Academic journal article MELUS

A Tale of Three Lucys: Wordsworth and Bronte in Kincaid's Antiguan Villette

Academic journal article MELUS

A Tale of Three Lucys: Wordsworth and Bronte in Kincaid's Antiguan Villette

Article excerpt

In Lucy one may perceive what effects her life in a male-supremacist society has upon the psyche of a woman. She is bitter and she is honest; a neurotic revolutionary full of conflict, backsliding, anger, terrible self-doubt, and an unconquerable determination to win through. She is a pair of eyes watching society; weighing, ridiculing, judging. A piece of furniture whom no one notices, Lucy sees everything and reports, cynically, compassionately, truthfully, analytically. (140)

Though Kate Millett wrote these lines to describe Lucy Snowe of Charlotte Bronte's Villette, they immediately bring to mind another Lucy of more recent fame: Lucy Josephine Potter, the nineteen-year-old heroine of the eponymous novel by Jamaica Kincaid. This is more than just a coincidence of names since Kincaid has often alluded to her admiration for the novels of Charlotte Bronte and the influence they have had on her work (Garis 42; Cudjoe 398).

However, though critics such as Diane Simmons have explored the influence that Jane Eyre may have had on Kincaid's construction of Lucy, no attention has yet been given to Bronte's Villette, which offers close analogues to Lucy in its plot, characters, and major themes. Both novels feature a reserved, skeptical, voyeuristic, first-person narrator named Lucy, who becomes dissatisfied with her home country and moves to another to become a governess, only to become romantically involved with a man named Paul who sparks something unexpected beneath her usual reserve. More significantly, each Lucy explicitly struggles to define herself against the repressive models of her society, particularly those of its art. The climactic moment of each novel comes when Lucy finally "finds her tongue," writing the text of her own life rather than allowing it to be dictated to her, a process that echoes fictionally what Bronte and Kincaid have done in reality--the former by subverting William Wordsworth's "Lucy" poems to create her own Lucy, and the latter by addressing Wordsworth and Bronte simultaneously. Just as young Annie John imagines her future travels through Bronte's biography, Kincaid tells Lucy Potter's story in part through the model of Bronte's work. By rewriting one of the favorite authors of her youth, Kincaid accomplishes structurally what her character accomplishes psychologically: to take the text of the colonizer, and make it her own.

Though Lucy Snowe devotes the initial pages of Villette to her observations of young Polly Home, the action of the novel truly begins with a mysterious disaster in Lucy's family. In a fashion we will come to see as typical of Lucy's narration, she evades giving the reader details, speaking only of the metaphoric "wreck" of a ship in which "the crew perished," leaving her the only survivor (42). After a brief stint as companion to a dying widow, Lucy's penury and dissatisfaction with her situation send her abruptly on the great adventure of her life, a departure for Belgium ("Labassecour" in the novel) without stopping to learn a word of French. She expects that with this journey, she who has "never yet truly lived" will finally "taste life" (58). When she arrives in the city of Villette, however, her initial reaction is one of disorientation and fear. After an ominous stalking by "two mustachioed men" (78), Lucy loses her way among buildings that she can no longer identify through the fog, seeing "the huge outline of more than one overbearing pile, which might be palace or church--I could not tell" (78).

A look at the first paragraph of Kincaid's Lucy provides several immediate points of comparison:

   It was my first day. I had come the night before, a gray-black and
   cold night before--as it was expected to be in the middle of
   January, though I didn't know that at the time--and I could not see
   anything clearly on the way in from the airport, even though there
   were lights everywhere. As we drove along, someone would single out
   to me a famous building, an important street, a park, a bridge that
   when built was thought to be a spectacle. … 
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