Essay: Gender and Sexuality in Villette and North and South

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  • Gender and Sexuality in Villette and North and South
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Analyzing nineteenth century views on female gender and sexuality through the lenses of Bronte and Gaskell yield an invaluable insight into the psyche of Victorian society. Villette and North and South, written by Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell respectively, both work to protest the stereotypical trope of the “damsel in the distress” that represented ideal femininity within their societies; instead, both authors make their main female characters almost “masculine” in their actions and beliefs. Through their main characters, Bronte and Gaskell work to redefine the role of females within their society as intelligent agitators and catalysts of change, rather than passive observers. In studying Lucy Snowe of Villette and Margaret Hale of North and South, we discover the Victorian woman’s expected social code of conduct within her society, the rules around which masculinity and femininity are defined, and the consequences of refusing to conform to that stereotype.
In Villette, Bronte challenges the gender conventions of her era by using Paulina Home (Polly) as a foil for her protagonist, Lucy Snowe. Lucy is older than Polly, but the little girl’s plight shows Lucy the acceptable code of conduct for a female in Lucy’s era. Both Lucy and Polly are spirited and self-repressive, but Polly’s elfin beauty and determination to please her father prompt her to forgo her independence in favor of becoming the Victorian era’s ideal woman. From an early age, Polly repressed her emotional turmoil over her father’s absence, instead tending to weep “under restraint, quietly and cautiously” (Bronte, Ch. 1). Believing that the path to her father’s heart is to remind him constantly of her domestic and feminine value, she waits on him constantly. She even refuses to let her father pour his own cream, saying “I always did it for you at home, papa: nobody could do it as well, not even your own self” (Bronte, Ch. 2). Perhaps one of the most poignant metaphors of Polly’s gendered suffering is her needlework, at which she,
“bored perseveringly… that in her fingers seemed almost a skewer, pricking herself ever and anon, marking the cambric with a track of minute red dots; occasionally starting when the perverse weapon—swerving from her control—inflicted a deeper stab than usual; but still silent, diligent, absorbed, womanly”. (Bronte, Ch. 2)

The sexual undertones within this metaphor are hard to ignore: Polly’s pricked fingers represent a loss of her childhood innocence, and is the constant price she must pay to conform to the Victorian ideal of femininity. Thus, Bronte tracks Polly’s initiation into womanhood, from a “fairy-like” girl to a woman with just enough charm and intelligence to delight but not threaten her masculine counterparts.
Contrastingly, Lucy Snowe, a plain but exceedingly intelligent woman, has quite radical views for a Victorian woman. She possesses a cold, bristly facade that masks the passionate woman that she is inside; despite her ostensive ambivalence towards marriage and love, her repressed sexuality and fear of loneliness is made manifest through the vision of the ghostly nun. The nun first appears as Lucy reads the very first letter she receives from Graham/Mr. John. She harbors false hope that Graham loves her, even though he does not. After reading the letter, she sees, “in the middle of that ghostly chamber a figure all black and white; the skirts straight, narrow, black; the head bandaged, veiled, white.\” (Bronte, Ch. 22) Bowing to superstition, Lucy believes the ghost to be the spirit of a nun that long ago was buried under the pear tree for breaking her vows. The story behind the nun as well as when it appears are both equally important; the nun appears right when Lucy subconsciously begins breaking her vow to herself, forgetting who she is and placing too much value on a man that may or may not love her. The nun is the physical manifestation of repressed sexuality within Lucy, as well as her fear that her desire for love will never be reciprocated.
The difference, however, between Lucy Snowe and the Victorian Era’s ideal woman, is that while she desires marriage, she seems to constantly walk the tightrope between her desire for independence and her desire for love and companionship. Her relationship with M. Paul, then, seems counterintuitive. He is domineering, bossy, easily angered, and continually attempts to assert his superiority over Lucy. When he pushes her to participate in a vaudeville play as a stand-in, she says,
“A thousand objections rushed into my mind. The foreign language, the limited time, the public display… but looking up at M. Paul, and seeing in his vexed, fiery, and searching eye, a sort of appeal behind all its menace, my lips dropped the word \”oui\”. For a moment his rigid countenance relaxed with a quiver of content.” (Bronte, Ch. 14)
As the novel progresses, however, we discover that M. Paul and Lucy have more in common than meets the eye. His nasty exterior mask a sensitive, kind man, and his past is as joyless and painful as Lucy’s. The more she learns about him, the closer they become. As their relationship continues, it seems to fulfill the mixture of independence and love that Lucy had desired; before he leaves, M. Paul gives Lucy a tour of the schoolhouse that he hopes she will direct while he is gone. This gesture conveys a respect for and support of her intellect, and demonstrates his wish for her to be independent and employ herself. Through the love story of Lucy and M. Paul, Bronte makes a point that love must not necessarily mean letting go of a woman’s sense of self, intellect, or independence. At the end of the book, M. Paul gets lost at sea and Lucy does not get married. So, there seems to be little happiness at the end of Villette. However, Lucy says,
“M. Emanuel was away three years. Reader, they were the three happiest years of my life. Do you scout the paradox? Listen. I commenced my school; I worked–I worked hard. I deemed myself the steward of his property, and determined, God willing, to render a good account.” (Bronte, Ch. 41)
Although the ending of Villette might not read like a happy ending, Lucy’s fleeting love seems to inspire an awakening within her, and she is more independent and self-aware than she is at the beginning of the novel. Bronte’s point at the end of Villette seems to be that a woman can spurn the gender conventions of her time and still find happiness, with or without marriage or men. Her ending makes the reader question whether love was ever the end goal for Bronte; perhaps it was a deeper love and respect for herself that Lucy Snowe was waiting for.
Similarly, in North and South, Gaskell elevates her protagonist (Margaret Hale) to traditionally ‘masculine’ roles all throughout the novel: protector, agitator and catalyst for change. Margaret constantly challenges the accepted gender conventions of femininity that constrain her as she immerses herself in the labor struggle in Milton. Unlike other girls, Margaret’s “mouth was wide; no rosebud that could only open just enough to let out a \’yes\’ and \’no,\’ and \’an\’t please you, sir.\’” (Gaskell, Ch. 2) She serves as her father’s spokesman, breaking the news to her mother about the move to Milton and calling Frederick home to her mother’s deathbed. Most importantly, however, is that she saves her love interest, Mr. Thornton, not just once but twice throughout North and South. Not only does this reverse the damsel in distress trope in which women in literature are often depicted, but it also calls into question the boundaries of masculinity and femininity. Despite Mr. Thornton’s hard and manly countenance, as the mob threatens his household Margaret calls his masculinity into question. She says,
“ \’Mr. Thornton…go down this instant, if you are not a coward. Go down and face them like a man. Save these poor strangers, whom you have decoyed here. Speak to your workmen as if they were human beings. Speak to them kindly. Don\’t let the soldiers come in and cut down poor creatures who are driven mad. I see one there who is. If you have any courage or noble quality in you, go out and speak to them, man to man.\’ ” (Gaskell, Ch. 22)
Margaret uses this inflammatory language to spur Mr. Thornton into action, catalyzing the first major confrontation in the strike. Much like Lady Macbeth told her husband to screw his courage to the sticking place, Margaret tells Mr. Thornton that, if he is not a coward, he must confront the strikers, man-to-man. Then, just as violence is about to break out, Margaret throws herself in front of Thornton and speaks on his behalf, beseeching the townspeople to go. As she surveys the mob, she thinks,
“If she thought her sex would be a protection…she was wrong… A clog whizzed through the air. Margaret\’s fascinated eyes watched its progress; it missed its aim, and she turned sick with affright, but changed not her position.” (Gaskell, Ch. 22)
The most important aspect of this scene is the bravery that Margaret exhibits. As she watches the clog go past her, she is well aware that she is in danger of being hurt, but she stays anyway. Bravery, a traditionally masculine trait, is exhibited by Gaskell’s female protagonist to protect a man. Her act both forces Thornton to confront his feelings for her and disperses the mob. Later, Margaret saves Mr Thornton’s business with the money from her inheritance, and consents to becoming his wife. Through Margaret, Gaskell makes the point that it is Margaret’s “masculine” features (not her feminine ones) that propel the plot forward, and that women need not subscribe totally to the Victorian guidelines of femininity to find love.
Lucy Snowe of Bronte’s Villette and Margaret Hale of Gaskell’s North and South share a characteristic that prohibit them from conforming to the Victorian era’s ideal woman: they both blend a traditionally “feminine” pursuit of love with a traditionally “masculine” sense of self and desire for independence. Bronte and Gaskell created two protagonists that did not entirely conform to the ideal of femininity that pervaded their societies at the time. Perhaps they meant to send the message to women that resisting gender conventions was not an immediate path to spinsterhood, unhappiness, or loneliness. Perhaps they meant to make the point that marriage and love should not mean forfeiting independence and a sense of self. Perhaps blurring the rigid lines around which femininity and masculinity are structured and instead taking a more androgynous approach to love and life might help women become the protagonists of their own stories, not the supporting characters behind their husbands.

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