Victorian Literature and Culture

Editors' Topic: Charlotte Bronté

The “Surveillance of Désirée”: Freud, Foucault, and Villette

Mark M. Hennelly Jr

Like many other seventeen-year-olds, Miss Ginevra Fanshawe in Charlotte Bronte's Villette (1853) practices self-reflexive, generic word play as she characteristically “substituted this word ‘chose’ in temporary oblivion of the real name. It was a habit she had: ‘chose’ came in at every turn in her conversation — the convenient substitute for any missing word in any language she might chance at the time to be speaking” (115–16; ch. 6). Ginevra's word choice appears by no means accidental in this text riddled with (often bilingual) word-play substitutions, what Mary Pollack in a different context terms the novel's “rich matrix of conflicting insights about the nature of language” (54). In fact, chose seems a repeated code word for the enigmatic x, or thing itself, “the thing, the spirit, and the secret itself” (557; ch. 38), which Lucy sees in Paul and which lovers, metaphysicians, and literary theorists alike nostalgically, if not narcissistically, long to re-present. The word most often substituted for “thing” in the text is “shape,” like the “dark, usurping shape” (569; ch. 39) of the spectral nun, the problem being, however, that every such double or “daemonic shape” (Freud 143) uncannily either erases itself or serially forks into other metonymic representations which problematize any homesick quest for origins. Even the “shapes” of the “paving-stones,” which Lucy pointedly re-members a year later at the “very threshold” (305; ch. 21) of the entrance of Madame Beck's Pensionnat, only provide a kind of liminal entrancement, another abyssal signifier uncannily signifying uncertain values.