Bleak House and Villette: The Story of a Trauma narrated by Esther and Lucy

According to Shoshana Felman, “every woman’s life contains, explicitly or in implicit ways, the story of a trauma.”(16) Felman also argues that “because trauma cannot be simply remembered, it cannot simply be ‘confessed.’”(16) It is remarkable that Felman points out the relationship between trauma and silence which often occurs in women’s narration. This brings our attention to similarities between narration by Esther Summerson in Bleak House (1852-1853) and that of Lucy Snowe in Villette (1853) in that they both conceal important information by reticence. Let us study how these two narrators’ trauma is related to their way of narrating their stories.
Ⅰ Trauma Esther and Lucy Suffer  
Let us turn to their experiences which caused the traumas which they now suffer. First, we study Esther’s case. Esther was brought up by Miss Barbary, her ruthless adoptive mother. It is Miss Barbary’s cruel remarks which left psychological scars on Esther’s mind: “Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers.” (65) “For yourself, unfortunate girl, orphaned and degraded from the first of these evil anniversaries, pray daily that the sins of others be not visited upon your head, according to what is written.”(65) Miss Barbary blames Esther on her birthday as if she were guilty for having been born, as Esther is an illegitimate child. Being deeply hurt, Esther comes to suppress her natural feelings.
Next, we will study Lucy’s case. Lucy also has suffered painful experiences in her early days. She describes how she spent eight years at her relative’s: “However, it cannot be concealed that, in that case, I must somehow have fallen over-board, or that there must have been wreck at last. I too well remember a time – a long time, of cold, of danger, of contention. To this hour, when I have the nightmare, it repeats the rush and saltness of briny waves, in my throat, and their icy pressure on my lungs…In fine, the ship was lost, the crew perished.” (35) Here, Lucy doesn’t describe concretely what happened to her but expresses her misery using metaphors such as “wreck” “briny waves” “icy pressure.” Though these metaphors bring up the general images of “poverty,” “illness” and “death,” readers are not informed as to specific incidents. This is reminiscent of Felman’s argument that “[b]ecause trauma cannot be simply remembered, it cannot simply be ‘confessed.’” Through these experiences, Lucy, like Esther, comes to conceal her real feelings, something weak and sensitive inside her.
Ⅱ Silence as to Who Senders of Flowers Are
Let us study more specifically how narrations by Esther and Lucy are related to their trauma. When Esther and Lucy narrate about men whom they love, their narrative tends to be more reticent and indirect. First, turn to Esther’s narration about Woodcourt, a young surgeon : “At last, when she [Caddy] was going, she took me [Esther] into my room, and put them [the flowers] in my dress. ‘For me?’ said I, surprised. ‘For you,’ said Caddy, with a kiss. ‘They were left behind by Somebody.’ ‘Left behind?’ “(294) Here, Esther doesn’t mention the name of “Somebody” who leaves flower for her and hides the information. It may come from Esther’s fear that she might not be a suitable lover for Woodcourt. Furthermore, by concealing her real feelings, Esther assumes the role of a reserved lady which must have been required according to the social code of the Victorian era.
Next, let us turn to Lucy’s narration about her teacher, M. Paul Emanuel. Lucy also hides the information as to the sender of a bunch of white violets: “[…] a certain little bunch of white violets that had once been silently presented to me by a stranger (a stranger to me, for we had never exchanged words), and which I had dried and kept for its sweet perfume between the folds of my best dress, lay there unstirred: […]. (119) Lucy not only conceals the name of “a stranger” but also gives an excuse by saying “a stranger to me, for we had never exchanged words.”
Here, let us pay attention to differences between Esther’s silence and Lucy’s. While Esther’s silence seems a strategy to arouse the reader’s sympathy, Lucy’s reluctance to reveal the information looks like a gesture to reject reader’s compassion or understandings. As Sandra M. Gilbert & Susan Gubar discuss, “she [Lucy] considers it wise, for those who have experienced inner turmoil or madness in solitary confinement, to keep quiet.”(419) Lucy thus gives up explaining herself, thinking it is impossible for others to understand her inner world.
Ⅲ Esther’s Search for her Identity
Now we will focus on how Esther overcomes her psychological scars. A turning point in her life comes when she catches an infectious disease, is assailed by hallucinations, and has a series of nightmares: “In falling ill, I [Esther] seemed to have crossed a dark lake, and to have left all my experiences, mingled together by the great distance, on the healthy shore.” (543) Here, expressions such as “cross a lake” and “leave all my experiences” give an image of Esther’s parting from the past and being newly born to be a different person. In another dream Esther becomes a part of “a flaming necklace” (544) and Esther prays she could “be taken off from the rest” and feels “it was such inexplicable agony and misery to be a part of the dreadful thing.”(544) This necklace is reminiscent of absurd and irrational institutions such as Chancery in which bigwigs are connected to one another and meddle in trivial things to cause unnecessary confusion.
It is noteworthy that Esther’s illness changes her face which symbolizes her inner drastic change. After recovering from the illness, Esther sees her disfigured face in the mirror: “Then I put my hair aside, and looked at the reflection in the mirror, encouraged by seeing how placidly it looked at me. I was very much changed – O very, very much.”(559) Esther’s face, surrounded by abundant hair, conjures up an image of Medusa’s Head, which according to Freud represents mother’s sexuality. (273-274) Here, more specifically, Esther’s mother Lady Dedlock’s unbridled sexuality is implied. At first, Esther’s face is so strange to her, that she thinks she “should have put [her] hands before it and started back,” but soon she accepts it as “familiar” (559). It can be said that this marks a moment of Esther’s acceptance of her mother and liberation from Miss Barbary’s curse: “submission, self-denial, diligent work.” (65) After this event, Esther quits pretending to be a reserved lady and often shows her ability to criticize false systems like Chancery and even mocks social hypocrisy.

Ⅳ The Ghost of a Nun and Lucy’s Spiritual Journey
Let us study how Lucy is confronted with her psychological conflict by investigating the ghost of a nun, which Lucy sees when she is trapped by a strong emotion. Lucy sees the nun’s ghost for the first time when she is absorbed in reading letters from her childhood friend, Dr. John Graham: “I saw in the middle of that ghostly chamber a figure all black or white; the skirts straight, narrow, black; the head bandaged, veiled, white.”(245) According to Gilbert & Gubar, the nun is not only “a projection of Lucy’s desire to submit in silence, to accept confinement, to dress in shadowy black, to conceal her face, to desexualize herself; the nun’s way is also symbolic for Lucy of the only socially acceptable life available to single women – a life of service, self-abnegation, and chastity.”(426) Therefore, while Lucy is intoxicated with the delight of reading Graham’s letters, she also feels guilty at it and this nun symbolizes another self in her who tries to punish her. The nun can be seen to represent Lucy’s fear of revealing her natural emotion which she has been constantly forced to repress.
However, as Lucy develops love for her teacher, Paul, she begins to show different reactions to the nun. When Lucy and Paul talk about the legend of a nun who was buried alive hundred years ago, they both see its ghost: “Instantly into our alley there came, out of the berceau, an apparition, all black and white. With a sort of angry rush – close, close past our faces – swept swiftly the very Nun herself!” (368) This time, Lucy’s description of the nun is more human, even comical, and less scary compared with her first encounter.
Madame Beck, who runs a school, tries to separate Lucy from Paul, planning to send Paul to the West Indies. Then Lucy rebels against Beck for the first time because she prevents Lucy meeting Paul. Suffering from insomnia, Lucy sees herself in the mirror: “Entering by the carre, a piece of mirror-glass, set in an oaken cabinet, repeated my image. It said I was changed; my cheeks and lips were sodden-white, my eyes were glassy, and my eye-lids swollen and purple.”(448) Lucy thus recognizes her physical change which also represents her emotional change as well, from an obedient and patient woman to a passionate rebel.
Now let us turn to the scene in which Lucy sees the nun on her bed in the dormitory. This is the last time Lucy sees the ghost: “My head reeled, for by the faint night-lamp, I saw stretched on my bed the old phantom – the Nun.”(470) Lucy tears the nun up, holds her on high, shakes her loose, then treads upon her. Gilbert & Gubar argues that Lucy “destroys this symbol of her chastity and confinement.”(435) After all, the long nun proves “a long bolster dressed in a long black stole, and artfully invested with a white veil.” (470) Later, it is also found that M. le Comte de Hamal is the nun Lucy sometimes saw, and he disguises himself as a nun to see his lover in the school. Liberation from the ghost of a nun may symbolize Lucy’s freedom from the social code by which “a life of service, self-abnegation, and chastity” are imposed. (Gilbert & Gubar, 426) In the end, Lucy struggles to achieve her dream of running her school while she develops love for Paul.

We have compared Esther in Bleak House with Lucy in Villette and found that they both suffer psychological scars. Silences which occur in their narration reveal how hard it is for mentally damaged women to tell their own story. At the same time, they both have strength and courage to overcome their problems.
However, some doubt still remains on some points. Though Esther happily marries Woodcourt, this plot is conceived by Jarndyce to save Esther. Does it mean Esther is controlled by her guardian’s will to the end? Furthermore, it is Paul who helps Lucy run her school and get independent. It is also noteworthy that whether Paul is dead or alive remains concealed to the end. This ambiguous ending may reflect Lucy’s contradictory position as a woman in those days: women’s happiness such as love and marriage was not always compatible with their independence.

Works Cited
Bronte, Charlotte. Villette. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971.
Felman, Shoshana. What does a Woman Want? Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
Freud, Sigmund. The Complete Psychological Works. Vol. 18. London: The Hogarth Press, 1975.
Gilbert, Sandra and Guber, Susan. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

About estherhawdon

a University lecturer, teaching English, engaged in translation, research on British novels from the 19th century to 21st century, love movies, music, meeting new friends
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