Madame Minerva Gravity and the Moon
February 8, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Villette.
About halfway through the book Lucy makes one of her recurring points about the misperception of her by those around her: Madame Beck thinks her learned, Ginevra believes her catty and bitter, M. de Bassompierre “the essence of the sedate and discreet,” M. Paul a wild woman.
This is an interesting aspect of the book, this ongoing calibration by Lucy of what others think of her compared to the turmoil she knows in her innermost life. But I’m most interested here in the name she makes up for herself in the next paragraph, and imagines M. de Bassompierre calling her: “Madame Minerva Gravity.”
Gods (capitalized and not), angels, and demons appear throughout this work. There are the two Christian Gods, the Protestant (Lucy’s) and the Catholic (all the non-Britons). There are also the many anthropomorphized attributes that populate Lucy’s thoughts: her Reason, her Imagination, her Hope and Despair, many others. But of all the powerful deities in the book, one stands out: the moon.
Lucy, for all her attempts to squash her inclinations, is a creature of longing and even passion. At night, alone and unable to sleep, she thinks, and worries, and speculates. The moon is somehow her companion in these lonely nights. And she mentions the moon — how it looked, and looked down on the world — at most of the critical moments in the book. At times it seems to guide, advise, or comfort her.
There are two remarkable instances of this very near the end of the book. In chapter 38, “Cloud,” Lucy is given a sedative by Madame Beck when Lucy refuses to sleep, waiting for a visit from M. Paul. Weirdly, the sedative has the opposite affect, reviving and exciting her. In the reversal of the earlier chat with Reason, Imagination now bids her rise, and “Look forth and view the night!” When she does so, Imagination “showed me a moon supreme, in an element deep and splendid.” She has a vision of the moonlit park, and determines to go there. It’s clear the moon equates with peace, clarity, and resignation, to Lucy. But when she gets to the park, her hopes for moonlit peace and reflection are dashed by the false daylight of a festival, and an upsetting appearance by M. Paul and the Jesuit Schemers.
Later, at perhaps the happiest moment in Lucy’s life, the scene is moonlit again: “We walked back to the Rue Fossette by moonlight — such moonlight as fell on Eden — shining through the shades of the Great Garden, and haply gilding a path glorious, for a step divine — a Presence nameless.” (This passage reminds me of the magical moonbeam of The Master and Margarita.)
Brontë employs the moon motif brilliantly: it figures in some of the most beautiful passages in the book. The moon is traditionally female, of course. It’s a satellite, a product of gravity. And it reflects the sun’s light. Minerva, as you probably know, is the Roman goddess equating to the Greek Athena. She’s not the goddess of the moon, although there are some connotations (with owls, for instance). Artemis is the goddess of the moon: both she and Minerva are virginal, but Artemis is a huntress and a woodswoman while Minerva is urban and rational. You might say that Minerva stands for the cool, calming aspects of moonlight, and Artemis for the mysterious, mystical aspects.
Somehow the complexities and contradictions of moonlight are right for Lucy Snowe: the mingled traditions of tranquil cool calm and uncontrolled passion and mayhem (werewolves, witches’ rites) reflect her outer and inner selves, her desired and actual states of being. Likewise, the moon’s status as a reflective satellite, and its presence as the symbol of the night, embody Lucy’s conflict between self-reliance and an utter dependence on those she cares about and that she thinks might care for her: like the moon gets its glow from the sun, she is happy only when basking in the reflected glory of her importance to those she loves.
There’s a bunch of stuff in here about the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, but frankly I think that’s all a ruse: I think Lucy Snowe is a pagan, or maybe an animist.