Sex, Indigestion and Inclement Weather: Medical Metaphor in Charlotte Brontë's Villette

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference Paper


Nervous disorder appears in Villette in shifting guises: hysteria, hypochondria, melancholy, morbidity, anxiety, sensitivity, depression, excitability. Protagonist Lucy Snowe’s narrative often reads like a diary of medical diagnosis, observation, and treatment. My paper pinpoints three metaphors which elucidate Villette’s engagement with medical culture, its interrogation of the logic of taxonomy, and narrativisation of the pathologised body.

Two commonly perceived causes of nervous disorder – sexual frustration and the digestive system – are apparent in contemporaneous medical texts, such as Laycock’s Treatise on the Nervous Disorders of Women (1840), Anderson’s Eccentric Nervous Affections (1850), and Carter’s On the Pathology and Treatment of Hysteria (1853). Thwarted sexual passion is woven into Villette, a potential cause of Lucy’s nervous breakdown and the hysterical behaviour of other characters, yet veiled in metaphor which I read as highly satirical. Secondly, the medical insistence on the digestive system as intrinsic to neurosis leads to a new reading of Villette’s metaphors of hunger, starvation, eating, and nourishment.

The third metaphor is that of the storm, clearly indebted to the Gothic and the Romantic sublime, but, I will argue, also a medical metaphor. The storms that recur throughout the novel seem alternately real, metaphorical, and ambiguous. Storms mark significant moments of trauma, but also have a strange, feverishly uplifting, transformative effect on Lucy. These elemental eruptions which render the subject passive and powerless, yet projecting energy and intensity, reflect the involuntary experience of the body in the grip of hysteria. The device of the storm forms a counter-discourse for nervous disorder, an embodied perspective which leaves room for the ambiguous and uncertain.

Metaphors are thus used both to question medical taxonomy, the attempt to classify and fix symptoms which are ever shifting and unstable, and also to communicate the inexpressible; Lucy’s subjective experience of her mental health.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 4 Nov 2017
EventBritish Society for Literature and Science Winter Symposium: Metaphor in Literature and Science - Kings College, London
Duration: 4 Nov 20174 Nov 2017


ConferenceBritish Society for Literature and Science Winter Symposium


Dive into the research topics of 'Sex, Indigestion and Inclement Weather: Medical Metaphor in Charlotte Brontë's Villette'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this