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From the beginning of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Villette, the reader is immersed in a sense of the theatrical, not only because of the overt direct references to art and theatre, but also because of subtle psychological allusions that are used artfully to evoke a heightened feeling of drama. As the novel opens, the narrator, Lucy Snowe, situates herself, the other characters, and the events that will be unfolding in a place that she defines as clearly and with as much detail as a set of stage directions. In fact, both the small spaces in which the events occur, the homes and physical structures, and the large spaces, the towns themselves, are described with painstaking attention and detail.

From the earliest moments of “Villette” by Charlotte Bronte, after the reader meets the narrator, Lucy offers a thorough description of the setting where the first part of the novel’s events will take place: “My godmother lived in a handsome house in the clean and ancient town of Bretton” (Chapter 1, para. 1). The narrator hones in even more, observing the home’s “large peaceful rooms, the well-arranged furniture, the clear wide windows, the balcony outside, looking down on a fine antique street… so quiet was its atmosphere, so clean its pavement” (Chapter 1, para. 2). Bronte’s borrowing of this dramatic resource of designating and defining physical space lends a theatrical air to the text from the beginning. This sense of the theatrical is constantly reinforced throughout the novel, both concretely and symbolically. In fact, there is a frequent “change [of] scene” (Chapter 1, para. 5), which initially makes the narrator happy and her senses fully engaged.

The allusions to the elements of theatricality in “Villette” by Charlotte Bronte are also built into the narrative in more subtle ways that are difficult to notice if one is not looking out for them. The shifts from one scene to another often mirror the kind of act-to-act and scene-to-scene transitions that theatre-goers witness; such transitions are less common, however, in literary texts and may prove somewhat confusing to the reader. The curtain—or in this case, the chapter of “Villette” by Charlotte Bronte — falls, and suddenly one is transported to a new place, with new characters, and a fresh set of conditions, challenges, and circumstances. Consider for instance, how Lucy leaves her godmother’s Bretton home for no clear reason and is sent to teach at Madame Beck’s School for Girls. Such transitions are more theatrical than novelistic, and the transitions occur not only with respect to places, but also with respect to people and their circumstances and psychological conditions.

The characters in Villette enter and exit the “scenes” of the novel unexpectedly and abruptly. The appearance of Paulina in Chapter One of “Villette” by Charlotte Bronte, for example, is unanticipated by Lucy, but becomes important to the development of the plot in significant ways. Similarly, Lucy’s mental disturbances emerge without much precedent, and they are narrated in such a way that the reader is lulled into a trance-like state. The reader of “Villette” by Charlotte Bronte may grapple with how to understand this and numerous other changes and dislocations, both physical and psychological, that occur. Even the narrator herself struggles to understand these shifts. In response to one of her episodes, she reflects in one of the important quotes from “Villette” by Charlotte Bronte “Where my soul went during that swoon I cannot tell. Whatever she saw, or wherever she travelled in her trance on that strange night she kept her own secret” (Chapter 16, para. 1). It is only through the build- up of suspense and mystery, however, that the meanings of place, character, and circumstances will be fully realized. The reader must be able to tolerate these and other departures from literary convention, understanding how Bronte skillfully intersects some of the resources of the dramatic genre in her text, whether she intended to do so consciously or not.

Beyond these symbolic allusions to the theatrical, however, is the chapter in which Lucy experiences the theatre and elements of theatricality directly. This also happens to be the climax of the novel, in which Graham’s affections are drawn away from Lucy and pulled towards her rival, thus foreshadowing events that are to come and the denouement of the novel. The entire chapter reads like a theatre scene itself. Dr. Bretton arrives on the scene to take Lucy, unexpectedly, to the theatre. His mother was to accompany him, but she had an unanticipated visitor, and Dr. Bretton wishes to take Lucy as his companion. Lucy hurries to dress, excited by the name of the actress who would be performing, a woman whose “name … in those days, could thrill Europe” (Chapter 23, para. 14). Lucy’s idealization of the actress sets up some of the psychological tension and drama that will be stimulated and played out in Chapter 23.