think that Charlotte Bronte had insight well beyond her time about the implications of depression and melancholy as mental illness? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 

      5 years ago from Philippines

      I read Villette when I was very young, way too young to appreciate it. Your article encourages me to read it again, this time with the maturity it requires and with greater understanding thanks to your article. Bronte was truly ahead of her time and it surprises me to learn from your articles that her novels were a tool to investigate areas of psychiatry that were then unrecognized.


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