Discuss the image of the doubled female in Charlotte Bront's Shirley, Villette and Jane Eyre.

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Discuss the image of the doubled female in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, Villette and Jane Eyre.

The central theme of Jane Eyre, Villette and Shirley lies within the complex issue of the doubled female. Brontë persistently returns to this theme in order to vocalise her personal fears on the representations and expectations of the woman in a patriarchal society. As Jennifer Gribble suggests, this vocalising is apparent through, ‘a recurrence of images and patterns that seem to define prevalent social and cultural beliefs and traditions.’ In order to portray the strain under which women were placed in the nineteenth century, Brontë repeatedly fractures the emotional and physical state of her protagonists and in doing so ‘explore(s) the potentialities and limits of a central reflecting consciousness.’ This fracturing of the self creates the ‘double female’ in these novels, the female as consciously and emotionally split, either implicitly through the mirroring of the self by other characters, for example Caroline and Shirley or metaphorically, for example Jane and Bertha. Brontë seeks to illustrate in Shirley, Jane Eyre and Villette the impossibility of obtaining knowledge of self and of reclaiming self hood, faced by all of her female characters. In doing so, Charlotte Brontë viscously attacks not only patriarchy, but also the actual act of defining the woman, and suggests that in an effort to define the female to exact proportions, patriarchy effectively creates a race of women forever haunted by their inability to live up to patriarchal designs.

        Patriarchy is an important theme within these three novels, as it represents, in itself, the expectations placed on the female, and also the repression suffered by the protagonists. In each novel, patriarchy is established right from the first chapter, in order to render the reader aware of the establishments that the protagonists seek to defy. Shirley, for example, beautifully parodies the curates at their meal, literally devouring everything that the housekeeper brings them. In itself, this is a terrifying picture of the male appetite, a picture that is to stay with the novel, in characters such as Robert Moore and Mr Yorke, throughout Shirley. John Reed establishes male rule at Gateshead, in Jane Eyre, as does the fact that Jane is locked into the room of a dead male relative, suggestive in itself that it is the male figure of authority that instigates punishment. ‘There were moments when I was bewildered by the terror he inspired,’ says Jane of John Reed. Yet despite Jane’s own knowledge that it is only her fear of John that allows him to have power over her, Jane still finds herself ‘[H]abitually obedient to John,’ therefore allowing him power over her and power to create terror in her. It is only in Villette that male dominance is created subjectively through Graham Bretton, subjectively, of course, because it is Lucy’s own desire for Dr. John that allows him to have any dominance over her at all. It is curious to observe that in Villette, Lucy feels dominated not only through her adoration of Graham, but also through the masculine Madame Beck. Madame Beck of course is also in love with Graham Bretton, and provides a sinister addition to the suppression Lucy feels: not only must Lucy face self repression from her love of the male, but also from the female who acts in a characteristically masculine manner.

It is important that a male dominance is established from the outset in order to sustain the fact that, in each case, not only does the male suppress the female, and hence create dominance and patriarchy, but also to illustrate that the only possible hope for a satisfactory, rather than fulfilled, life for Shirley Keeldar, Caroline Helstone, Lucy Snowe and Jane Eyre, is to marry. In short, these females effectively aim to maintain a form of patriarchy by actively seeking to become married and therefore maintain male domination over themselves. It can be seen therefore, that from the outset of the novel, the protagonists of Jane Eyre, Shirley and Villette are split. Brontë’s antagonistic depictions of male dominance suggest that the female requires more than a ‘master.’ Yet in all three of the novels, the conclusion finds the female in the hands of the male, ‘[T]ame or fierce, wild or subdued..mine.’ Louis Moore claims his prize, as, eventually, so do Rochester, M. Paul and Robert Moore. The fact that each protagonist enters the novel upon a form of pilgrimage, in search of self-hood and knowledge, only to reach an ending that denies them complete self- knowledge through marriage, epitomises these three novels. Doubling of the female through the splitting of consciousness ensures nothing but confusion and despair, suggests Brontë: it is submission that counts to the male. As Eagleton suggests, ‘Charlotte’s protagonists want independence, but they also desire to dominate; and their desire to dominate is matched only by their impulse to submit to a superior will.’ Once again, the female consciousness is split: the desire for independence is great, but the ‘impulse,’ the ingrained pressure of society, to submit is even greater.

The reader is faced with an overtly dominant woman in Shirley. Shirley Keeldar, the heiress with money, beauty, eloquence and grace, in short the heroine after which the novel is named, is introduced to the reader after twelve chapters. In this manner, Shirley is similar to Villette, as Madame Beck is introduced to the novel only after Lucy’s character has been defined to the reader in the first few chapters. Just as Shirley enters the novel as a masculine mirror to Caroline, Madame Beck enters Villette as a female masculine dominator to Lucy:  ‘[S]he is a masculine woman holding a man’s position as landowner,’ suggests Eagleton of Shirley. Yet Shirley is only ‘masculine’ because she is powerful, as Madame Beck’s masculinity also derives from her wealth. Shirley’s masculinity comes not from facial or physical features, but from an assumption that men were landowners, and men inherited. In Jane Eyre and Villette the protagonist stands alone from the outset, but Caroline Helstone is deliberately and literally doubled upon the arrival of Shirley into the narrative. This doubling occurs in the chapter ‘Shirley and Caroline,’ where the reader discovers that, while more outspoken, Shirley implicitly mirrors every aspect of Caroline: ‘it is only at this point…that Brontë introduces Shirley Keeldar, a heroine who serves in all ways as a contrast to Caroline.’ Each woman looks alike, have the same tastes in music, reading, and love of company. In fact, their tastes so parallel one another’s, that each ends the novel by marrying one of the Moore brothers, creating an ever greater sense of doubling as, not only do Shirley and Louis Moore mirror Caroline and Robert Moore, but the blood lines of Caroline and Shirley are effectively joined through the marriage: ‘I never had a sister-you never had a sister,’ cries Caroline to Shirley in chapter fourteen. That is, of course, until marriage renders them doubled, side by side, until death.

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 ‘Caroline is the typical Charlotte heroine,’ beautiful, quiet, alone with few or no relatives. Caroline epitomises the requirements for the woman in the nineteenth century novel, but like all Brontë heroines she is in need of ‘perfect control and guidance of her feelings.’ Caroline, then, is doubled not only with Shirley, but with Lucy Snowe and Jane Eyre, who are equally conscious of their need to rule themselves: ‘next day I was again Lucy Snowe,’ says Lucy after an incidence when ‘[C]omplicated, disquieting thoughts broke up the whole repose of [her] nature.’ Unlike Caroline and Shirley, however, Lucy Snowe and Jane Eyre are not ...

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